I speak for myself when I say that talking to a computer is more of a novelty than a practical tool. I’ve used Siri and Cortana on the desktop, and while they are both capable of answering some basic questions, it’s faster for me to use the keyboard to get what I need. Siri on iOS fares a little better because it’s faster for me to issue voice commands than it is to type on my iPhone’s smallish keyboard.
So when the opportunity to review Amazon’s Echo Dot product presented itself, I was a bit skeptical. How useful would it be? Would it be relegated to novelty status after a few days? I’ve been living with the device for 3 weeks to find out.
The Echo Dot is a small, hockey puck shaped device, with an entry price point of $50. It lacks the Bluetooth speaker of its bigger sibling, the Amazon Alexa, which retails for $180. Functionality wise though, both devices are about the same. With the Echo Dot, you can add your own Bluetooth speaker if you wish.
The packaging is simple and to the point.
Inside the box is the Echo itself, a quick start guide for setup, and a power cable.
Setup was flawless. Simply plug the Amazon Echo Dot into a wall outlet and add it to your wi-fi network via the Alexa app (free download for iOS, FireOS and Android), and you’re set. The unit was up and running in a matter of minutes. I set up the Alexa Echo in our kitchen to take advantage of its high traffic location.
Once the unit is connected, Alexa will train itself to your voice by asking you a question and monitoring your response. Alexa responds to voice input by listening for its name. It’s totally hands-free. Examples of typical commands might be:
“Alexa, tell me today’s date.”
“Alexa, what’s the weather like tomorrow?”
“Alexa, turn off the bonus room light.”
You can alternatively have the Echo Dot respond to “Echo”, “Amazon”, or “Computer” through a simple setting.
Many smart home devices, like Google’s Nest Thermostat, are taking advantage of Alexa’s capabilities. Alexa can control your home’s smart devices through a series of downloadable “Skills” from within the Alexa app. With the “Nest skills”, I can issue a voice command for Alexa to control the thermostat’s settings. The range of skills Alexa can acquire is impressive. In addition to controlling your smart home devices, Alexa can play the latest news, music (through Amazon music), add calendar events to your Google calendar, add shopping list items, order pizza, or even buy a product online from Amazon. It all sounds amazing, but does it work?
Yes, Virginia. It does.
Three weeks into my ownership, I have used my Amazon Echo Dot every single day. I find it to be tremendously useful. Before grocery shopping, I can look at our pantry and fridge and issue voice commands to have Alexa automatically add grocery items to my shopping list. This is a huge time-saver. Alexa records the items inside “Shopping List” in the Alexa app. And it’s pretty accurate, too. “Alexa, add gruyere cheese” was understood and spelled correctly.
While making dinner, I have Alexa play the news of the day by issuing the voice command “Alexa, play the latest news”. Alexa will pool news from various sources (Tech, BBC, Motley Fool, NPR) and play them back to back while I cook.
If you have smart bulbs, like Phillip’s Hue, you can enable Alexa to control them. We have a Hue bulb in our bonus room and my daughter’s bedroom and can automatically control either lighting through a simple voice command.
Audio output is crisp when Alexa responds to voice commands. As expected, music playback on Alexa is average through its built in speaker. It’s more than adequate quality for my use – and I can always pair a Bluetooth speaker to it in the future. There’s also a standard audio line in if you want to hook up your Echo to a stereo receiver. You’ll have to supply your own 3.5 mm cable, however.
As an iOS and Apple device owner, there is no current mechanism to play music from my iTunes music library. This also goes for podcasts and other Apple specific apps. It’s not a huge deal for me, because I am considering a move to Spotify for all my music listening – and Spotify works well with Alexa. The lack of a dedicated speaker isn’t a con at this price point.
My initial skepticism over the Alexa Echo has vanished. In my daily usage, I find it to be an indispensable tool. My girls love using it too. The beauty of the product is that you don’t have to be a techie to use it. Even if you do not have Smart Home tech, there is enough value here for the average user. If you already have a few Smart Home devices, and you’re willing to out of the Apple ecosystem, buying the Amazon Echo Dot is a no-brainer.