Echo, the voice-activated speaker that Amazon announced last November, is officially going on sale today to the masses. A limited number of the devices became available earlier this year by invitation only. I was one of the lucky few who have been using Echo over the last several months.
If you ask me, at $180, it's not worth the money. And the "Perfect 10," 5-star ratings that appeared on Amazon this week? Well, I call bullshit.
For those of you who haven't heard of Echo, it's a cylindrical speaker device that not only plays music but allows you to speak to it. Connected to the Internet via a Bluetooth connection, all you have to do is say the name "Alexa" out loud to wake up the device. You can ask Echo, or Alexa, to do any number of things and she will respond.
Here is Amazon's goofy promo video for Echo:
If you are an Amazon Prime member and you regularly use the service to shop for everyday stuff, you can ask Alexa to add items like ice cream or toilet paper to your shopping list. If you're a person who relies heavily on to-do lists to keep track of your days, you can ask Alexa to add tasks to your personal to-do list. You can use Alexa to check events on your Google calendar. Want to hear the news? It can give you a rundown on the day's big events, courtesy of NPR.
Some tasks work very well on the Echo. Other things, not so much.
As a Prime member, I purchased Echo for $99. My fiancee has two young boys so I thought, of course Echo would be fantastic. In addition to their homework, Echo would surely be the perfect tool to answer all of their crazy questions. All you have to do is say "Alexa" and ask a question. And Alexa is supposed to say the answer.
Simple right? Well, not so simple for Alexa, apparently. I can't tell you how many times we've asked Alexa questions to which she responds, “Sorry, I didn’t understand the question I heard." Over and over and over and over again. It misses more questions than it gets right -- by a wide margin. It is so ridiculously frustrating and disappointing.
To the device's credit, Amazon says it continually learns a user's speech patterns and preferences. Therefore the problem isn't that Alexa can't understand what we're saying. It's that it relies on Microsoft's Bing search engine to find answers to all of our questions.
After trying again and again to ask Alexa a simple question for which she can't understand or doesn't have an answer, I finally open my phone and ask Google voice search. The result? My phone either tells me the exact answer I was looking for or serves up Google's usual, helpful search results.
Thanks for nothing, Alexa. Our dreams of the household virtual assistant of the future have been dashed.
I suppose it's worth noting that Amazon recently updated Alexa's software so that it can be used to control Belkin WeMo and Philips Hue smart-home devices. That would be really cool, but if you don't have those particular devices then you're out of luck. In my house, my Piper home security system manages our smart switches, etc., anyway.
To Amazon, Echo is a means for customers to more easily spend money via their Amazon Prime services. For customers who are also people who aren't constantly ordering from Amazon, Echo should be a helpful voice-activated search engine and assistant. Unfortunately it fails at that, in my experience.
After our first month or so testing Echo, my fiancée would occasionally ask Alexa about the weather. I'd only ask her for sports scores (which technically I already have on my wrist thanks to my smartwatch). Now that I think about it, Alexa is sitting on a table in our living room, completely unplugged.
As the Echo goes on sale today for nearly $200, I can't recommend to anyone that it's worth money or the frustration.