I do find new gadgets exciting and when I do buy one, I can’t wait for it to get delivered. Finally, I got my hands on my new Amazon Echo and I got a chance to play with it. Thought I should do a quick post on initial thoughts for anyone who’s looking to get one.
If you don’t know already, it’s a smart home appliance from Amazon that can control your other smart appliances (using “skills”) but also acts as a smart multi-directional Bluetooth speaker. It also integrates with Gmail calendar to keep add appointments, plays music of your choice or news items, does your shopping from Amazon and many other things. It also has a smaller sibling called “Amazon Echo Dot”, which is pretty much the same except that it has a tiny speaker.
What you get with the box is the cylindrical Echo itself, an adapter and a small instruction booklet to get you up and running so not much to write about.
After the un-boxing, there isn’t much to do, apart from plugging it into the mains. The light ring at the top of it gets illuminated and after a couple of minutes, it’s ready to take commands. Alexa greets you and the next step is to connect it to your WiFi. For that, I would suggest downloading the Alexa App from your favourite app store. I used the one for my iPhone.
The first thing to do is to pair it with WiFi. Go to the App to do that and once in the relevant menu, press the “Action Button” at the top of Echo for five seconds. That takes Echo into WiFi pairing mode and the light ring at the top starts rotating in Orange. If it doesn’t do it the first time, try it again as I had to. Once it starts rotating, go to the WiFi settings on your device and you should see “Amazon-XXX” in the list, where “XXX” could be any random letters. Select it and once connected, go back to the app to continue. The app will recognise that Echo is connected and will carry on with the setup.
Next is the obvious authentication to your Amazon account bit. Once done, there are a couple of settings that you might want to change. For example, Metric measurements for Temperature and Distance are switched off. It would be a good idea to switch them on. Now, chances are that you won’t have someone named “Alexa” living with you but in case you do, it’s good to know that it can be changed – to either “Amazon” or “Echo”. Yes, those are the only two other choices!
Next comes the extra stuff that you can do with it. For example, Alexa app allows you to configure “Skills”, which is the integration with various services/devices that you can connect to. For example, if you have Prime Music or Spotify (Premium only) subscription, enter the account details and it can then play your favourite playlists at your command or any other song for that matter.
Also, there are lots of news sources and switching one or more of them, allows you have to have a “Flash Briefing”, which will play news items from those services e.g. Sky News, or BBC Minutes etc.
One of the eagerly-awaited feature of Echo was it’s integration with Smart Home appliances e.g. Nest, Hive and Philips Hue etc. I haven’t got these devices yet but will play with them soon.
Playing with it
As soon as it was configured, my kids starting hammering Alexa with all sorts of questions and while it couldn’t answer some, there were quite a few surprise answers. For example, when they said “Alexa, Good Morning” yesterday morning, it not only replied with an equally polite Good Morning but also added that it was Admiral Nelson’s Birthday.
I am sure things will improve with time but what you can do today are things like:
“Alexa, who’s the lead singer of <insert your favourite band here>” or
“Alexa, how far is Manchester?” or even
“Alexa, Wikipedia <topic of your choice>”
Idea: If you have a common family Google account configured, the calendar can be used by everyone in the family to set their appointments in. For example, you can then say:
“Alexa, set an appointment for 08:00 AM tomorrow morning” and then when prompted, you can say what it’s for e.g. “Meeting with Paul”.
As TuneIn Radio is also integrated, I thought about playing a podcast. Yes, Echo is able to do that too. However, this is where I found an issue. We, in the technology arena, have funny podcast names. For example, the first one I tried was “Open TechCast“. Here is the voice command:
“Alexa, play podcast Open TechCast”
but Echo kept hearing either “Open TextCast” or “Open TestCast”, instead. Similarly, “vBrownBag” changed into “v BrownBag” (see the difference?) So, technology-related podcasts may have an issue. Even “Geek Whisperers” didn’t fare much better even though, it understood the words correctly on the second try. That said, one can always play them from the Alexa App.
That’s all that I have done so far with it as it has been a hectic week (still going!) but support for this device is growing fast and I am sure it won’t be long before its automation potential is unlocked properly. Also, it’s a great fun gadget to have and at £149.99, Amazon Echo is definitely one to get!