Amazon wants us all to believe that the Echo, and Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, is something we absolutely need in our homes. She’s an always-listening artificial-intelligence assistant, ready to help out in myriad ways. Alexa can provide information from the web; tell you about the weather; inform you about traffic; automate your smart home; and countless other things. Amazon has tried to make Alexa into an open platform with ‘skills’ to varying success.
But though Amazon receives lots of praise for the Echo and Alexa in general, after trying out the Echo Dot for the past couple of months, there is a lot to like, but a lot to dislike as well.
- Alexa’s response times are fantastic, and the fact that I can just shout out “Alexa” and whatever command I want makes this a surprisingly useful gadget.
- The Echo works with a broad range of devices, and isn’t limited to Apple or Google-compatible units. This means Alexa often works when Siri won’t (no HomeKit support,) or where the Google Assistant doesn’t yet (Plex, for example.)
- The voice response is quite good, and rarely do I encounter a missed-recognition. There’s nothing more frustrating that repeating yourself multiple times to a ‘smart’ assistant trying to get something simple like the weather.
- Being able to talk to Alexa from across the room, or even while moving from one room to another, is incredibly useful. For example, when getting up, I often forget to turn out the light, and have to walk all the way back across the room, turn out the light, and then stumble through the darkness to leave the room. Now, I just tell Alexa to “turn off the lights” when I’m leaving the room, and off go the lights. My toes have personally thanked me many times.
- I have multiple Dots in my home, and sometimes multiple units light up when I say “Alexa”. But they’re smart enough to know which is closest to my voice, and the correct one almost always responds and performs what I asked. This is particularly useful for when I’m walking from one room to the next, and am speaking a command. I’ve yet to have it fail, as it seems the audio moves from one to the other. It really feels like living in the future.
- At $50 per Echo Dot, this is the most inexpensive way to enable your smart-home. The cost allows you to buy multiple dots for your home, for less than you’d pay for a single full-size Echo, or Google Home device.
- Most skills are pathetic, and not worth the time to test out for even the first time. Skills that are genuinely useful are stuck behind sometimes awkward-sounding phrases. For instance, “Alexa, launch This Day in History” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
- Limited context capabilities prevent Alexa from really shining. For instance, if I ask for today’s high temperature, Alexa reads out the entire daily weather forecast. If I ask what the temperature is right now, she does the same thing. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s annoying, nonetheless.
- She’s also not good at recognizing times and dates. So if I say “Alexa, remind me to take out the trash Friday at 8pm”, I get a reminder that says “Take out the trash Friday at 8pm”, rather than a reminder for Friday at 8pm that says “Take out the trash”. Both Google and Siri are smart enough to understand this type of query, but Alexa is not.
- Limiting Alexa to Google’s calendar service seems like a missed opportunity. Similarly, only Todoist and Anydo lists are available for linking. Fortunately, this can be worked around using IFTTT (If This Then That), but it requires additional steps, and doesn’t always work the way you want.
- I never could get ‘scenes’ working properly with Alexa, which wasn’t a problem with both my Philips Hue app, or with Apple Home. Alexa just doesn’t seem to understand that multiple devices can be controlled by a single command.
- If you’ve ever heard or seen Siri accidentally respond when not spoken to, you won’t be surprised when Alexa does the same. However, Alexa gets triggered inadvertently multiple times per day, every day. If you’re watching television in the same room as your Echo, be prepared to have to shout “Alexa, stop” all the time. It’s possible to change the trigger phrase to something else, but I haven’t bothered to do so yet.
- This is more of a complaint about the state of smart-home technology in general, but it’s expensive to outfit a home with all of these ‘smart’ devices. Bridges, bulbs, switches, outlets, blinds, cameras, etc. These all add up in price and complexity, where you’re dealing with multiple apps and pieces of equipment to do basic things like turn on a light. Unless you already own several pieces of this equipment, the Echo will be of limited use to you.
Though the Echo has its limits, and is in danger of being eclipsed by devices like Google’s Home, or a presumed upcoming Siri standalone speaker, the Echo is still one of the best smart-home interfaces you can buy. At only $50, it’s very nearly an impulse buy.
But unless you have a specific use for Alexa, like turning on and off lights, or adjusting a smart thermostat, or any of the other ‘smart’ devices deployed in your home, the novelty and usefulness of the Echo will wear off in minutes.
Amazon would have you believe you can do nearly anything with Alexa using her ‘thousands’ of skills, the vast majority of them are worse than useless. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to find decent skills by browsing through the catalog of them. There are signs that this will improve, as some bigger-name brands have begun releasing their own, powerful skills, but there’s still a lot of room to grow.
The smart home is a growing reality, but is far from the Jetsons future we all imagined as children. Today, we can automate quite a few things, and when we do, it truly feels like we’re living in the future, but the reality is that it’s a slowly-evolving future that’s going to take a lot more time to come to fruition.
“Alexa, I’m done writing.”