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We Try the Amazon Echo

·Contributing Editor
Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo

(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

If using Amazon to buy everything from AA batteries to ZZ Top MP3s still leaves you wanting more Amazon, then the Amazon Echo is the device for you.

If, however, you’re looking for a general-purpose hands-free digital helper, we’d recommend Siri, Cortana, or Google Now over the current version of the Echo.

My introduction to this cybernetic cylinder came when Amazon granted a friend’s request for an invitation to buy an early version of the Echo. (Among the many weird things about this product is that you must ask Amazon if it will take your money, please.) As an Amazon Prime subscriber, David paid only $99; the regular price will be $199.

I took notes as I visited David to watch him set up the device and start using it.

Simple setup
We had the Echo out of the box and online in a few minutes, with all the setup work done in a simple Web app. Once the Echo is configured, you don’t need to touch or click a single button; just say Echo’s “wake word” — by default “Alexa” — and then speak your request.

Amazon Echo setup screen
Amazon Echo setup screen

As Amazon’s FAQ explains, the Echo doesn’t go online to stream your speech to its hive mind until you say that wake word, and you can turn off the microphone entirely. So, no, the Echo is not an equivalent of the always-on Telescreen in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

An LED ring at the top of the Echo glows as it consults various cloud services for the answers you want. Sometimes it works, and sometimes Echo stumbles into unintentional comedy, with crazy answers read out by a soothing, synthesized female voice.

We found Echo did best as a no-hands way to get the forecast, the time, and the news (from NPR, the BBC, and elsewhere), to add items to shopping lists, and to play music (from your Amazon cloud library, Prime Music streaming, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn). I said, ”Play the latest episode of the podcast 99% Invisible,” and moments later we were hearing about the world’s longest-burning light bulb.

But simple questions stumped this thing too often.

Not quite conversant yet
The problem wasn’t that Echo misheard us much, even in noisy environments, though we did get a chuckle out of it hearing “How tall is the Vehicle Assembly Building?” as “How tall is the Beer Assembly Building?” It was the oddly outdated answers (or outright lack of information it should have known) that baffled us.

Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo

(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

Take three sports-related queries. Echo thought that Davey Johnson managed the Washington Nationals (Matt Williams has had the job since fall 2013) and that Donald Sterling owned the Los Angeles Clippers (not so much) and then couldn’t name the quarterback for Washington’s hapless NFL franchise (that’s more forgivable, since the team doesn’t seem to know either).

Echo could cite the distance from D.C. to Richmond but couldn’t offer advice about traffic on those roads or the status of a flight landing there. It could speak a summary of the Wikipedia page about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos but didn’t know he was the owner of The Washington Post.

Its version of throwing up its hands when it couldn’t answer a question was to say that it had added a Bing search link to the Echo companion app. Helpfully, it cycles through different phrasings of that so you don’t get too bored.

Sometimes Echo failed to acknowledge a question. We were met with silence when David asked, “Do you have any NSA backdoors?” Thanks for putting us at ease, Alexa.

Where Echo lives
The Echo must be plugged in, and I suspect that requirement will see it parked in the kitchen — a room in which people often have their hands full and think of things to add to a shopping list.

Sadly, the Echo was particularly inept with cooking-related queries more complicated than “How many tablespoons in a cup?” It whiffed at questions about medium-rare temperature for a duck breast, calorie counts for a few sample food items, the weight of a cup of flour, and ingredient substitutions.

The Echo comes programmed with joking responses to the usual talking-to-the-computer tropes, so it should definitely work for amusing visitors. Say, “Alexa, open the pod bay doors,” and Echo will respond, ”I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’m not HAL, and you are not in space.”

As a Bluetooth speaker, the Echo also does fine — it paired with my phone without a problem and generated crisp, clear sound with satisfyingly deep bass. At the $99 Prime price, you could justify buying it for that feature alone. At least, that was my friend’s thinking; his wife is not yet convinced.

I wrapped up my testing with a simple question: “Alexa, are you ready to rock?” I should have expected this response: “I cannot find the answer to that question.”

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.