Skills to pay the bills
Skills are really what start to bring what makes the Echo an interesting prospect, since these can really start to bring the device away from being a gimmicky convenience to something that could be truly useful with the right use case. For example, the ability to pull up and have recipes read out to you while preparing food is a godsend in the kitchen, where either cook books, or tablets/phones can get in the way, or risk being covered in mess from cooking. Things like The 7-minute workout, Uber, National Rail and just eat have proven useful too, though some of them are limited such as just eat only being able to place one of the last orders you had.
Then you have the smart home based skills, such as Phillips hue lighting control, being able to ask for lights to be turned on and having them respond is something of an eye opener and while more a convenience than anything is something I’ll likely be sticking to doing for as long as I use devices like this, since it just feels like such a natural reaction. Sadly, while you can turn on the lights, you can’t change their colours. Yet in the US I have found this relied on IFTTT integration, something which is still not quite prepped for the UK market yet.
Skills are also one of the things I found to be somewhat inconsistent in terms of behaviour, since in some cases simple saying ‘Alexa, do this’ will activate the skill and carry out your request, while in others you have to specifically open the skill before you can interact with it, as is the case for the National Rail skill, where you have to say ‘Alexa, launch National Rail’ and then ask about your trip. While minor, this is a bit jarring and does cause the experience to feel a little less natural than it should. Similarly, when asking for music, by default I was using Amazon Music and the Prime Music player, asking for a song, or just to have music played Alexa will normally query both locations, but sometimes will only bother using one. Music requests also require a certain degree of precision, for example saying ‘Alexa, play Smashing Pumpkins’ will often net you an apology for Alexa’s inability to find any songs by the Smashing Pumpkins; saying ‘Alexa, play songs by The Smashing Pumpkins’ will again either net you a negative if Alexa decides to only search your music library, or alternatively will actually see your wishes carried out if this is one of the times Alexa decides to include Prime Music. While you can specify either Prime Music or your music library to avoid this behaviour, it seems silly to need to do so. Sadly, if I then request just Smashing Pumpkins later I am met again with a negative, suggesting that there are some things Alexa seems unable to learn.
I generally found voice recognition to be as good as any other voice control based system I have encountered, even having no real issues understanding my Geordie (That’s people from Newcastle for you none brits) accent when she’s in full swing. Though there were one or two oddities here too, for example when setting up National Rails home and work stations it took me resorting to spelling Irlam, the name of the town my employer’s office is based in, before it would recognised it. One of my co-workers was sadly not so lucky, having to try multiple pronunciations, changing the intonation and other tricks before he finally got it to work. Other than this, it has been reasonably accurate and able to discern what is being asked of it and when it’s not, you can report inaccuracies to Amazon, thus helping improve the recognition over time.
One thing I have sotted is that from time to time it has activated while watching TV, for words other than ‘Alexa’, so I have developed a habit of muting the Mic when watching TV to avoid this behaviour, something that is denoted by the LED ring glowing red. The fact that the Echo can have its mic muted and the Echo app does show a record of everything it has tried to act on, as well as a recording of what you actually said all of which can be deleted, which should help mitigate some of the privacy concerns surrounding the fact that you have a device that is effectively able to listen to you 24/7 sat in your home. Ultimately based on what I have seen to date, this is no worse than using Google, Apple or even Microsoft smart voice systems for their mobile platforms in terms of potential privacy issues.
Ease of Use9.5/10
- Smart Home intergration
- Good quality voice recognition
- Ability to learn and adapt over time, meaning natural improvements with prolonged use
- Speakers while OK could be better
- Occaisional oddities with user experience