Amazon Echo Review: Introducing Alexa, Your Digital Assistant
Amazon Echo Functionality
In order to set up the Echo, you’ll need to download the free Echo app for your smartphone or tablet. It’s available for Fire OS, Android, and iOS. The set up process is short and connects the Echo to your Wi-Fi network. Most of the screens during setup are the Intro to Echo that show you some of the basic functionality that the device has to offer.
After setting up the Echo on your smartphone, you’ll be given the option to begin Voice Training to help Echo better understand your voice. If you choose to proceed through Voice Training, you’ll need to read 25 phrases out loud using a normal speaking voice. Voice Training can also be accessed through the Echo app at any time. We completed the initial voice training session, though we wonder if it was really necessary because Echo seemed to understand us just fine. In fact, the Echo understood many different voices from visitors and even children as young as 3 years old without any training, though younger voices weren’t always fully understood by Alexa.
Alexa is the brain behind the Amazon Echo. When Echo detects your wake word (you can choose “Alexa” or “Amazon”), the top ring lights up and the Echo streams the speech pattern to the cloud. It then uses Amazon Web Services to recognize and respond to your request. We chose Alexa as our wake word. For families who have someone named Alexa or a similar name, the only way to avoid confusion may be to select Amazon as the wake word. Although we have nothing against Amazon as a wake word, we liked the personal touch that “Alexa” gave the device. For this reason, we hope Amazon adds additional names as wake words or lets the customer set his or her own wake word in the future.
The Echo app functions for much more than just setup. Within the app, you can view your Shopping List or To Do list created using the Echo. Other menu options include a Timer, Alarm, access to your Amazon Music Library and other music functionality, Settings, suggestions for things to try, Help, and General Feedback.
Amazon is capitalizing on the Echo in more ways than one. For example, you can reorder Amazon Prime eligible products through the Echo using your voice. Echo uses your order history to determine which product to order and uses your default payment and shipping settings. If it can’t find the requested item in your order history, the Echo may suggest a product using Amazon’s Choice feature which is designed to select highly-rated, well-priced, Prime-eligible products. If you’re concerned about spending money unintentionally using this feature, it’s easily turned off using the Settings menu in the app. In the Settings menu, you can also customize your news briefing, set traffic routes, configure your calendar account, set up home automation devices, and more.
New functionality is being developed by Amazon and third-parties constantly. Recently, Amazon introduced the Alexa Skills Kit, which is a free SDK for developers to use in creating additional functionality for Alexa. Amazon is also offering Alexa Voice service to third party hardware makers via a free set of APIs. Since the Echo was introduced, Alexa has added support for home automation with Wink, Belkin WeMo, and Philips Hue, sports scores and schedules, traffic updates, and more.
Another feature that has been added since Echo was initially announced is the support for IFTTT (If This Then That). After a brief setup process, you can use IFTTT to create “recipes” and perform tasks using the Echo. For example, with IFTTT we were able to have Echo add items to our shopping list in Evernote rather than using the Amazon Shopping List. Since we were using Evernote for this purpose before receiving our Echo, this was a feature that appealed to us. Other recipes let you post to Facebook using the Echo, add a To-Do item to your Google calendar, and much, much more. There are countless recipes available at https://ifttt.com/recipes.
The Echo supports hands-free voice control for Amazon Music, Prime Music, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, Pandora, and Audible. Echo is also Bluetooth-enabled, so you can stream content and music services from your phone or tablet.
Since the Echo is connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi, there are some limitations to how fast the Echo can respond depending on the reliability of your Internet connection. During our testing period, there were a couple times when the Echo stuttered at our request due to a lack of Internet connectivity but we don’t feel this should be held against the Echo since it was likely a problem with our Internet provider. Overall, we were extremely impressed at how fast Alexa understood our request and responded with an appropriate action or answer to our question. In many cases, Alexa seemed faster than Siri and other voice-controlled features on our smartphones.