First Look: Amazon Echo: Novelty item or ready-for-prime-time part of your digital life?

First Look: Amazon Echo: Novelty item or ready-for-prime-time part of your digital life?

While some parts are beautifully done, the information services at the back end have a long way to go before the Echo is more than a novelty.

Our Amazon Echo, a voice-controlled appliance--for want of a better word--arrived on May 17 and we've been using it all week. As Prime members, we paid $100 for ours, but the list price is $200. While some parts are beautifully done, the information services at the back end have a long way to go before the Echo is more than a novelty.

The Echo is a heavy cylinder, about nine inches tall and three inches in diameter. Colored black, it sits inconspicuously anywhere you can get it AC power and a Wi-Fi connection. (Wired Ethernet is not included) Most of the Echo is made up of speakers, which gives you an idea of what the Echo is best at: playing music.

The fun part of the Echo is control: you talk to it. Start with the wake word, "Alexa" (or "Amazon" if you want), and then give it a command or ask a question using natural English language--other languages are not yet available. The Echo sends your voice to Amazon's cloud, where small gnomes attempt to decode what you want and set things in motion. The initial set of commands fall into three main categories: playing (and buying) music through the Echo's speakers, asking simple factual questions, and managing a few local services, including To-Do and Shopping lists, an alarm clock, and a timer.

Amazon also offers an Echo App, available on Android, iOS, and via web browser, which lets you control the Echo's settings and lists, queue up music to play, review your history (and provide feedback to Amazon), and train the Echo to improve speech recognition--although it does exceptionally well out-of-the-box. Echo boasts an array of seven microphones and sophisticated noise cancellation that let us talk to it even when it was playing music.

For example, using voice commands, you can add items to one of two lists (To-Do and Shopping), or have Echo read back the lists. While you can intentionally trick Echo into making errors, speaking clearly give us about 75% success in issuing commands. The lists are also managed via the Echo App, which is how you'd delete items, or actually see them while you're in the grocery store.

Asking the Echo factual questions (or the ever popular "tell me a joke") works well for some questions, not so well for others. While Echo's voice recognition generally knew what we were asking, the back-end service answering the questions didn't know how to answer all of them. For example, Google could tell us "how far is it from Tucson to Phoenix," but Echo wouldn't unless we changed to "how far is it from Tucson, Arizona to Phoenix, Arizona." Google knew how long it takes to go between Rome and Venice, Amazon's stock price, what Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is, how many people live in South Sudan, and how plastics are made, while Echo didn't. On the other hand, while Google danced delicately around the question "is Taiwan a country," Echo had a clear and unambiguous "yes" result. (Amazon is not shipping Echo to China yet.)

The music services available through Echo include Amazon's own Prime Music, as well as iHeartRadio, Pandora, and TuneIn. All services but TuneIn require an account for that service to be linked to the Echo. We started with just Amazon's own service, Amazon "standard" and Prime. With Amazon's services, you automatically get access to MP3s of almost all of the music you've bought in physical form over the years from Amazon.

You can upload your own music library (for an additional $25 per year) to bridge the gaps. We ended up with confusing mishmash of our own music library and our own playlists, Amazon Prime playlists, and Amazon Prime stations. Simply saying "Alexa, play the Rolling Stones" will play a shuffled set of Rolling Stones songs out of your music library, if you have it. If you don't, then the Echo looks in other services, including Amazon Prime's music, playlists, and stations, working its way down the other services you've configured.

You can also pair the Echo via Bluetooth with smartphones and tablets and play music through them out the Echo speakers. As a music playback device, the quality of the Echo's speakers won't impress audiophiles, but it's plenty good for background music, and loud enough without obvious distortion to fill a very large room.

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As a way of navigating your music library, Echo leaves a lot to be desired. Yes, you can do cute show-off things like "Alex, play Layla," but try any of the 15 ways to ask for Brahms' Opus 102 Double Concerto, and you'll get nowhere. If you've fully committed to loading your entire music library into Amazon-land and built your playlists there, you may find the Echo a wonderful addition. For those of us, though, who have already built other solutions for our music libraries, the Echo is less satisfactory. We found ourselves using the various stations available in Amazon Prime for background music---there are more than 150 of them---with best success.

Our ho-hum experience with music management repeated itself with other Echo features and highlighted the biggest issue: Echo isn't connected to the rest of your digital life. You can add things to a To-Do list or Shopping list, which seems cool when you first try it, but we already have other online tools for these things that Echo doesn't talk to. We weren't going to break up our love affair with Evernote just so we could tell a tall black cylinder to add something to a list. Ask Echo about your calendar, and it'll say it can't do anything... yet.

Some digital connections are already in place. If you've got Philips Hue or Belkin WeMo home automation, Echo can connect and control lights and switches in a limited way -- switches and lights on and off, or dimmed.

Amazon's current answer is a free service called IFTTT (If This, Then That), which can be connected to the Echo via your Amazon account. IFTTT recipes can provide the glue between Echo and other services. For example, using the Evernote example, you can write an IFTTT recipe that will add anything from your To-Do list to an Evernote notebook. Today, IFTTT recipes can watch your To-Do and Shopping lists, and questions regarding sports teams (including Men's, but not Women's, college NCAA basketball), then trigger various types of actions. It's an interesting and extremely limited start, but it moves the Echo firmly out of "general tool" and into "hobbyist" territory. Today, there are 192 recipes up on IFTTT for the Echo, but this is very early stage: who wants to say "Alexa, what's on my To-Do list" to ring their mobile phone?

Amazon boasts that the Echo is always getting better, because the heavy lifting is done in their cloud-based service. That should make easier tasks such as expanding the types of questions you can ask, improving their answers, and linking to existing digital services. Since the Echo has only been shipping in quantities for a week, it's premature to rush to judgment--but it's also too early to recommend buying an Echo.

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