Category Archives: Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo Screen

Amazon’s Echo Show is Here!

Remember a couple of days I wrote, Amazon Echo with a Screen, I’d Buy It?

Well it’s here. The code name of “Knight” is now the “Echo Show.”

At the time we only had a picture to go on. I speculated that it would be a good kitchen device similar to the Invoxia Triby, but with intercom capabilities like the Nucleus Anywhere Intercom. It’s rare, but it seems I got it mostly right according to the promo video on Amazon’s site.

It seems like the videophone is the defining feature. They are even running a promo where if you buy 2 (one to give away) you’ll save $100. The two Echo Shows would normally be $460, but with the $100 savings they are $360… or $180 each. If that $180 price-point sounds familiar, it was the price of the original Echo until it was recently reduced.

The videophone also has a check-in feature. It wasn’t clear in the promo video how it works, but it seems like a way of asking, “Hey, are you available?” without actually calling. I don’t know how that is different than just calling.

Aside from the videophone features, there is the ability to hook into video feeds in your house. For example, you can easily see who is front door with Ring. Or you can check in on the kids if you have a compatible baby monitor.

I know I said that I’d buy it, but I’m really on the fence. On one hand, it would be great for the kids to video call with grandma. On the other hand we have 4 Echo devices for 6 rooms. As I said before, I’m not sure my wife would endorse such a purchase. One potential feature that could sway her might be the ability to use it as a photo frame. I don’t know whether or not to presume that Amazon is smart enough to make it work with Amazon Photos. I haven’t seen that feature, but I’m still learning about what the Echo Show can do.

Echo Dot is Amazon’s #1 Top Holiday Seller

Amazon declared today something that readers already knew… Amazon Echo devices are awesome.

Amazon Alexa
Amazon Alexa

Specifically Amazon noted:

  • “Sales of Amazon Echo family of devices up more than 9x over last year’s holiday season”
  • “Echo Dot is the best-selling, most gifted item on Amazon.com with millions sold worldwide since launch”
  • “Alexa devices made up top-selling products across all categories on Amazon.com including Echo Dot, Fire TV Stick, Fire tablet and Amazon Echo”

From this we can gather that Echo hardware is selling extremely well… probably better than I even thought possible. The Echo Dot was the key to the growth as its price point ranged between $40 and $50 through most of the holiday season. Finally, devices that are Alexa-enabled are doing quite well. I’m not sure that I’d call a Fire tablet an Alexa device as it did so many things before Alexa, but Amazon’s free to categorize things how they want.

The Amazon press release gives more details about popular Alexa questions. One thing I found notable is that there are a lot of people who don’t know how to make chocolate chip cookies.

Amazon Releases 2nd Generation Echo Dot Under $50

Today, Amazon announced that it is releasing the 2nd Generation Echo Dot. The biggest surprise seems to be the price… less than $50. And if you buy 5, they’ll give you one free!

If you happen to need 6 Dots, that’s a little more than $40 a piece. If this sounds like a good deal, it is because it is.

It’s always worth comparing a 2nd generation to the first generation. I bought the the first generation Echo Dot a little more than 5 months ago for $90 where I called it “fairly expensive.” I’ve been scouring the specs to find out what the difference is between the two generations. One obvious difference is that you now have the choice of a white Echo Dot. Other than that, my view on the differences seemed like this:

Echo Dot Second Generation
Hmmm… is the difference only price?

I had to go look through some news sites to find what’s really different as there didn’t seem to a good comparison on the new page. Liliputing says:

“Amazon says there’s also improved voice recognition thanks to a redesigned voice processor. Other changes include a slightly more compact design, physical volume up and down buttons (instead of a volume ring).”

I like the volume ring, so it seems like the change is a downgrade. However, better voice recognition and more compact design seem like big positives.

One could make a case that this is a better product, for around half the price, introduced just 4 months later. I’ve grown accustomed technology getting cheaper, but that kind of price drop seems unprecedented to me. To make it sting a little more, only faithful Echo customers were able to buy the original, now seemingly very, very over-priced Echo Dot.

It almost seems that Amazon realizes that first generation Echo Dot customers would be unhappy with this development. I received an email that stated:

“As a customer who purchased the previous–generation Echo Dot, you can get a $10 Alexa Shopping credit when you order the All-New Echo Dot using Alexa Shopping. Order today through October 20 and a $10 Alexa Shopping credit will be applied to your account within one week after your new Echo Dot has shipped.”

I think some previous customers will be further insulted by this. It essentially says, “Buy another Echo, and use it buy something else at Amazon, and we’ll give you a $10 credit.”

