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First Look: Amazon Echo: Novelty item or ready-for-prime-time part of your digital life?

Joel Snyder | June 2, 2015
While some parts are beautifully done, the information services at the back end have a long way to go before the Echo is more than a novelty.

Our Amazon Echo, a voice-controlled appliance--for want of a better word--arrived on May 17 and we've been using it all week. As Prime members, we paid $100 for ours, but the list price is $200. While some parts are beautifully done, the information services at the back end have a long way to go before the Echo is more than a novelty.

The Echo is a heavy cylinder, about nine inches tall and three inches in diameter. Colored black, it sits inconspicuously anywhere you can get it AC power and a Wi-Fi connection. (Wired Ethernet is not included) Most of the Echo is made up of speakers, which gives you an idea of what the Echo is best at: playing music.

The fun part of the Echo is control: you talk to it. Start with the wake word, "Alexa" (or "Amazon" if you want), and then give it a command or ask a question using natural English language--other languages are not yet available. The Echo sends your voice to Amazon's cloud, where small gnomes attempt to decode what you want and set things in motion. The initial set of commands fall into three main categories: playing (and buying) music through the Echo's speakers, asking simple factual questions, and managing a few local services, including To-Do and Shopping lists, an alarm clock, and a timer.

Amazon also offers an Echo App, available on Android, iOS, and via web browser, which lets you control the Echo's settings and lists, queue up music to play, review your history (and provide feedback to Amazon), and train the Echo to improve speech recognition--although it does exceptionally well out-of-the-box. Echo boasts an array of seven microphones and sophisticated noise cancellation that let us talk to it even when it was playing music.

For example, using voice commands, you can add items to one of two lists (To-Do and Shopping), or have Echo read back the lists. While you can intentionally trick Echo into making errors, speaking clearly give us about 75% success in issuing commands. The lists are also managed via the Echo App, which is how you'd delete items, or actually see them while you're in the grocery store.

Asking the Echo factual questions (or the ever popular "tell me a joke") works well for some questions, not so well for others. While Echo's voice recognition generally knew what we were asking, the back-end service answering the questions didn't know how to answer all of them. For example, Google could tell us "how far is it from Tucson to Phoenix," but Echo wouldn't unless we changed to "how far is it from Tucson, Arizona to Phoenix, Arizona." Google knew how long it takes to go between Rome and Venice, Amazon's stock price, what Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is, how many people live in South Sudan, and how plastics are made, while Echo didn't. On the other hand, while Google danced delicately around the question "is Taiwan a country," Echo had a clear and unambiguous "yes" result. (Amazon is not shipping Echo to China yet.)


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