I had high hopes for the Amazon Echo device when I ordered it in early March as a sort of birthday present to myself.
This is because I work in a remote office with no support staff and there are times when I need an assistant. Sadly, hiring and paying an assistant involves real money and I’m pretty cheap.
But after hearing about all of the amazing things I could do with an Amazon Echo—and its Alexa personal assistant—I took the plunge and dropped $179 to order one. After a couple of weeks, a box from Amazon showed up with the Echo inside, and I got to work setting up my new assistant.
Setting up the Echo is really easy. All you have to do is find a place for the device that is about the size of a Foster’s beer can and plug it in. Once you do that, you either go to the Alexa Website or download the iOS or Android app.
The next step is to provide some basic information, including the WiFi access point you want to use along with the password, your name, location and your Google sign-on information so you can use the Google Calendar. You will also want to enter your Amazon sign-in information so you can buy stuff from Amazon simply by asking for it.
At this point, everything worked great, and I was encouraged. I was looking forward to saying something like, “Alexa, schedule a meeting for Tuesday at 4:00” to see if my new assistant could handle that task reliably. Or maybe I could ask Alexa to look up a stock price or tell me how much it would cost to take the train to New York.
That’s when the disappointment started. While Alexa could tell me what the next event was on my Google Calendar, it couldn’t work with any other calendar. Worse, while it could look up existing appointments, it couldn’t add anything to the calendar. Likewise, I could look up flights from the airport near me, but I couldn’t buy tickets or make reservations.
On the other hand, the hardware was a pleasure to use. Amazon’s design for the beam-forming microphones and for the software that handles the voice recognition worked almost flawlessly. I could speak in a normal voice using the prefix “Alexa” and ask questions or give some commands, and it would happen.
The sound quality of the Echo was surprisingly good for something hardly more than 2 inches in diameter and 9 inches tall. That meant that I could say, “Alexa, play some Bach,” and I’d get music to work by. If I had to answer the phone, the command “Alexa Pause” worked, and later, so did “Alexa resume.”
But for the kind of questions I’d normally ask an assistant, such as, “When is the next Acela to New York?” Alexa was flummoxed. I also couldn’t ask about specific news items, so when I asked for an update on Apple versus the FBI, the only thing Alexa could do was provide my daily briefing. I got the same thing when I asked for stock prices.
But I found that the Echo’s limitations change over time. By the time I’d been testing the Echo for a few days, Alexa was able to create calendar entries on my Google Calendar. A few of the various “Skills” that Amazon maintains for customizing the Echo had started to work better.
I could now ask for information on flights to Frankfurt, Germany, for example, when previously I couldn’t. But I had to be careful just to use the name of the city because if I also said, “Germany” then Alexa would balk.
Likewise, I couldn’t get Alexa to tell me the train schedule between Washington and New York. But I was able to load a skill that would tell me when the next Washington Metro train would arrive at the station near me. However, when I asked for the exchange rate between the dollar and the euro, Alexa had no idea what I was talking about.
At some point, it’s possible that an app developer will create skills for Alexa that will handle Amtrak schedules or exchange rates. Perhaps there will come a time when I could ask Alexa for specific news items, but right now I can’t.
Just to check some comparative electronic assistants, I asked Siri on my Apple devices and Cortana on my Microsoft device the same questions I asked Alexa. For the most part, Siri and Cortana were better at answering my questions than was Alexa. This seems to be due to the fact that both Apple and Microsoft have endowed their creations with the ability to search the Internet for information, while Amazon’s Alexa can’t do that—at least not yet.
While the Echo and the Alexa electronic assistant currently deliver as much frustration as they do information, as I mentioned above, there are signs of improvement every day. At first, I couldn’t get Alexa to make appointments, but now I can. Perhaps one day Alexa will get smarter, or at least get the skills required to find stock prices, train schedules and exchange rates. Perhaps one day Alexa can check my Outlook.com calendar.
Meanwhile, I can at least ask Alexa to play some Bach or Mozart to help me focus. But, of course, Siri and Cortana can do that too, although it doesn’t sound as good as the Echo does.