Its been two months since I got my hands on “Echo dot”, the Alexa powered smart speaker from Amazon ( Alexa is an AI-enabled personal assistant like Siri on I Phones or Google assistant on Android phones. If you are totally new to “Amazon Echo” this article will be of help to you. (Opens in new tab) ). Though Echo series of speakers were available in the US and UK from March 2016, India release happened only on October 30th, 2017 with country-specific customization and skill sets. I am sharing my initial impressions and first-hand review which I hope will help you decide whether to buy Amazon smart speakers or not!
What can an Echo device do?
I see Echo as a device that helps reduce your dependency on phone. To be frank, there isn’t anything an Echo can do that your phone cannot. Almost every feature on Echo is available on your phone either as an inbuilt feature or as an App. What makes Echo worth buying is the convenience with which many of your routine tasks can be accomplished.
Coming to the features of Echo speakers, experiencing the full potential of the device depends on the type of Skills you chose to install (Skills are like the Apps on your phone). There are thousands of Skills available (through the Alexa App which needs to be installed first on your phone), though a vast majority are pretty useless skills. Before telling you about “skills” in detail, let us see what Echo devices are capable of with its inbuilt functionalities.
The top 10 inbuilt features I use on a daily basis are 1) Ask time 2) Dictate reminders and to-do tasks 3) Set Alarm 4) Play music (from Saavn or Prime Music or TuneIn Radio) 5) Order things on Amazon and track amazon orders 6) Ask for information from Wikipedia and Google, 7) Ask meaning and spelling of words 8) Read out my daily itinerary from Google Calendar 9) Get weather updates and 10) Listen to a story before I sleep 😛
You might wonder why to invest in a new device when all the above tasks can be accomplished on your phone. However, the convenience an Echo brings to your daily life is worth the experience and money, especially if your day to day routines are linked to technology. A couple of use cases where I felt very convenient are the following. 1) While reading a book, when I come across an unknown word, I used to stop reading, pick up my phone and Google the word, but now, it’s way easier to ask Alexa the meaning of the word while continuing reading. 2) Keeping an early morning alarm on phone and then snoozing it without even opening our eyes is something we all do! With echo, it’s not that easy! Unless you speak clearly to the device, your alarm won’t stop ringing and hence you really have to “wake up” to switch off the alarm! 3) Taking down reminders and adding events to Google calendar as voice commands are way convenient than using a phone! 4) Guess what, asking Echo what the time is while brushing your teeth helps you manage to get ready! 5) Able to play songs by not switching on the computer or using the phone is also a great feature. Voice purchasing option from Amazon.in is also a great feature, I tried purchasing an item the process was seamless (It uses your default address for shipping and Cash on delivery as payment mode unless you have enough Amazon pay balance).
Which echo to buy?
There are 3 types of Echo speakers available in India. The Echo dot, Echo and Echo plus. If you have already made up your mind to buy an echo device, the difficult decision to make is which one of the three to buy. (USA customers have a lot more variants to chose from including the echo show and the upcoming echo spot). Here is my take on choosing an Echo device.
- Do you have great speakers at your home and plan to use Echo in the same room? OR Low on cash but still want to try out smart speakers? Go for Echo dot
- Don’t have a good speaker/No speaker at home OR Your existing good speakers and “intended place of use for Echo” are spatially apart by a long distance? Go for Echo
- Do you have a lot of cash to burn? OR Intent to set up a smart home? Go for Echo Plus
The trademark feature of all echo devices is the AI-powered Alexa (and the Skills) and all three variants of Echo has them. So, if you already have a have a good quality speaker at home you can connect the echo dot to it either via 3.5 mm jack or through Bluetooth! (You can also convert any normal speaker to a Bluetooth enabled speaker using the Logitech Bluetooth adapter which IMHO is one of the greatest inventions! ).
Remember that echo, echo plus, and echo dot all require a continuous power supply and hence no version is better than the other in that context. So, for one-third of the price of Amazon echo, you can get the echo dot with all features exactly like echo except for a high-quality built-in speaker.
The echo dot is small, has just a tweeter in it for sound output, the echo has high-quality built-in speakers and the echo plus has an additional smart home hub within which can be used to control smart lights and other IOT devices.
Setting up an Echo device
You need the “Amazon Alexa” app installed on your smartphone for the initial configuration, like connecting to your home wifi and setting up Bluetooth connection as well as for any skill activation ( or deactivation). The Alexa app is painstakingly slow (for now) and the UI is nothing great to boast about for a company like Amazon! The options present in the app are limited and the navigation from one tab to other does take a lot of time. Features like”set routine” are obsolete and cant even allow to set daily alarm routine cant even set an alarm!), I would love to have the option to keep alarm, The usability of echo depends on how intelligent your device is and this is directly proportional to the number of skills you activate for echo, which brings us to Skills.
Skills on Echo devices.
However, I felt worked better on phone than using voice-activated echo. Booking a cab, ordering food were relatively easy on the phone than doing it on Echo. However, once you install skills using the app echo can do a lot more like
Order food (Freshmenu )
Book a cab (Ola, Uber)
Listen to News (Lot of News Skills like NDTV, TOI, LiveMint so on)
There are 1000’s of other skills which does mundane things and you would have to
The look and feel
I love the ring of lights on top and it just feels good the lights
One of the biggest issue with Echo devices is that there is no voice authentication feature. Anyone who has access to the device can talk to it and get things done, meaning even a stranger walking down the road can activate your device by screaming “Alexa!” (or any other wake word). This article beautifully explains the issues with the lack of voice authentication. The solution to this is to Switch off Echo whenever you are not at home!
When you ask “Alexa, what can you do”, the reply is ” I can look up for definitions in Wikipedia” and surprisingly when I ask “Alexa, search multiple myeloma in Wikipedia”, Alexa responds saying “I am sorry, I am not sure how to do that”. Later I realized there is a specific pattern in which query has to be asked to get definitions from Wikipedia. So, you do have a little learning curve to cross as well. Few of the Skills available for the USA customers are not available in India despite not having geographical specific contents (Like the Skills “This day in history”, BBC so on )
Recently, I am experiencing frequent “broken” replies where the responses get cut short in the beginning or in the middle of a response. Though Amazon boasts “Alexa can hear you from any angle” there were instances when despite calling “Alexa” 5 times, the device failed to respond especially when audio is playing through external speakers (Amazon claims Alexa can hear even when there is another noise present).
Another drawback I find in Echo is the way flash briefings are read out. I have subscribed to around 5 flash briefing apps (Merriam Webster dictionary, NDTV, livemeint ) and there is no way I can hear flash briefing from only one of these service provider. So, if I need to hear flash briefing from only NDTV, I would have to wait until the remaining news berifings are read out in order (though you can determine the order in which the briefings are read out)
Getting ongoing cricket scores is also a useful feature
There are 1000s of skills available in the Skill store and there is even a skill called “Skill finder” which will tell you about new skills everyday!