As I reread my first draft of this review, there were more than a few places where I had to change “Alexa”—the word prompt you call out to activate Amazon’s do-it-all device—to “Echo,” which is the actual name of the device. This drove home the fact that, over the course of the five weeks I’d owned my Echo, it had transformed from a gadget into a helpful, intuitive, almost quasi-sentient companion, which is both troubling and a testament to the design and functionality of Amazon’s product.
If you’re not familiar, the Echo is what you’d get if your iPhone’s Siri capability had a love child with a Bluetooth speaker. Using only voice prompts, you can make the Echo play music, look up traffic info, jot reminders, or perform thousands of other quotidian tasks. It requires a Wi-Fi connection—because everything Echo does is reliant on the Internet—and a power outlet. (Surprisingly, Echo cannot hold even a temporary charge. Unplug it from the wall, and it shuts down immediately.) You also need to download the Echo app in order to unlock most of the device’s functionality.
I started with it in my office. I had an idea it could serve as a kind of cheap personal assistant, playing music or taking notes or adding items to my calendar while I kept my mind on my work. And once I taught myself to quit mumbling and clearly enunciate my instructions, it performed all those tasks with aplomb. The Echo duly scheduled my events, recorded my reminders, and played my requested Pandora stations through its admirably sharp built-in speaker (while missing or misconstruing fewer commands than my car or phone’s voice-activated helpers).
But after about a week, I realized talking my Echo through these office chores wasn’t much of a time-saver. I have dashboards and apps on my MacBook that allow me to complete any or all of these tasks with a few keyboard clicks. Using the Echo’s voice activation functionality was fun for a few days, but saying, “Alexa, play Carly Rae Jepsen station on Pandora,” and waiting to hear if the device would comply wasn’t any faster than firing up my computer’s Pandora app.
Things changed between me and my Echo when I moved it—oh fuck it, her—to my kitchen. (I just can’t resist anthropomorphizing this thing, and you won’t be able to either if you buy one.)
While I was busy preparing meals, washing dishes, or feeding my kids, Alexa quickly proved herself indispensible. I could tell her to set a timer for me or to look up the number of ounces in a cup. I could have her add items to my shopping list, which saved me from my habit of always forgetting to pick up the one or two things I needed most. And if my kids were crying, I could have her play songs I knew would settle them down.
But most helpfully, Alexa was there to record a thought or add a reminder to my calendar even when my hands were occupied with dirty dishes. Along with the time I spend showering and brushing my teeth, the 15 minutes I’m at the sink washing dishes each night are among the few when my mind is free to wander. And its during this idle time that I tend to think about relatives I need to call, errands I need to run, friends birthdays I need to acknowledge, and story ideas that might actually interest my editors.
In the past I’d make a mental note to address these things after wrapping up the dishes, but of course I always forgot. With Alexa standing by to record my little insights and epiphanies, I’ve lost a lot less of that helpful mental ephemera.
All that’s the good, and it’s very good. There is some bad. While I have basic Bluetooth speakers that pull double duty as speakerphones, Alexa cannot answer or place calls for me, or send texts on command. Considering every in-car voice activation system has this functionality, it was surprising to me that Alexa did not.
Also frustrating: There are times when Alexa just won’t shut up—like when I’ve asked her to perform a task she can’t complete, or I didn’t speak clearly enough to suit her. At these times, she’ll explain to me—for the hundredth time—how I need to amend my request in order to help her understand what I’m after. And it would be great if I could just say “stop” or “got it” or “oh my god please shut up” and have her stop talking.
But those are quibbles compared to all Alexa does for my family and me. She also has a ton of capability we don’t use, like switching on or off “smart” appliances or adjusting “smart” thermostats or doing all the other “smart” things my dumb house doesn’t have the technology to leverage. But even for the modest list of tasks I use her for, Alexa proved herself more than worth her device’s price tag.
VERDICT: Buy. ($180, amazon.com.) If you’re on the fence, here’s one more thing to consider: the Echo allows you to grab information and content from the Internet without picking up your phone. If you’ve ever had a thought or intention blown out of your brain by the dozen texts or alerts waiting for you when you swiped on your digital overlord—or if you’re just trying to spend less time staring at your phone—the Echo is your bridge across that river of distraction. (You could also get an Amazon Dot, which has roughly the same functionality as the Echo—minus the nice built-in speaker—for just $50.)