Personally, I think it would have better if they wrote, “We’re going to ship you a free 2nd generation Echo Dot so you can see how awesome it is now.” They already have $90 from existing Echo Dot customers which would almost buy you two of the new products today. If they can’t send you a free one, at least offer another for $15 or $20.

On the bright side, this is the best time to add Alexa’s life-changing features affordably to every room in your house.

Get your “New” and “Improved” Echo Dot here.

Make your Amazon Echo Portable with this Battery

Summer feels like it’s here and the entire family is spending more time outside by grill. Kids are playing on their swing set. My wife makes some great cocktails. All that’s missing is a little music.

Now that I have an Amazon Echo downstairs and an Echo Dot upstairs, I listen to almost all my music through Amazon.

I don’t have a good music solution for the outside. Sure I could get an Amazon Tap, but I’m not excited by the Tap. So I solved the problem the old (well new) school way… I grabbed a Bluetooth speaker and my Nexus 5 phone and soon I was playing music.

(Well, my wife was playing her Broadway channel from Google Music. Ugh. I guess you can’t have everything.)

But what if my Echo was portable? It sounds like a nice pipe dream, but it isn’t a dream at all. It’s reality… almost.

A company by the name of Mission Power makes an battery that will make your Echo portable. At least that’s the promise. The units are currently on back order. I’ve read that some units have shipped, but I couldn’t find any reliable reviews.

The idea is that you attach the battery base and plug the Echo in like you would do anyway. When you want to take it somewhere, you simply do just that… unplug the cord from the base and pick it up and go. It promises up to 6 hours of music play, which is typically more than enough for my needs.

When I first read about this, I dismissed it. I thought I’d have to wind the cord and attach the battery every time I wanted to move it. I was wrong. This now looks like exactly what I want to bring out to the yard.

Amazon Echo Review (June 2015 Update)

Last year (by a few hours), I reviewed Amazon Echo (read the review).

The Echo is an odd device that doesn’t seem to sit any existing category of consumer electronics. It is a digital information assistant like Apple’s Siri, Google’s “Okay Google”, or Microsoft’s Cortana. However, it isn’t designed to be portable. It also wasn’t released with a large base of knowledge. It is still far, far behind of the those Big Three phone platforms.

Instead of being portable it has very good speakers and microphones. It’s always listening for the key word, “Alexa” that tells it to pay attention to the next command. I’ve had it work from over 30 feet away when there are no other distracting sounds.

When I last reviewed the Echo, I was one of the first people to receive it. It couldn’t do too much more than play music. And the music was mostly limited to Amazon’s Prime library. It has Bluetooth, so I could pair it with my phone and run music through that. It works fine, except when you do that Alexa (the Echo) becomes kind of dumb. I can’t tell it to find the Aerosmith MP3s on my phone and play them.

You could do a few other things such as tell Alexa to set a timer or add an item to a shopping list. (Unfortunately, the shopping list wouldn’t work with Wunderlist, where I keep my lists).

In short, the Echo could do quite a few different things, but nothing particularly great. I bought in because I liked the concept and put some faith behind Amazon’s engineers being able to expand what it can do.

Since that review, Amazon has sent me regular updates of what they’ve added. Here’s a few of them:

  • Sports scores – This was kind of a no-brainer. I’m almost surprised it didn’t launch with them.
  • Traffic information – You have to set up your standard commute online first, but then you can simply ask, “Alexa, what is the traffic like?” Since I work from home, this isn’t particularly useful to me, but it could be handy for a few people.
  • Link Your Pandora account – This was a big one for me because I listen to Pandora more than my own music collection of MP3s.

I want to expand on that last one a bit. It is so much easier to ask Alexa to “play my Pandora” station than in it is to use any app. When I use the Amazon Fire TV Stick in my bedroom, I have to turn on the television, switch the source to the TV stick, and then navigate to the Pandora application. While the Fire TV stick has other advantages, score a win for the Echo for playing my music as soon as I can think about it.

These are all small changes to things that the Echo could do out of the box.

There’s one more big addition that has come about since my original review. The Echo can actually controlling items in your home.

For example Echo now works with Belkin’s WeMo Switch to allow you to turn on and off appliances. That might not be the most exciting thing in the world, but has been the basic building block of home automation for years.

The other thing that Echo can do is work with Philips Hue Lightbulbs. These bulbs are clearly for the “early adopter” audience. The bulbs change colors and can even sync with shows like 12 Monkeys on the Syfy network (which you should definitely catch). It’s out of my budget for the novelty, but it would be interesting to see my room’s change lighting with the action of my television. The Red Forest on the show was freaky enough without my whole room turning red.

