Smart phones have made our lives easier, providing users with cameras, GPS navigation, and web browsers wherever we go. However, Apple’s Siri requires a button press, or must be plugged into power to be listening for your “Hey, Siri” commands. With their recent public release, Amazon’s Echo device hopes to bring always-on voice-recognition to your home or business. But how does it compare?
FORWARD: My friend Holly purchased an Amazon Echo recently, and has extensively tested it in her specific home environment. Below is her account, written in her words (with just minor editorial adjustments by me). Let us know what you think or what questions you have about this hot new device!
Unboxing and Setup:
Amazon did a fantastic job creating a solid, well packaged product with their new Amazon Echo. I was surprised at how heavy the box really was, and soon discovered that the majority of that heft was from the speaker itself, at least pointing to the fact that this could very well be a solid, well made speaker. If you are familiar with Sonos speakers, you know that those speakers pack a lot of weight and power behind them. This was my experience when opening and lifting the Amazon Echo. It did not feel cheap at all.
When you open the big black box with the teal interior, you see the speaker itself, a cord, a remote with batteries and a rubberized remote holder with adhesive on the bottom. The instructions for the Echo are simple: plug in the speaker and download the app. When you plug in Echo, you get a twirling orange light at the top and you also get a first introduction to the power of Echo: the sound from it initiating and starting up was intense and amazing. This is a well-built, loud and very clear speaker! I am no audiophile, but I was blown away by the clarity of Alexa’s voice and the chimes that followed it. That was my first of many “Wow, I’m blown away!” moments.
Once you download the Echo app, it takes you through some simple instructions for setting it up on your network and then tutorials for how to use Alexa. There is a short video that plays to show you all that Alexa can do, and she can do a lot. You can ask her simple questions like the weather, sports, time, and more. But you can also ask her what the traffic is like (after you set up your commute in the settings), ask her to play music or podcasts (you have access to Amazon Prime music but you can also hook up your Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn), and even ask her to turn on your connected lights for you (after setup/pairing of devices). You also have an opportunity to have her work for you by adding material to your shopping list and to-do list. There seems to be quite a bit she can understand and do for you and they are promising to continue to add new commands as time goes on. In addition to this, Alexa has a channel on IFTTT, which will open up her productivity even more. You can sync up commands so that you can add your to-do list to To-Doist or Evernote. You can document your listening preferences, and there’s even work arounds (albeit not as user-friendly) for letting Alexa control devices that she is not officially capable of doing yet (for instance, “Alexa, set my temperature” will set your Nest, but you are only able to establish one temperature in the command. She cannot tell her to set it to a specific temperature through IFTTT or directly yet).
After you watch the Echo tutorial, her ring goes from a swirling orange to an enchanting teal blue that I have come to really enjoy. This turns on every time you say her name in order to let you know that she’s listening. Once that turns on and ends, the app prompts you to start trying her out on your own. You start by mentioning her name, Alexa. You will quickly learn that she is incredibly intuitive, quick to respond and loves to help. Even when I was talking about her in a sentence to someone else and briefly said her name, she woke up and was ready to help. You can do voice training in the app, but right out of the gate, she is pretty responsive and understanding.
Another one of my “Wow, I’m blown away!” moments that I just can’t stop enjoying, is how there is little to no latency with Alexa. You know that latency that we all are used to with our tech. We talk to our tech differently than humans. “Siri (1…2…3…4…) What’s on my agenda for today?” You pause…sometimes a while. We also talk like they can’t understand English, which some times they cannot, “Whhhaaaaahhht Tiiimmmeee Iiiiis mmyyyyyeee Meeeeeetiiinnnnngg?” With Alexa, you say her name and don’t pause. You speak like you would normally and she picks up….mostly, not always, but way more than you would expect. Right after set up when I was able to start asking my own first questions, I would over emphasize and pause, but I then soon realized that, with testing and seeing just how responsive she is, she doesn’t need to be talked to like tech. It’s nothing short of amazing and so far it hasn’t gotten old at all.
