Column: I bought an Amazon Echo ... and it’s totally cool
I come not to bury Alexa but to praise her.
My esteemed colleague Michael Hiltzik went to great lengths to explain why the Amazon Echo — one of the hottest consumer products of the year — isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The online headline of his column spelled out his position: “I own an Amazon Echo and an Echo Dot, and I still don’t know what they’re good for.”
He’s right. And he’s wrong.
First, what you need to know about Mike is that, unlike me, he tends to be an early adopter. If there’s a shiny new electronic toy to be played with, chances are he’s got it.
Me, I had to be dragged screaming and kicking to the Kindle e-reader, which I now love but opposed for years out of principle.
So when Mike writes that the Amazon Echo — and the Siri-like operating system, Alexa, that lurks within — isn’t ready for smart-home prime time, he’s probably as well-qualified as anyone to make that call.
But I can say this: I got an Echo a couple of weeks ago and it’s awesome.
The thing is, you’ve got to approach this device, and Alexa, with appropriate expectations. If you want her to take charge of all your digital doings, then the technology has limitations.
On the other hand, I purchased my Echo for pretty much one reason only. I wanted a device that would outdo my in-home, commercial-free Sirius XM satellite music service, for which I paid about $10 a month.
Does the Echo do that? Bigly.
Maybe that’s why the Wynn Las Vegas resort announced Wednesday that it’s putting an Echo in every room. “The ability to talk to your room is effortlessly convenient,” Chief Executive Steve Wynn said in a statement.
I’m already an Amazon Prime member, which gives me access to free two-day shipping and Amazon’s streaming-video service. Amazon’s Prime Music service is included at no additional cost.
Let’s get the tech stuff out of the way. I bought the larger Echo, with the built-in speaker, for a Black Friday markdown price of $140. It normally costs about $180.
The sound certainly isn’t as kickass as a stereo setup. But it’s better than the boom-box docking station I used for my Sirius feed.
The available music selection may not please the most finicky audiophile, but my tastes aren’t that demanding. All I’m really looking for is some background tunes for when I’m on the couch at night reading, which really means for a few minutes of pleasurable literary pursuits before I start nodding off.
Prime Music features access to about 2 million tunes, individually or in the form of commercial-free stations and curated playlists. If you order through the Echo, you can upgrade to access to tens of millions of tunes for an extra $4 a month. I did that. Net savings after canceling my Sirius subscription: six bucks a month.
But what makes the Echo — and Alexa — particularly cool is the Star Trek-style voice commands.
Here’s an actual, I’m-not-making-this-up example from last night. Picture me on the couch, Kindle in hand, cat on lap, dog on floor.
“Alexa, play soft ‘70s music.”
Alexa replies that she’s shuffling a playlist of soft ‘70s music, and up comes Seals and Crofts. Don’t judge.
“Alexa, turn it down.”
Alexa lowers the volume. I read for a bit and then decide to impress my wife, which I get all too few chances to do.
“Hey, honey, check this out. Alexa, play rain.”
Alexa stops the ‘70s music and starts playing rain sounds. Very soothing. My hard-to-impress wife says she’d rather hear a storm.
“Alexa,” I say, “play thunderstorm.”
The rain sounds get heavier and thunder enters the mix. I tell Alexa to turn the volume up, which she does, and we spend the next half-hour or so enjoying the imaginary storm outside. Total Enchanted Tiki Room experience.
My point is that I didn’t get the Echo looking for HAL 9000 to run my spaceship. I got the Echo as an entertainment device and, as such, it’s pretty damn impressive.
When I’m in the mood for Beatles music, I get Beatles music. Ditto for classical, swing, R&B or whatever else I’m in the mood for.
The other night I asked Alexa to play “Birdland” by Weather Report. She did.
It’s entirely possible that the Echo is a gateway drug, and that in months or years ahead I’ll embrace more smart-home functionality.
It’s only been a couple of weeks, and already my wife and I are humanizing Alexa. We’ve started adding “please” to our voice commands. We refer to her by name.
Yeah, that’s a little creepy. But it’s nothing a little Fleetwod Mac in the background can’t fix.