I Don’t Typically Do This

by Martin Gordon

Amazon Echo Review

I like the concept of a hands-free, always-listening virtual assistant, but I don’t get a lot of use out of iOS 8’s “Hey Siri” because the times I use Siri don't usually correspond with the times my phone is plugged in. When Amazon announced the Echo, a Siri-like device minus the screen, I signed up for the waiting list right away and purchased one as soon as I received my invitation on December 19th.

The Echo is packaged in a non-descript black box with an orange interior. Inside the box is the device, power adapter, remote, batteries, and remote stand. There’s also a quick start pamphlet which I can only assume was printed before the Echo name was decided on. There's no mention of “Echo” in the guide to the point of it being awkward – it’s either “your device” or “Alexa”. In fact, the guide sends you to amazon.com/alexasetup and asks for feedback at alexa-feedback@amazon.com.

The Echo’s launch was strange in other ways too. For one, none of the major tech sites have reviews and there’s no way to leave a review for the Echo on Amazon itself; clicking the “Leave a Review” button on the order page took me back to the Echo’s marketing page. Finally, the return period for the Echo is 180 days, in contrast to 30 days for Amazon’s other hardware products, and—SPOILER ALERT—returning it requires a call to Amazon customer service.

Setup is straightforward: You connect your phone to the Echo’s WiFi network and set it up through the companion app. The companion app is terrible. For one, it isn’t optimized for iPhone 6/6 Plus. Second, it’s non-native, and built using some framework that doesn’t even support the rubberband scrolling that’s been in iOS since 1.0.

The voice recognition is spot-on, and the microphones work so well that the Echo can pick up my voice at a normal volume from anywhere in my living room.

However, while Echo can hear me just fine, there isn’t a whole lot you can have it do. It’ll play the news from NPR, the BBC, and a few other stations, play music from Prime Music (both music you’ve purchased and from their streaming service), tell you the weather, answer basic questions (e.g., “How tall is the Empire State Building?”), and add items to your to-do/shopping lists. That’s it.

It doesn’t integrate with calendars, so you can’t ask Echo to tell you what’s on your schedule for the day. Asking for what’s on your calendar for the day will instead give you a Flash Briefing from the news outlets you've configured.

Echo inexplicably maintains two distinct to-do lists, a to-do list and a shopping list, and they both have pretty much the same functionality. For example, neither list allows you to set a date on an item, so “Alexa, remind me in half an hour to check on the oven” becomes the item, “Half an hour to check on the oven”. The only difference between the two lists is that to-do items let you play back what you’ve said to the Echo and shopping list items let you search Amazon and/or Bing for the text of the to-do.

I thought I could hack around the lack of due dates on to-do items by using timers, but it turns out you can only set one timer on the Echo. Even worse, setting another timer while one is active will silently replace the old timer.

Other things you would like the Echo to do, it just doesn't do. When I ask, “How long will it take to get to Laguardia?”, it responds with, “Your current location is 3,570 miles from Laguardia. As I don't know your speed, I can't tell you how long it will take.” If I repeat the question but instead specify “Laguardia International Airport”, Echo tells me it doesn't understand the question but that it‘s “added a Bing search to the Echo app”.

Yup, you’re awkwardly reminded of the fact that the Echo uses Bing every time it can‘t parse a command. There was no way I could find to change the search engine, which really sucks.

To wit: the Bing search‘s first result for my “how long will it take to get to Laguardia International Airport” query is a woefully unhelpful Yahoo! Answers page on how long it takes to get to JFK from Laguardia. The same query on Google results in a Google Maps answer box containing directions from my current location to LGA.

If you’re in the market for a Bluetooth speaker and you don’t need it to be plugged in all the time, then the Echo may be worth considering. If you’re looking for anything more than that, you’ll find the Echo to be a half-baked product with many rough edges. The iOS companion app is an embarassment and it’s lack of integration with any type of calendar or map service make it hard to justify as a productivity tool. It makes for a fun tech demo, but as an actual product that costs actual money, I found that the Echo is way too limited and has no place in my life.