Just one more “Wow, I’m blown away!” moment that I must mention, is how well she can hear me. I have Echo on my kitchen island between my living room and the kitchen. I thought I could cheat by seeing if “all room” could cover the middle of both rooms and it can, easily. I would say that so far she covers about 25ft around for me. I might need to talk a bit louder than usual but I don’t feel like I have to shout. She picks up what I’m saying and she responds, very well I might add.
Now, all of this differs greatly from how other digital personal assistants are delivered to us. Take Siri for example. Siri is on all of our iDevices, not in one big solid speaker. She is in our pockets and not in the middle of the room. She can hear you and respond to a command (“Hey, Siri”), but only at certain times (when your phone is connected to power). I will be honest, she is a bit slow to wake up and slow of hearing, and not always hears correctly. She also doesn’t always work when you need her, but when she does, she can do a lot. What are the differences and what are the limits of each? Does one work better for you than the other or could they complement each other? We will seek to test out the limits of both of these lovely and productive personal assistants and see which one works best for you.
Testing the Limits: What can they do?
Now, as personal assistants, how to they stack up and what can they do for you? How, more importantly, do they differ?
There is one big difference already mentioned that is at the crux of what they are good at respectively: one is very portable and even pervasive depending on how many iDevices you have, hence making it a great personal assistant for being out and about, and the other is basically stationary, which is great for organizing at home.
The Amazon Echo is meant to reside in the home (or office) and be your assistant, performing tasks for you that you would need her to do while you are at your main base. She can set alarms, timers, tell you your calendar events, even tell you traffic, but all of those are from the perspective of someone who is about to go out and be productive, not someone who is already out. For instance, you can ask her, “Alexa, how’s the traffic?” and she will let you know the best route, something that Siri can’t do, but it is only from one route. If you try putting in a “new stop” she will route you to both of them. She cannot decipher between the two. This differs from Siri who may not be able to tell you the traffic, but you can say, “How do I get home from here?” or “Where’s the closest Home Depot?” and she will route you.
Echo is also pretty darn good (though not perfect) at controlling your home environment. You can ask her to play just about any kind of music or artist and she will pull from her vast library and bring the music right up. You can easily say “Alexa, pause” or “Alexa, volume up” or “Alexa, next” and she does it immediately. You can get the news or weather while you are making your coffee by just asking her, and she makes for a pretty pleasant alarm clock too. If you happen to have compatible smart devices, which currently is fairly limited to Hue and WeMo, she can control that as well, but I’ve noticed only so far. I have Hue lights, about six of them in my living room, that I paired with her. The pairing was fairly simple and soon I was up and running. However, just pairing doesn’t allow you to control the lights. You have to create a group in the Echo app so that Echo can distinguish what lights you want on, off or dimmed. You can set several groups with differing lights as you please. I created one just called “lights” so that I can have her turn them all on or off, but if you wanted, you can create a group called “living room lights” or “upstairs lights” and when you say to Echo, “Alexa, turn on my living room lights” she will obey. I was surprised at how quickly and easily she performs this action when commanded. There is little latency between my command and the lights doing as I said. You can tell her also to dim the lights in increments of 10. If you say, “Alexa, dim my lights to 50%,” then your lights quickly do as you wish. However, there are limits to this. She cannot change colors as of yet. I tried saying, “Alexa, turn my lights to purple” and she said she didn’t understand. Also, she will turn the lights off, on or dim as you see fit, but only in the color it was last registered. So at night I have my lights dim to the colors of a sunset, finally ending in very dim dusk twilight color. When I said the next morning, “Alexa, turn the lights on,” it turned on, but at the level of brightness and color it was last set, namely a very dim dusk. This is a big limitation that I see.
Siri, as we know, cannot really perform commands to control Hue lights and other home items yet. There are some compatible devices out now (see our blog post HERE), but as it stands it cannot handle as wide a range as of yet. I am curious to see if Siri will be able to control more detailed “scenes” and be able to adjust both brightness and color. Only time will tell, though right now we did some testing with the Elgato Eve app and it does allow for scene control, even of non-Eve devices. Home Kit is new, just like the Echo, and both will require 3rd party players to help maximize their usefulness in this arena.
