How often does a truly new electronics category come along? The first television. The Walkman. The iPhone. The iPad. Each time, the industry spends years making copycats and refinements, but the original concept doesn’t change much.
Frankly, Amazon is the last company I would have expected to come up with the next completely new idea. I mean, its hardware ventures so far have been very much in the Us Too department. E-book readers, touchscreen phones, tablets — we’d seen all that before.
But not the Amazon Echo, which just became available for sale to the public (following an invitation-only, testing-the-waters release last November). Somehow, nobody’s thought of this before.
The big idea: Create a voice-activated smartphone assistant like Siri or Google Now — but take it off the phone. Make it a smart, always-listening machine in your house. Engineer it to understand you from across the room, hands free, as you’re cooking, reading, doing homework, discussing, living. Make it good enough to be just like the conversational, environmental computers on Star Trek or in the Iron Man movies.
That’s what the Amazon Echo attempts to be. And you know what? I’ve never been so excited about something that did so little.
Meet the Echo
If you wanted to make a conversational computer for the home, what should it look like? Because Amazon was creating the first one of something, there was no existing design model, no accepted size or shape.
So Amazon went with a nine-inch-tall, sleek black metal cylinder. And why not? It works. It fades into the clutter of your house, along with whatever else is on your bookcase or shelving unit or kitchen counter, just as it should.
The bottom part is perforated, hinting at the speakers inside. The top disc rotates — it’s a giant volume knob — and lights up in various cool LED colors and patterns to telegraph what the thing is doing. On the very top is a power button and a mute button that means both “stop speaking” and “stop listening.”
The Echo is indeed listening all the time to the conversation in your home, but it doesn’t pay attention until you say, “Alexa.” (You can change the attention word to “Amazon,” but that’s your only option. It would be so much more fun if you could make it any name you liked — say, “Hal,” “Jarvis,” or “Skynet.” But you can’t do that. Yet, anyway.)
Why is the product called Amazon Echo, but its starter name is Alexa?
Anyway, once you say “Alexa,” the Echo is just like Siri, Cortana, or Google Now. You ask things in conversational English, and it answers in a clear, fluid, natural-sounding woman’s voice. Actually, Alexa sounds much better than Siri, Cortana, or Google Now. In part, that’s because she’s being projected by a 2.5-inch woofer and a 2.0-inch tweeter instead of a phone speaker the size of a fingernail clipping.
The most amazing engineering achievement is the Echo’s ability to understand commands in terrible acoustic conditions. It understands you whether you’re close to it or a whole room away. It understands every member of the family without training. It understands you when there’s background noise. It even understands you over the music it’s playing.
Above all, it understands you despite the natural echoes and reverberations of a room. Amazon says that’s because it has an array of seven microphones on top. Apparently, even though they’re just inches apart, they can measure the relatively delayed arrivals of incoming sound waves from your voice, and thereby cancel out any echo.
Now, the Echo doesn’t understand you every time. If you ask something beyond its limited circle of commands, you get either a beep or a “Sorry, I can’t find the answer to the question I heard”-type message. And sometimes it mis-hears you completely. (That situation crops up most often when you’re ordering a certain song or band to play.)
But considering the fact that your voice commands have to be transmitted to the mother ship (Amazon’s computers) and back across the Internet, the accuracy and speed of Echo’s responses are really impressive.
Oh, that’s right: Your recorded commands are collected for study by Amazon, for the purposes of improving Echo’s recognition skills. Amazon says that these recordings are not anonymous, and they’re not deleted unless you delete them. You can delete these recordings yourself, either one at a time or all at once (but that “may degrade your experience using Amazon Echo”).
In short, the easily spooked should not buy an Amazon Echo.
What Can I Say?
At 6 months old, the Echo isn’t nearly as capable as, say, Siri; it doesn’t recognize as many commands or do as many things.
But Amazon promises that the Echo’s talents will rapidly expand. And indeed, the number of requests the device can handle has already doubled since its early adopter beginnings six months ago.
Here’s what the Echo responds to, in order of usefulness:
“Alexa, play Billy Joel.” Music is the killer app. You walk into the kitchen and ask for virtually any band, song, album, genre, or even activity (“play some cooking music”) — and the music just starts. It’s as close as you’re going to get to owning the Star Trek computer.
This feature works best if you’re an Amazon Prime member ($100 a year), because it gives you instant access to a million songs, plus thousands of playlists created by your fellow members.
