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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.

The music services available through Echo include Amazon's own Prime Music, as well as iHeartRadio, Pandora, and TuneIn. All services but TuneIn require an account for that service to be linked to the Echo. We started with just Amazon's own service, Amazon "standard" and Prime. With Amazon's services, you automatically get access to MP3s of almost all of the music you've bought in physical form over the years from Amazon.

You can upload your own music library (for an additional $25 per year) to bridge the gaps. We ended up with confusing mishmash of our own music library and our own playlists, Amazon Prime playlists, and Amazon Prime stations. Simply saying "Alexa, play the Rolling Stones" will play a shuffled set of Rolling Stones songs out of your music library, if you have it. If you don't, then the Echo looks in other services, including Amazon Prime's music, playlists, and stations, working its way down the other services you've configured.

You can also pair the Echo via Bluetooth with smartphones and tablets and play music through them out the Echo speakers. As a music playback device, the quality of the Echo's speakers won't impress audiophiles, but it's plenty good for background music, and loud enough without obvious distortion to fill a very large room.

As a way of navigating your music library, Echo leaves a lot to be desired. Yes, you can do cute show-off things like "Alex, play Layla," but try any of the 15 ways to ask for Brahms' Opus 102 Double Concerto, and you'll get nowhere. If you've fully committed to loading your entire music library into Amazon-land and built your playlists there, you may find the Echo a wonderful addition. For those of us, though, who have already built other solutions for our music libraries, the Echo is less satisfactory. We found ourselves using the various stations available in Amazon Prime for background music---there are more than 150 of them---with best success.

Our ho-hum experience with music management repeated itself with other Echo features and highlighted the biggest issue: Echo isn't connected to the rest of your digital life. You can add things to a To-Do list or Shopping list, which seems cool when you first try it, but we already have other online tools for these things that Echo doesn't talk to. We weren't going to break up our love affair with Evernote just so we could tell a tall black cylinder to add something to a list. Ask Echo about your calendar, and it'll say it can't do anything... yet.

Some digital connections are already in place. If you've got Philips Hue or Belkin WeMo home automation, Echo can connect and control lights and switches in a limited way -- switches and lights on and off, or dimmed.


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