Alexa has finally been released in New Zealand and many kiwis are toying with the idea of adopting their very own digital assistant. Obviously, there’s the novelty value of having some sort of magic box that we can talk to, and like wow it talks back – this stems from our single mission in life, which is to own a robot – and for some of us these rudimentary talking devices feel like it’s as close as it’s going to get.
But are there actual, justify-it-to-your-partner type reasons why you should click over to Dick Smiths (yes apparently they’re still a thing) and shell out $209 for an Amazon Echo? As a side point there are cheaper home assistants (like Google Home for $159) available. And Apple’s HomePod is on the way but probably won’t be available for purchase until they can resolve those nasty ring stains it leaves on wooden tables!).
There are good reasons you might want to invest in an Echo and I’m not just referring to the obnoxious, self-absorbed, ‘hey-look-at-me’ type reasons. I’m talking about things like accessibility for people with disabilities or husbands who forget to buy feminine hygiene products when they do the groceries.
Yes, it can take care of those things and some other cool stuff. My review is based on owning an Echo for about three years now – I bought one in the US for $99 as a Prime member and so for most of the time I’ve owned one it’s been limited because it couldn’t be localised for New Zealand. It was still very usable and I learned a few hacks to get around some limitations, but now that it has been officially released in NZ it’s a lot better.
One important thing you need to know about the Echo is that it is essentially a tool for Amazon to sell more stuff (just like the Kindle – sell more books!!). So if you buy from Amazon, are a Prime member or use any of their services, the Echo will be your new best friend!
Stuff that Alexa does well
To be honest, for me it was mostly about getting a connected music box (well pringles-style tube in this case) but because it’s brain is in the cloud (the new fancy word that means the internet) it has to access to a whole lot of other skills and gets regular updates.
- Voice recognition – Right from the start, I’ve never had any issues with Alexa understanding me. Of course this might not be the case for you if have a broad accent and prone to mumbling but just take a breath, slow down and enunciate and you’ll be fine (Alexa has a voice profile feature, which allows it to distinguish different people – this is no doubt a relief to those parents who worry their 2 year-old’s first words will be ‘alexa, buy a maserati’.
- Kitchen timers – I have no idea why this is number two on the list – it’s not exactly a ‘wow’ feature and I hardly ever bake. Having said that the feature works well and it’s convenient when your hands are covered in flour. You can have multiple timers running simultaneously just by saying ‘alexa, set a sausage roll timer for 15 minutes’ and ‘alexa, set a sausage roll eating timer for 16 minutes’. Works a treat.
- Lists – Who doesn’t love lists!? Forget pen and paper, just call it out: ‘alexa, add eggs’. While the native list feature is a bit klunky, there are a bunch of apps that integrate directly with it. Any.do is my choice and it works perfectly – I can be halfway through a weekly shop and find items magically appearing as they’re being surreptitiously added back at home base. It does mean that when I get home I have to explain that there was in fact a nationwide shortage of black forest chocolate. And puppy dogs. Sorry about that.
- Useful trivia – All those little things that you could google but it’s just not worth the time to open up your laptop or get out your phone, or maybe you’ve got your hands full – how many ounces in a kilogram, what’s the current time in Spain, what’s in a tom collins?
- News & weather – Before it was released in NZ I was getting plenty of news and weather but it was just for sunny California, not Aotearoa. About 6 months ago it allowed you to set the time to local time, which was great for things like alarms but it’s only been in the last week or so you can get local weather just by saying ‘alexa, whats the weather on Saturday’ – previously I had to add ‘weather for christchurch, new zealand’ which got a tad tiresome after awhile. You can specify your preferred news briefing (local content such as Radio NZ or Stuff are now available), as well as a couple of sports or teams that you want to get updates on.
- Random stuff to impress your friends – It seems like the software engineers at Amazon are not all nerds without a life or sense of humour as there are several little hidden gems – or easter eggs – in Alexa. Say stuff like ‘alexa, i am your father’, ‘where is chuck norris’ or ‘are you skynet’ and see what she says.