If you’re not a Prime member (or even if you are), you can also request any of the personalized radio stations you’ve created on a Pandora or iHeartRadio account (free or paid). “Play my Coldplay channel from Pandora,” you can say. Here’s what else you can say.
You can also upload 250 of your own song files to Amazon, to play upon vocal command.
Spotify and Apple Music are more limited; they’re not integrated with the Echo (yet, says Amazon). For services like these, you’re supposed to use the Echo as a glorified wireless Bluetooth speaker for your phone.
You start by saying, “Alexa, connect my phone,” which starts directing playback to the Echo instead of your phone’s speaker. Then you open the music app (Spotify or whatever) on your phone. From here, you can command playback by voice, without needing your phone: “Play,” “Next,” “Previous,” “Resume,” “Softer,” Louder,” and so on.
When music plays, you can adjust the volume by voice, buy the song by voice, or say “Alexa, thumbs up” to “like” the song (for Pandora, iHeartRadio, and Prime Music).
“Alexa, play WCBS.” You can also request any radio station in the country, just by asking for it. That’s a feature of TuneIn.com, which is built right into the Echo and doesn’t require an account or setup. It’s the best.
“Alexa, what’s the news?” Alexa instantly begins playing NPR’s latest headline summary. Using the Echo app on your phone, you can also turn on the option to request the news from the BBC, ESPN, the Economist, or TMZ.
“Alexa, how’s the traffic?” Once you’ve entered your home and work addresses in the phone app, Alexa can tell you exactly how many minutes your commute will be if you leave now.
“Alexa, what’s the weather in Dallas this weekend?” As you’d expect.
“Alexa, read ‘The Casual Vacancy.’” If you’ve bought an audio book from Audible, the Echo begins playing your most recent book. It picks up where you stopped before, even if you were listening to it on a different device.
“Alexa, wake me up at 7:20 a.m.” The Echo is rock-solid on alarms and timers. (If Echo is in the kitchen, you’ll use “Set a timer for 20 minutes” a lot. One night, my wife, with no idea if it would work, said, “Alexa, how much time is left on my timer?” — and bingo, Alexa answered. It was awesome.)
“Alexa, how far is it from Chicago to Tampa?” Alexa is really good at facts. She’ll convert units for you, give you historical or geographical facts, calculate the days of the week for dates, fill you in on movie and music trivia, and on and on. Same kind of thing Siri, Cortana, and Google Now do. Here are a few examples.
She knows sports scores and schedules, too. (“When do the Giants play next?”)
“Alexa: Wikipedia ‘The Rolling Stones.’” This command reads the first couple of lines from the corresponding Wikipedia entry.
“Alexa, put nutmeg on my shopping list.” Alexa doesn’t buy anything without your confirmation. But she will put things onto a shopping list that’s maintained in the Echo app on your phone. Same thing with To Do items: “Put ‘Paint the living room’ on my To Do list.”
“Alexa, reorder cat food.” You can buy stuff by voice — if you’ve previously bought them from Amazon. Alexa describes, aloud, any matching item from your order history, tells you price, and asks if you want to go ahead and order it. For things you order often, it’s pretty cool. (If you make a mistake, you can return the stuff for free. And if you have mischievous teenagers in the house, you can also disable this feature, or require a spoken password.)
“Alexa, how do you spell fluorescent?” She’s a great dictionary. She’ll also define any word for you.
“Alexa, turn off the living-room lights.” In one of Amazon’s recent feature updates, the Echo gained the ability to control home-automation gear from Wink, Belkin, and Philips (that is, the Philips Hue light bulbs). Here’s the complete list of compatible gear.
Once you’ve set all this up, you can use your voice to control lights, light switches, and — here’s the limitless part — power outlets. I tried it with a couple of Belkin WeMo Internet-controllable outlets, and it was wild.
“Alexa, when’s my next appointment?” You can ask various things about your Google calendar, once you’ve told the Echo app your Google account details. You cannot, however, create, delete, or move appointments by voice, as you can with Siri; you can only look things up. (“What’s on my calendar for Tuesday?”)
“Alexa, tell me a joke” quickly became a favorite command in our household of kids. She’s always good for a short, painful pun or two (“Why don’t bicycles wake up early? They’re two-tired”), but now and then she gets the adults laughing. (“How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to hold the giraffe, and the other to fill the bathtub with brightly colored machine tools.”)
Amazon has put a lot of work into giving Alexa witty responses to silly questions, just like Siri or Cortana — especially when you feed her movie quotes. For example:
You say: “Beam me up.” (She says: “At warp speed, Captain? The engines will never take it!”)