There is also another big difference between the two: Echo comes with an app that allows you to change and add certain settings (home, traffic, etc.), view or edit your commands (to-do or shopping list), and more. It also allows you to see everything that you asked her, from the music you played to the silly questions you tried. The user interface looks pretty playful and clean, but it is in huge font, which is too large in my opinion. If you drill down on each command or query, the app asks you if Echo heard you correctly and you can say yes or no. Doing so supposedly refines Echo so that she can hear you better as time goes. Siri uses native apps (Reminders, Calendar, and so forth), so if you want a deeper rich integration with iOS, then Siri may be your preference.
When testing different commands, each personal assistant had their strengths and weaknesses. Alexa (Echo) is quick, responsive and very easy to use, but she is limited in answering your questions. She will easily pick up your calendar meeting, the item you want on your shopping list or what musician you want to play, but she is more limited than Siri in regards to general questions. For instance, when I asked how old a celebrity was, she could respond fairly well, but asking how late a store is open or what is the average lifespan of a Yorkshire Terrier, she could not understand. Siri, on the other hand, produced a robust answer for both. This does not mean that Alexa can’t grow with time. In fact, they promise that she will and we also must remember that Siri was fairly limited at first too. “Alexa, when were you born?” “I was released November 6th, 2014.” From her mouth, she is still very much a baby assistant and she will only get better.
Speaking on personality, the Echo, like Siri, also has a bit of a persona, but she is not nearly as playful—and bitey—as Siri. You can tell her thank you and she will respond politely, but ask her if she is your best friend and she doesn’t understand. Siri, on the other hand, will retort with often a funny and sarcastic reply. This, too, may grow with time, but as it stands, Siri is a better conversationalist.
But, really, we didn’t buy these products to be friends with (at least not just to be friends with), we bought them because they make our lives more productive, and both of them do that very well. Echo is amazing at adding material to the shopping list, telling you your calendar schedule, and scheduling a meeting time for you. Siri performs these actions very well also. One thing I use consistently with Siri is reminders. “Siri, remind me to call so-and-so at 11am.” Siri will book that reminder and, if you have them in your contact list, store the number for you so that when the reminder goes off, you can just tap and call from there; that’s super productive! When I asked Echo to add something to my reminders, she says, “Okay, I have added ‘call so-and-so at 11am’ to your To-Do list.” That’s not quite right and that’s not quite useful either. Siri definitely knows how to keep my tasks in order better.
Overall, we can see that each personal assistant has their own strengths and weaknesses. Echo is amazing as a home personal assistant. To get you up and moving with the information and tasks you need, she is top notch. She will wake you up with a great alarm, play music while you are getting ready, read you the news or your favorite book and let you know weather and traffic before you leave. All of this is done with out touching a single button and it’s glorious. But, you can’t take her with you, and frankly Alexa isn’t as useful when it comes to outside your home or office. Siri picks up where the Echo takes off in this instance. Sure, she’s not as intuitive or easy to respond or hear you, but she is still a versatile assistant that you are happy to have in your pocket. Together, they both work well in their own respective ways to assist you in the best way possible. I feel that with both Siri and Alexa on my side, they have me covered. ~Holly
Though I have not yet had a chance to play with the Echo in person, Holly’s words above and other side conversations we have had provided me a great deal of insight into the device. As an owner of all Apple devices (OS X and iOS), there are many reasons I’m not ready to personally jump into the Amazon ecosystem deeper. Siri knows who I am using the existing contacts system, with a single place I can update my home/work address. I’m already using my iCloud calendar and reminders, and although the Echo can read some of that data, it doesn’t write into that system it seems. Having to deal with yet another app, and essentially another ecosystem, might prove the largest hurdle Amazon has to overcome.
However, I’m a huge Amazon Prime fan, and order as many products as possible from their web site. The ability to make purchases with the Amazon Echo, play music, or even just ask simple questions, could give it a usefulness all its own. But I’m also an Apple Watch owner- and with just a flick of my wrist, and a “Hey, Siri” it too can do many of the same functions. And my watch is all over my house (wherever my wrist goes!)– Alexa is contained in a single room. I’d say the Amazon Echo is a great device, and will grow to become even better over time. If you buy one, please let us know what you think! ~Ari