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13 Aug 2015, 14:04

Amazon Echo Review

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echo in hand

The Echo has definitely grown on me a lot, I have been surprised at how much use I’ve gotten out of it. I’m using it more than I expected to be, and now find myself frustrated with Google’s limited voice actions on other platforms. I’ve had mine since January 2015, and I use it throughout the day. It lives in the kitchen, and it’s primary uses are as follows:

  1. Listening to NPR while I cook
  2. Adding things to the shopping list as I run out of them
  3. Setting timers for cooking and other things
  4. Listening to other podcasts and audiobooks
  5. Listening to Pandora

I do periodically do other things with it as well, but the above represents probably 90% of my usage.

One killer feature for me is that I can play NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered every day. I really love those shows, but don’t have much of a commute to listen to them, so listening while I’m cooking.

echo in box

Voice

Outside of the difficult to pronounce or spell names, the voice recognition is really great. The voice controls are the best that I’ve seen for any product (I regularly use several other voice control devices). This was actually the reason that I bought it, because I wanted to see how it would be to interact with a computer without any input outside of voice. I wanted to know how they would handle the user experience, and I’ve learned a lot. When I’m giving feedback on other voice driven products, my number one advice is usually, “try out the Amazon Echo, they really nail this”.

That said, the voice input isn’t perfect, so the app does get used once in a while. I’ll use the app if I want to listen to a podcast episode that is not the latest, or if I want to play a playlist or pandora station that I can’t remember the name of.

Echo App

The app sucks. It’s an HTML5 web app dumped onto the phone, and I’ve had updates to the Amazon app that have broken the Echo app. The performance is terrible, and it doesn’t seem to remember anything locally. This is particularly frustrating when attempting to use the shopping list at the grocery store where I don’t have a mobile connection. There have been times where the page tried to refresh, and couldn’t load, which meant that I lost access to my shopping list. The searching for podcasts and other media is clunky, and again, does not remember anything.

The app is functional, but poorly done.

Audiobooks

I was thrilled when they added support for Audible. No complaints here.

Podcasts

Podcast support is OK. Attempting to play a podcast by voice will allow you to listen to only the latest episode. It has no notion of podcast episodes listened to, and what’s not been heard yet. It also does not remember the podcasts that you listen to in general. It doesn’t autoplay the next in the series. This means that you need to go to the app and search and dig every time, for each episode. I would also appreciate if they opened this up to other providers, or provided some way of keeping in sync with PocketCasts.

Music

As for music, I wish that Spotify were an option. Amazon’s music service is kind of awful, and I’m annoyed that I now have yet another place that I need to spend time managing my music. I’ve already got iTunes, Google Music, and Spotify. Amazon Music is kind of like Google Play Music, but worse in every respect (and I’m not much of a Google Music fan).

Shopping and Todo Lists

The shopping list is a really great feature, and the voice recognition works better than expected. It is incredibly useful, especially since mine is in the kitchen, which is where I typically realize that we’re running out of something that we need to buy more of. And, since it’s always there, when I use the last onion, or the last battery, I can just tell Alexa, and not need to try to remember all at once when I’m making a list.

That said, the app is a limiting factor on the usefulness of this feature. With IFTTT support, it helps things a bit, since you can get your data out to another service like Evernote, but it’s not a great solution. I’ve turned this on, and now have a list in Evernote that needs to be managed in addition to the list on the Echo.

There are basically two features that would make shopping lists/todo lists perfect for me. First, is storing the list information locally on my phone, or allowing me to use a different app as the default list store. Second, is support for showing the list on Android Wear, since when I’m shopping, it would is way easier to check things off from my watch than my phone.

Interoperability and Ecosystem

The ecosystem is very limited and tightly controlled right now. I think that there’s a ton of potential if they open this up. If they don’t, I have a feeling that the more interesting features will be quickly eclipsed by Android and iOS offerings, while my Echo will be relegated to being a smart radio (or replaced altogether with an audio-only Chromecast setup). I would also love to see native apps running on the Echo.

Final Thoughts

While I do have some gripes, overall, I am very happy with the Echo. It’s a great showcase for how to do voice interaction really well, and I have found it quite useful. I expect that most of my issues will be resolved as the user base for this product grows, and the team has resources to put some effort into polishing up the experience. They’ve been steadily improving things thus far, IFTTT and Audible support are two important examples of major improvements that have come recently.

Update

As an experiment, I’m going to add an Amazon affiliate link here, if you’re interested in checking out the product (since I conveniently forgot to include a link before).

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