Tech Review: Is Amazon Echo Worth the Hype?

I’ve owned the white Amazon Echo eight months now, and I find this sleek, futuristic gadget indispensable for everyday living. If you don’t know what an Echo is, basically, it’s a voice-activated speaker that responds to commands. Kind of like a Siri/virtual assistant for your entire home.

How it works

I was a bit intimidated when I first got this out of the package. After you plug it in, what do you do?

First, you have to connect it to your home wifi. To do that, follow the instructions here. I don’t have the Alexa app on my phone because it’s not available for Canadians yet. I don’t think I would use it much anyway, except maybe for the shopping/to-do lists function. The desktop version does the job. Go to alexa.amazon.com, where you can connect accounts like Spotify, add games and skills, and get the latest tips and updates.

“Alexa,” is the command word. If someone in your house is also named Alexa, you can always change the “wake word” to something else in the Settings section of your account.

While you can do countless things with this gadget, here are all the ways I like to use Amazon Alexa, by frequency of use.

As a home speaker

This sits in my living room, and it takes up very little space on a side table. If you’re a condo-living city dweller like me, the speaker is great for playing music in a small space since it has 360° sound. Unless you’re picky about sound quality and need roof-shaking bass, this is on par with other small stereos.

I connect my Spotify account to my Echo, and it stays connected whenever I’m home. You can ask Alexa to play any song or playlist you want. This works fine around 80% of the time. I usually just select songs on the Spotify app on my phone.

Alexa connects with Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Prime Music (of course), iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and SiriusXM. If you use another service or have other audio files you want to play, you can always use Alexa as a Bluetooth speaker. Say “Alexa, pair Bluetooth.”

To turn the volume up or down, you can say, “Alexa, turn it up,” “Alexa, volume 5,” or you can physically adjust the volume by turning the top ring of the speaker right or left.

You can also ask Alexa to play Audible audiobooks or audio-enabled Kindle ebooks.

Some commands for playing music:

Alexa, what’s playing? (if you don’t know what song is currently playing.)

Alexa, next song.

Alexa, stop the music.

Alexa, resume.

Alexa, loop.

Alexa, play some music to help me sleep.

As a Timer

This is seriously awesome when I’m cooking and need to set multiple timers. No need to mess with physical timers or phone apps.

Alexa, set timer for 10 minutes.

Alexa, set second alarm for 30 minutes.

Alexa, how much time is left on the second timer?

Alexa, cancel timer.

I see that they have a new feature now where you can name your timers:

Alexa, set a 10-minute pizza timer.

Alexa, set an egg timer for 3 minutes.

Alexa, set a 7-minute workout timer.

Alexa, set a homework timer for 30 minutes.

As an Alarm Clock

I  usually use the alarm clock app on my phone, but if I need to wake up for something important, I’ll set a second alarm on the Echo. Alexa will confirm back the time you requested.

You can control the volume and alarm sounds on your Alexa account or app. I just leave it on the default settings.

To Help Me Sleep

If you go to the “Skills” section of the Alexa app, you can enable different sleep and nature sounds such as thunderstorms, fireplace sounds, babbling brook, and windy leaves. I use ocean sounds. I also command it stop after a certain time so it doesn’t play all night.

Alexa, play ocean sounds.

Alexa, turn off in 40 minutes. 

To Play Jeopardy

There are several games you can enable under “Skills.” The only one I use is Jeopardy, which offers a new set of questions every day. The best score I’ve gotten is 5 out of 6 on a lucky day. I just played it now, and I performed terribly, getting none of the answers right.

To Entertain Guests

I don’t know anyone else here in Toronto with one of these devices, so when friends come over, they really get a kick out of the Echo. They can request their own music, play Jeopardy, or interrogate Alexa.

One friend decided to give Alexa some serious grilling.

Alexa, do you feed information to the NSA?

Alexa, are you spying on me?

Alexa, do you work for the CIA?

Ask for facts and information

If I want to know fact-based information, such as the weather in Toronto, the definition of words, or the currency from USD to CAD for the day, Alexa knows. Just don’t ask her to express her feelings, since robots don’t have them.

Alexa, do you love me?

To Chat

Alexa is a self-aware robot, but she has a good sense of humour. She also has interesting opinions and good taste in books, films, and music, working for Amazon and all.

Alexa, tell me a bedtime story.

Alexa, can you sing?

Alexa, what’s your favourite book?

Alexa, what do you think of Jeff Bezos?

More Ways to Use the Echo

There are waaay more things you can do with the Echo. I’ve never tried the following myself, but if you do, let me know your experiences.

Smart Home – You can control anything from the adjusting the temperature in your home to turning on your TV, as long you’ve got the right Smart Home devices to connect to the Echo.

Order Food – Check out which restaurants or food delivery services you can order from the app’s “Skills” section. The reviews on these features seem questionable, so I’d rather order takeout on my phone app for now. If you always order the same thing from the same place, this would be a convenient feature to utilize.

Meditation – There are a few meditation features you can enable to guide you through a meditation or to play timed meditation music. I always say I should meditate more, so asking Alexa for help would be a good idea, even if it’s just asking her to set up a timer for two minutes.

These are just some ideas. Again, there are so many more skills and features you can enable, from making phone calls to getting daily news briefings. Some features are not so useful and straight-up silly.

Alexa is always getting smarter, and the developers are having fun. She now knows a bit of Klingon, but not other languages like French for some reason (it would be nice to have Alexa’s help in learning languages).

I have the 1st generation Echo, and it looks like they have stopped making them. The new 2nd generation Echo is smaller and comes in many more colour options. The new Echo Plus looks like the 1st generation Echo. I believe the main difference between the two is that the new Echo does not have the Smart Home control hub and the Echo Plus does. This makes the Echo more affordable for those who don’t need the Smart Home option.

This device is great because it fits in with my minimalist lifestyle. The Echo line seems to be doing really well with Amazon because they have an array of Echo devices out now. It’s awesome and useful and slightly creepy. But not too creepy because Alexa is so likable once you get to know her.

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