- Music – I have mixed feelings about the music options. If I was still a Prime member or had Spotify Premium then sure Alexa would be great but I have neither. I’ve settled on iheart and while the song database is not as extensive as some streaming services it works just fine. At one point iheart was no longer available in NZ and I found myself desperately trying alternatives – TuneIn (impossible to find a good station without ads or a lot of talking) and even a Google Drive option, which worked but very limited functionality. Fortunately, iheart returned and all is well. Sound output is good and strong for a small cylindrical object – I haven’t compared it with Google Home but it’s more than adequate to fill a large open plan area with convenient volume control using the app, the physical ring on top or – of course – voice command (just think twice before asking for volume 10!).
Not so great…
- Connecting to other stuff like USB storage – So following on from my point above about music – if Alexa was a bit more flexible about allowing you to connect to your local music storage then I don’t think I’d worry so much about being cornered into having to use a paid music streaming service. But as I mentioned earlier, Amazon want to leverage these devices to sell stuff so I’m not hopeful.
- Understanding you – Ok so it’s never been an issue for me but I know some people struggle to get Alexa to understand them (never, I repeat, never talk to my wife about this) so it could take some time for Alexa to get used to your voice, and you to get used to how you talk to her. Just be patient and you’ll get there in the end. The device is smart but it’s not the HAL 9000.
- Being logical – Sometimes I wish there was a bit more thought put into how Alexa interacts with you, like when I request it to play Taylor Swift, why doesn’t it respond with something that encourages me to review my life choices to date? Over time, it’s possible Alexa might start connecting the dots but for now you’ll need to be content with basic commands (unless you want to develop your own programs using something like IFTTT).
- Integrating outside the Amazon ecosystem – There are a few options for integration to outside services but it’s limited, and they seem to get removed whenever Amazon feels like it (normally if the service becomes a potential competitor). That said the growing number of skills available mean there’s normally some way to accomplish what you want to do.
- Hearing you through a lot of noise – To be fair, this is a tough ask to expect a listening device to hear your wake word over a lot of background noise (or its own speaker if the volume’s up) but it does struggle – you need to be relatively close, use the remote or press the top button to get its attention.
- Offering good support software – The website portal to access the Echo (which was the only way until they released the app for NZ the other week) has been a bit buggy, even logging in is problematic. Managing lists is not all that user friendly either (hence why I use any.do instead). I haven’t had a huge need to use the app (mostly because I never got into the habit of using it since it has only just been released for NZ residents) but the reviews on Google Play were mixed.
Should you buy one?
Personally, I’ve never regretted buying Alexa, even though it had a lot of limitations outside of North America until just recently. It’s inconspicuous, blends in nicely with the room decor and is easy to setup. It’s a whole lot more helpful now that it’s officially available in NZ and most of my complaints are relatively minor, and will either be fixed in future updates or you can find a workaround (depending on how technically adventurous you are).
I haven’t really explored all the smart home options – controlling lights, switches, heating – mostly because while there is novelty value in asking Alexa to draw the curtains, it’s an expensive, cumbersome alternative to spending three seconds pulling them across. I have toyed with the idea of buying a wifi switch so I can set something on a timer if I’m away, but $20 for a plug seems a bit steep.
On a more serious note it has real benefits for people with disabilities – blind or very poor eyesight, poor motor control or even Alzheimer’s (you can setup daily reminders) – or even just people that live alone and would like something ‘humanish’ to talk to. Sure it’s not quite the personal robot we’re all hanging out for, but it’s a useful device all the same and is sassy enough to feel like it’s not just another appliance.
As a little ps to this review, I bought another Echo (Gen 2) in 2019, which works in much the same way, except it’s shorter, better ‘ears’ and a smart charcoal fabric wraparound that helps it blend in with the decor. I do miss the manual rotary volume control but I guess that’s not the point of a voice-controlled assistant…
And for anyone concerned about privacy I haven’t had Amazon’s secret police knocking on my door in the five years I’ve owned an Echo, or Amazon ads popping up for a unicorn onesie (that I may or may not have been talking about in the privacy of my own home).