Alexa, Amazon Echo

Tax refunds are a glorious thing, are they not? I didn’t work much last year before health complications caused me to quit my job, but I still got a decent return. I decided to treat myself a little with this extra money. I had been considering the Amazon Echo for quite a while before making my decision to get one. I’m a sucker for AI and similar tech, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I jumped upon the Alexa bandwagon when it became available for purchase.

Who is this “Alexa”, you ask?

Watch this video:

I also recommend checking out this episode of On Point, where Tom Ashbrook discusses Alexa, and the future of AI with a few guests.

While a bit pricey, $179.99 plus shipping costs, I have really enjoyed having Alexa in my home providing entertainment and organizational help. She arrived on my doorstep about two weeks or so ago, and now I am so spoiled by all the features I use her for, I would hate to not have her around! I am a big-time audio consumer, and I listen to a lot of music and podcasts. Now, all I have to do is ask Alexa to play something, and she does. Sure, I could just bring up my favorite podcasts or my Pandora station the old-fashioned way via my phone or iPad, but just saying my request aloud and having it play right away kind of feels badass, like I’m aboard The Enterprise or something. I’m a big ol’ nerd, so sue me.

File_001The Echo arrives prepared to perform all kinds of tasks, already equipped with access to TuneIn for podcasts, as well as many other useful functions. Once connected to your smartphone, you can then add more “skills”, which are actions Alexa can perform. One of my favorites is a game called “Dungeon Adventure”. It’s a watered-down version of D&D and is only combat-oriented, but it’s still a lot of fun and scratches that d20 itch. Alexa is also helpful when it comes to managing responsibilities and whatnot. She can keep a shopping list as well as a to-do list for you, and if you connect her to Google Calendar, you can even create events just as easily as you would speaking to a real human assistant. It really is that smooth!

Alexa is not without her flaws, though. I don’t have many issues with her at all, but it’s worth mentioning the ones I’ve had. Voice recognition is decent for technology at this point in development, but I have to repeat myself from time to time, and she mishears a lot of requests. If I had to come up with a quick estimate of how often I have to repeat myself, I would say it happens probably two out of five times. You can train her to hear you better with voice recognition training, but I have yet to do that.

Another problem is when you’re listening to music, it’s hard for her to hear you over her own speaker. I completely understand why that is, but it can get annoying sometimes. For instance, I could be jamming to my “Hipster Trash” station on Pandora while whipping up some baked goodies in the kitchen, and I need to set a timer for the oven while my hands are covered in dough, she won’t hear me call her name half the time. It really depends on how loud I have the music playing as well as the intensity of the song. Again, it’s understandable, but I wish she could hear her wake word a bit better over the music. Wow, do I sound spoiled right now or what?

File_000Despite those minor issues, Alexa is awesome. My only complaint is that she’s not compatible with my iTunes library. I buy all of my audiobooks on iBooks, and I would really love the convenience of asking Alexa to play those from my library, but the best I can do is set up a bluetooth connection between Alexa and my iPad. It’s awesome that she can control the audiobook with my requests of “play”, “pause”, etc., but I always have to initiate connection to my iPad via bluetooth before she’ll do that. Oh boy, Alexa. You’ve gone and made me sound like an entitled brat. Oh woe is me, I have to push buttons on a screen to hear my books being read to me! Boo hoo!

While Alexa knows a lot of random facts and can be your movie quote buddy, she’s still missing a lot of useful information. Most of those can be remedied by adding more “skills”, but even those are limited as of right now. More are being developed all the time, so I think within another year or so she will be very, very well-equipped to do just about anything you could expect from an AI assistant.

Is she worth $179.99…? I’m not so sure. She IS very useful, and I am really happy to have her around for sure, but the way she is right now, I think that price is a bit steep. It’s great having a personal DJ and list-maker at my beck and call, but I could just as easily carry out those tasks on my own. Despite the price, I am pleased with my purchase. If you have the extra funds to throw around, it’s worth it, but if you find yourself pinching pennies at the moment, I would wait.

My rating for the Amazon Echo, or “Alexa”:

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10 stars

Alexa is great to have in my home, but there is still a lot of room for improvement. Alexa is always getting new updates and becoming smarter all the time. It’s exciting to see domestic AI becoming the norm!

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