The Echo can’t change the colors of the light bulbs right now. It is limited to turning them on and off and dimming them.

Again, this isn’t super-exciting, but it is baby steps. I don’t think locking and unlocking doors is too far away. If you have a lock that is wifi enabled, I would expect it to be coming down the pick any day now.

What I’m really hoping for though is for Alexa to read my email to me as I make breakfast. (If you are concerned about the privacy risk here, there are ways that it can be implemented without that issue.)

If the Echo can work with my Pandora station there should be no limitation to working with my other accounts. Maybe in 6 months, I’ll be writing another review to tell you about it.

Amazon Echo (Initial Review – Jan 2015)

[Please note that this review was written shortly after the Amazon Echo was released before many of Amazon Alexa skills were released.]

Late at night on Christmas Eve, Amazon Claus dropped off a mysterious gift at our house. It was raining and the box was a mess of wet cardboard. I opened it up and was pleased to find the box was simply black with no markings of any kind. It was perfect to slip under the tree as it was.

The wife didn’t know what it was… for that I was thankful. I could only imagine what she’d say about this.

“This”, of course is the new Amazon Echo. This reviewer explains it best as a “Tower of Siri.” It’s not really Apple’s Siri, since it is Amazon, but it is kind of like Siri. You ask it stuff and she answers it or performs the task.

Since this functionality comes for free with any major smartphone, I could only imagine how the conversation would go when I said that I paid $99 for it. I prepared myself with arguments based around how it would help our sons develop speech as he’s just starting to really pick up a lot of words at 27 months.

However, a strange thing happened, something that never occurred to me. My wife LIKED the Amazon Echo. I needed no explanations or defenses.

In my opinion it is perhaps the most interesting technology since the tablet. Quite honestly, I find it more interesting than tablets were when they were introduced. I think a lot of it comes from the fact that I have degrees in computer science and linguistics. Amazon Echo combines both of those disciplines with its speech recognition and its syntax and semantic parsing of instructions.

Unfortunately, right now the Echo is very limited in what it can do. It answers simple questions like “What’s the weather?” You can ask it to define or spell words and get answers. However, the most useful thing thus far for me is the access to the Amazon Prime’s Music library. I simply tell her to play Aerosmith and I get Aerosmith. I tell it to play The Doors and I get The Doors.

The downside is that the music is only as good as Prime’s library. I tell it to play Weezer and it played one song before quitting. It would be great if I could hook in other music sources such as a library stored on my computer or even Pandora, but neither of them is available yet.

The technology isn’t perfect either. I asked it to play Liz Phair and it proceeded to look for a music “list” called “fair.” It couldn’t find that. I worked around this by asking it to “Play music from the artist Liz Phair.” That worked much better. When I don’t have the television on, it picks up my voice from 20 feet away. When I have the television on, I can be 5 feet away from it, and it won’t hear me. I’m hoping this gets improved over time.

The Echo has been reviewed by a few technology sites and most say that the speaker is nothing special. I don’t have top of the line JamBoxes or Sonos systems in my house. I’m not an audiophile by any definition, but it sounds good to me. My wife didn’t have any complaints about the sound either.

I’m hopeful that there will be an application that I can run on the computer that controls my television. It would be great to tell Alexa to play certain movies or switch channels. It would also be great if it could control the NEST thermostat in my house. I think this integration will come, but it will take a little time to iron out all the partnerships.

Final Thoughts

I’ve read a number of reviews of the Amazon Echo. They are all over the map. Some say that it is a solution looking for a problem. Others say that it is “a perfect 10” such as the ZDNet review I mentioned above. I think both arguments have merit. Currently, Echo is limited, but what it does, it does extraordinarily well.

As much as I hate to admit it, so much technology complicates our lives. The complexity has seemed to give it more points of failure. Every new gadget seems to require a learning curve. Amazon’s Echo is fairly unique in that it strips away complications. Except in rare cases (such as the Liz Phair one), I don’t have to think about how to get it to do what I want. I simply ask it to pause or resume music. I never looked up whether these commands would work… I just tried them and they worked.

I’m not sure if you should buy it or not. If you are an Amazon Prime member, I say it’s certainly worth the $99. I think you’d nearly pay this for the quality of the speaker itself. If you are not, and it is $199, I’d say that it is probably for the early adopters only. The general public might want to wait until it can do a few more things.