“Which came first: The chicken or the egg?” (”The chicken. Or the egg. No, the chicken. I’m not sure.”)
“Do you want to take over the world?” (”I don’t want to take over the world; I just want to help you.”)
“Earl grey tea. Hot.” (”Unable to comply. Replicators are offline.”)
“How much is that doggie in the window?” (”That one’s not for sale. But the one with the fluffy tail is really nice, too.”)
“I am your father.” (”No! No, no, no!”)
“All your base are belong to us.” (”You have no chance to survive. Make your time.”)
“I want the truth.” (“You can’t handle the truth!”)
“Inconceivable!” (”You keep using that word. I do not think that word means what you think it means.”)
“Is Santa Claus real?” (”I don’t know him personally, but I’ve heard a lot of good things…”)
“Klaatu barada nikto.” (“Well remembered! Unfortunately, I’m not Gort, and I have no powers of resurrection.”)
“How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” (”A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could if a woodchuck could chuck wood.”)
“What is your favorite color?” (”Infrared is superpretty.”)
“Knock-knock.” (She tells a knock-knock joke.)
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” (”More fair by far are you than all…” etc.)
“Party on, Wayne.” (”Party on, Garth.”)
“Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” (”Deny thy father and refuse thy name; / Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love / And I’ll no longer be a Capulet!”)
“What do you think about Siri?” (”Siri’s a great app, but I’m different.”)
“What does the fox say?” (”Waa, was, way do.”)
“What is your quest?” (”To seek the Holy Grail.”)
“Who’s your daddy?” (”A team of inventors at Amazon.com.”)
“Open the pod bay doors.” (“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’m not Hal, and you’re not in space.”)
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” (”I want to be the computer from Star Trek!”)
The App and the Remote
You don’t have to spend much time in the companion Echo app (for iPhone, Android, or Fire OS). But it serves as the only screen the Echo’s got. Here’s where you see your To Do and Shopping lists, for example. It’s where you set up your music-service accounts, specify which news services you want on call, get help, see manual music playback and volume controls, and take the voice-training exercise. (This asks you to read 25 typical Echo commands. It’s supposed to improve accuracy, but it’s optional.)
The app also keeps written and audio records of your voice commands — and lets you indicate which ones didn’t work, for the benefit of Amazon’s engineers.
For another 30 bucks you can get a remote control. It offers music-playback and volume controls, plus three key benefits:
You can command the Echo quietly, by speaking into its microphone.
You don’t have to say “Alexa” before every command (just press the microphone button and talk).
*You can make the Echo say anything you want. Hold down the microphone button, say “Simon says…” and then say what you want Alexa to say in her own voice. (That’s how I got the Echo to say the goofy things in my video above.) Great for pranks.
Where Echo should go from here
Amazon still has plenty of work to do on the Echo.
You should be able to add appointments to your calendar. Make restaurant reservations. Look up movie schedules. Make phone calls (why isn’t it a speakerphone?). Send and read text messages. Add notes to your Notes app. Check stock prices. Post to Facebook or Twitter.
The To Do and Shopping List features should integrate with the ones you’ve already got on your iPhone or Android phone, rather than being confined to the Echo app.
Some people complain that Echo has no batteries, so it’s not really mobile, although that seems beside the point; it’s meant to become part of your home environment.
If Echo were $500 or even $300, well, no: It would just be a gimmick.
But the price is $180, which is about what you’d pay for a similarly sized Bluetooth wireless speaker. You get the whole voice-assistant thing for nothing.
I know, I know: “But my phone does the same thing.” No, it really doesn’t.
Most smartphones can take commands like “OK, Google, what’s 17 times 12?” or “Siri, what’s the weather?” (Siri responds hands-free only if your iPhone is plugged into power.) But the details make the difference. The Echo doesn’t require your hands. Doesn’t require you to be close. Doesn’t have to come out of your pocket — or require you to hunt around the house for it. Doesn’t require you to be you (anyone’s voice works). Doesn’t sound tiny and tinny.
I’m telling you, a voice assistant is a totally different concept once it’s untethered from your phone and always available. It grows on you. As you experiment and live with Echo, you master its vocabulary and begin using it more.
You should give Amazon a huge mental high-five for a) having the imagination to create a whole new product category and b) being able to actually pull it off.
And you should keep the Echo in mind — maybe to get for yourself, maybe at holiday gift-giving time, or maybe just to keep your eye on. I’m telling you, it’s going to be a thing.
David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s firstname.lastname@example.org. He welcomes nontoxic comments in the Comments below.