Amazon Echo – Finally!

If you’ve been following for a while, you know that I ordered the Amazon Echo some time ago. You might be wondering why it’s taken me so long to post a review. The answer is that it has taken me this long to really start to appreciate what it can do. I also have some thoughts on what it should do that it doesn’t. Fair warning: This is a long review due to the complexity of the gizmo.

It’s hard to describe what the Echo is in a few words. From a hardware perspective, it’s a speaker and microphone that is connected to your Amazon account and any Bluetooth device you want to use. Take a look at some examples below to understand better.

Shopping

OK, Amazon is all about helping you shop, right? So it’s no surprise that this device will make it even easier to buy from them. One of the ways they do so is using a “shopping list.” Echo is connected to your Amazon account and the Echo shopping list you automatically get with it. Using the built-in microphone, you can speak to the Echo and tell it to add something to your shopping list. The shopping list is accessible on your smartphone. Let’s say you are working on dinner and realize that you just used the last of the butter. The Echo’s name is Alexa. Just say out loud, “Alexa, add butter to the shopping list.” Alexa will reply, “I’ve added butter to your shopping list.” Ta-da! You now have butter on your shopping list. Next time you go to the store, just pull up your list on your phone and pick up whatever you need. No more writing lists and forgetting lists. And you can add to the list without ever lifting a finger, literally. That’s kind of handy if you happen to have dirty, sticky fingers from the meatloaf you were mixing with your hands.

Let’s say you are working on dinner and realize that you just used the last of the butter. Just say out loud, “Alexa, add butter to the shopping list.” Alexa will reply, “I’ve added butter to your shopping list.” Ta-da! You now have butter on your shopping list. Next time you go to the store, just pull up your list on your phone and pick up whatever you need. No more writing lists and forgetting lists. And you can add to the list without ever lifting a finger, literally. That’s kind of handy if you happen to have dirty, sticky fingers from the meatloaf you were mixing with your hands.

The only problem I have with the shopping list is there is only one. For a long time I’ve used an app called “Remember The Milk.” It allows me to have any number of lists. I have many. For example, I keep a shopping list for the grocery, another for Costco, another for CVS, another for the health food store, etc. I also have a list for things/ideas I come across during the year that I think would be good gifts for someone at Christmas or their birthdays. (I can’t remember this morning, much less good ideas months later!) So having just one shopping list was not great. I did find a way to manage which I’ll describe later.

Another shopping feature is the ability to buy on the fly from your Amazon Prime account. If you have purchased something from that account before, Amazon will allow you to reorder it just by telling Alexa. No need to go to your account at all. It will use your 1-click settings and just place the order.

To Do List

Another standard feature of the Echo is a to-do list. You can just tell Alexa what you need to do and she will track it. Again, it’s accessible on your phone. Easy.

Interact with Your Calendar

You can connect Echo to your calendar. That allows you to add events to the calendar using your voice. It also means that you can ask Echo what’s coming up.

Timers and Alarms

This is one of the features I’ve used most. When cooking, it’s often important to keep your eye on the clock to avoid unpleasant charring. Unfortunately, even the cool timer systems on my new stove (a review on that later!) are not as convenient as saying, “Alexa, set a timer for 25 minutes.” Echo can track multiple timers. I’m not sure of the limit, but I have had as many as seven going at one time.

My only complaint on timers is that you have to delete them from the app if you want to stop them before they are done. Not a huge deal, but that is one area it could be improved.

In addition to timers, Echo can set alarms. So instead of giving her an amount of time (e.g., 20 minutes) you can set a specific time of day (e.g., 4:00 p.m.) It’s just as easy to set up.

Overall, I find that I will use timers and alarms more with Echo because they are so simple to create and manage.

Music

Another great feature of Echo is the ability to play music. You can play from your Amazon Prime playlist very easily, just say “Alexa, play Jimmy Buffet” and she will find any Jimmy Buffet music on your playlist or in the Prime music store. It will also connect to your Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn accounts. If all else fails, just connect your mobile device to Echo and play whatever you have on your device.

I’m not super knowledgeable or picky about music speakers. But I think Echo does a pretty decent job. I listen to music much more often now that I don’t have to fiddle with devices or our sophisticated sound system. The cool sound system we have is great when we have guests. But Echo is just there and ready to go at my voice command. She also changes volume and stops at my voice command.

