Amazon Echo: We put Jeff Bezos' always-on microphone-speaker in a Reg family home
You may be surprised by the results
Review So, um, I love the Amazon Echo.
For those of you already frothing at the mouth in righteous indignation, please feel free to scroll to the bottom right away, click "Post a comment" and vent about privacy, Jeff Bezos' secret police, and whatever else is bothering.
Meanwhile, for the rest of you, let's get straight to it: the Amazon Echo sits in your house, records everything you say, and sends copies to a ruthless company so they can exploit them to sell you more products.
Except of course it doesn't.
You can turn the microphone off, and require a button press before the machine acts on your requests. But then that would defeat the great usefulness of the Echo: the ability to talk out loud and have it respond.
So here's what really happens. The machine is constantly listening out for a "wake word," which can be one of two things: Alexa or Amazon. Default is Alexa because it makes it more personable.
The machine constantly stores a fraction of a second of audio in a buffer and when it hears "Alexa" relays everything from that buffer until there is a pause in your speech of roughly half a second to Amazon's servers. The servers then make sense of what you just said and respond accordingly.
Now, Amazon knows exactly how creepy this sounds, so it provides various options, including, most usefully, a little sound indicator for when it's sending audio to the "cloud" and when it has stopped doing so. Assuming that the company is not bald-faced lying, then based on months of use, the recording aspects of the Echo are nothing to be worried about.
Two other worrisome things happen. One, all those clips are stored by Amazon. It says it's because it can give you better service as a result. But you can delete either individual recordings, or the whole lot in one click. It's your call.
And lastly, who does it share this information with? With the third parties whose services it taps. In its own words: "When you use a skill, we may exchange related information with the developer of that skill, such as your answers when you play a trivia skill, your zip code when you ask for the weather, or the content of your requests."
Knowing that may unsettle you. But just know that the exact same thing happens with Siri, Google, whenever you use a credit card, whenever you enter a competition, and whenever you sign a petition.
With that out the way ... the Amazon Echo really is a useful piece of technology. And it appears to be getting better.
Real world testing
In order to get a real feel for how this item worked, we decided to test in a real world environment over a long period of time: in the busiest room of a family house with three adults and two kids.
And what resulted over time is this: distrust turned to uncertainty; uncertainty to excitement; excitement to disappointment; disappointment to acceptance; acceptance to affection.
Yes, the Echo has gone from being a slightly unwelcome houseguest to a member of the family in a surprisingly short time. Even to the extent that the four-year-old in the house said, while away from the house for a few days "I miss Alexa." And this is despite Alexa stubbornly refusing to acknowledge a child's high-pitched requests most of the time.
This is what Alexa is used for:
• Music. It syncs with Pandora and with Amazon Prime Music so you have ready access to music by simply saying "Alexa, play Stevie Wonder," or "Alexa, play Radiohead radio from Pandora." And it works 99 per cent of the time.
Alexa will also occasionally offer to play a clip of music you request if it's not in your library and then let you purchase it from Amazon by just agreeing to do so. Fortunately after $1.29 spent on Frozen's Let it Go, we quickly discovered the ability to add a pin.
• Next up: News. The Echo has TuneIn as an optional add-on (you can add it with a click through a related phone app). So in the morning, you can walk into the kitchen, put on the kettle and say "Alexa, play KQED," and she tunes into that NPR station here in northern California.
In fact, a new feature aggregates news from different radio and wire sources into a "flash briefing" each morning. You can access it any number of ways but the most common is simply: "Alexa, what's the news?"
The same thing goes for the weather. What's the weather today? And Alexa rattles off the weather, including low and high temperatures, whether it will be cloudy or sunny, and so on.
You can sync up your calendar and ask Alexa what's on your schedule today. If you have Philips Hue light bulbs or an Insteon dimmer, you can tell the Echo to turn them on or off or dim them. You can ask Alexa to sync up over Bluetooth and then use her as a speaker.
And here's a funny thing, you fairly quickly find out who else you know also has an Echo. Because you end up remarking on the device at some point and if someone else has one, they nearly always start telling you what they ask Alexa for and how they use it. And the choices are both similar and vastly different: some people ask the machine for a joke (something that Amazon has been quick to seize on as some kind of totem of how useful the device is); others use it to check on traffic; others to check sports scores while cooking; others to set an alarm while cooking; and so on.
Put simply, the Echo is incredibly useful. The information is retrieved very quickly. The automated voice isn't at all annoying. And the quality of the speakers is good. It never grates. The range is also good – it will hear you in the room you are in. It might hear you from the next room, but you'll have to shout.
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