Today, the Amazon Echo goes on sale to the general public, after a 6-month invitation-only phase. I’ve had the Echo since April, and while its utility is still limited, it gets better and better weekly, as more services are connected to its voice-activated interface. Connected to your Wi-Fi network, Echo is a voice-activated portal to all kinds of information, entertainment and services.
Mostly, I use Echo to play music. To activate Echo, just say the wake word — currently “Alexa” or “Amazon”, though more are promised. (I’m hoping for “heeeyy gurl.”) The blue light glows on the top of the black column, and Echo is ready for your question or command. The 7-microphone system is sensitive enough to pick up your voice across the room, or even from an adjacent room if your home is quiet. An optional remote control allows you to control Echo from a more distant room in the house.
Echo can answer basic questions: How far is it to Bangkok? What’s the capital of Kansas? What’s the weather forecast? It can control Phillips Hue and Belkin WeMo connected lights and devices: Turn off the living room lights. It can read you the news, or your Google Calendar, set timers and alarms, put items on a to-do list, or re-order items from your Amazon Prime history: Say “Alexa, re-order toilet paper” and 12 rolls of Cottonelle will arrive at your door in two days. If you’re really geeky, you can use it to activate If This Then That commands. Mostly I use it for playing music. Echo’s built-in speaker is comparable to most high-end bluetooth room speakers, and it currently interfaces with Amazon Prime music, TuneIn Radio and Pandora. A voice-controlled music library has brought much more music into my daily life. For that alone, it was worth the price.
Using Echo is a real-world glimpse into the fabulous and frightening future we’ve been imagining since The Jetsons. Although it isn’t connected to the full range of functionality that it would be if it were from Apple or Google, it does exactly what it promises to do really well, and without the frustration engendered by Siri’s lack of comprehension. The continual service upgrades make it more useful every week. I’ve seen the future. And today it’s playing La Roux.