Newsy Stuff

Echo will also keep you up to date. It can give you the current weather and traffic for your area. If you are in need of dampening your mood, you can ask for the news headlines. Sports fans can get the latest scores, standings, etc.

Stay In Shape

A friend of mine recently shared with me that she uses the 7 minute workout feature. I gave it a try this morning. It’s not going to replace your gym membership. But  I think it will be a good feature on those mornings I’m short on time and just want to get moving a bit.

Other Stuff

You can ask Echo any question and it will search Bing for the answer. Yeah, I said Bing. I honestly don’t know why Amazon went with Bing over Google, but I’d guess corporate competition was involved. That’s too bad because the search feature generally sucks from my experience. For example, I asked Echo “Alexa, how much juice is in a lemon?” when I was trying to get an equivalent for cooking. Alexa replied that she was stumped. I opened my phone and said, “OK Google, how much juice is in a lemon.” I got my answer lickety-split. On occasion Echo works. As a party trick, I ask Echo for a Margarita recipe and she handles it fine. I can’t count on the search feature, however. This is something Amazon REALLY needs to fix.

Echo can also do some minor entertainment. You can say, “Alexa, tell me a joke.” Echo will promptly tell you a silly joke. All of the jokes seem to be family friendly. It also has a few simple word games. The kids might be entertained for a short while.

The following video will give you an idea of some of the sillier stuff Echo can do.

Home Automation

It pains this Gizmo Girl to admit this, but we don’t have home automation gizmos such as lighting controls, temperature controls, security systems, etc. If (ok, when) we do, the Echo will be ready to control them via voice control.

Telling Echo to dim a light using voice control might sound a little silly at first. But I think this can be really important for people with disabilities or even just some difficulty in moving around. The older I get, the more I think of these things! Just imagine someone at home recoving from a hip replacement. With Echo, it is a cinch to increase the heat, turn on a light, or change a security setting. And they don’t have to know anything about technology. They just tell Alexa. I could see a number of Echos being bought for this reason alone.

Creating Your Own Features

One of the best things I’ve discovered is the ability to add custom features using another app called IFTTT which stands for “If This, Then That.” Using this app, you can connect Echo to many, many other apps that are not connected out of the box.

It is this method that I used to manage more than one shopping list. Since I don’t use Echo’s to-do list, and I still love Remember The Milk, I use IFTTT to send any items from Echo’s shopping list to my Remember the Milk grocery list. I also have all of the Echo’s to-do items sent to my Remember the Milk Costco list. So I still only have two lists available on Echo, but I can manage the most important ones by voice.

I also created a feature using IFTTT to find my phone when it’s gone missing. I say “Alexa, trigger find my phone.” That triggers my phone to ring so I can go find it. You can also create a similar feature to mute or unmute your phone, which is handy if you are looking for a muted phone.

There are hundreds of sample features on IFTTT for Echo.

The Good:

At first, I thought Echo was the most expensive kitchen timer I had ever bought. But over time I have learned to make better use of it. In addition, Amazon has added some features in that time and continues to do so. Because Echo is connected to the cloud, Amazon is able to be updated with new features without any interaction from me (yeah!) I think it’s reasonable to expect that Amazon will continue to make it more valuable all the time.

Which leads me to another good thing. Once it is set up, it is crazy easy  to use. If you have a technophobe in your life, you can set it up for them and they won’t ever have to touch the hardware. And this is also good for anyone who needs physical assistance.

I love the music features as well as the timer/alarm feature.

The Bad

I’m still surprised that Amazon only has two lists to manage. Heck, they don’t even integrate with your wish lists on your Amazon account! I would also like for them to enable you to import items to your list in bulk. We keep a document with all of our standard Costco items. We like to import it to Remember the Milk and just delete the things we don’t need. We can’t do that on the Amazon shopping list.

The search engine weakness is probably the biggest negative to Echo. I hope it improves over time.

Echo can be controlled by a remote in another room. However, it is only one-way communication from the remote to the Echo. It would be worth the price of the remote if you could hear what Alexa says in response over the remote, or hear the timer/alarm ringing, etc. What good is it to ask Alexa for a traffic report on your remote if you can’t hear the answer? Again, I’m hopeful for an improvement here. Unfortunately, that will require new remote hardware. That’s why I’m waiting on buying the remote technology for now.

The Rating:

If I had done this review in late November or early December, it would be trash. But the combination of improvements, along with my increased Echo education and practice, makes this a treasure. If you buy one, expect a bit of  a learning curve.

Chest

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