Amazon Echo: It sucks. It's awesome. It sucks. We want two more

Amazon's Echo is something special. It's also rock-stupid. In this hands-on, ZDNet's David Gewirtz explains why, once you understand its limits, you might really want an Echo. Or three.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Our Amazon Echo looks like a Pringles can painted flat black. It is, essentially, Siri-in-a-Tube. It sits and waits for us to call out its name, "Alexa." It is the future. And sometimes it's dumb as rocks.

There is something magical about Alexa. Its hands-free nature changes the dynamic up in a way I couldn't have predicted before it arrived here at Camp David. Like everyone, I've used Siri on-and-off for years, eventually reducing my use of Siri to the daily grumble, "Wake me at 8am."

So much for Siri.

"Ok Google" -- so far the only major automated assistant that doesn't have an anthropomorphic name -- can be far more flexible. If you have the right phone or the right launcher, Ok Google will respond without having to push a button first. In that way, it's like Alexa. But Alexa is designed to respond room-wide, and while Ok Google can listen across a room, it only works well (in part due to the limitations of the phone's speaker) from a few feet away..

Using a tool like Tasker, you can make Ok Google do quite a lot through voice response, but it's a long, hard slog through point-and-select coding. If you want it to do something like managing Hue lights, there's a painful amount of work to program that into Tasker.

Alexa has an appeal

You'll notice I tend to call it Alexa and not "the Amazon Echo." For the things it does well, it's already so inculcated itself into our household that we want to clone two more -- one for the bedroom and one for the gym. But Alexa is also frustratingly limited.

In a lot of ways, quite simply, it sucks.

You have to shrink your expectations before you start to really groove on Alexa. It's not a personal assistant in a can, although that's the impression Amazon may want you to have. At its core, Alexa is a music player and a home automation controller.

As a music player, Alexa often sucks.

When we first got it, it refused to play any music because my account on Amazon didn't have any music. I don't buy my music from Amazon. I don't buy music. My wife has an enormous music collection that we digitized years ago and its up on the cloud in Google Music and in Amazon Music (just not in my account). Instead, I've been a user of Pandora and Spotify, so new music bought individually doesn't have an appeal to me.

Before I figured out how to link Alexa to Pandora, asking Alexa to play anything resulted in "I don't see any songs in David's music library. You can find songs in the Amazon music store by saying, for example, 'Find songs by Coldplay.'"

Let's not even dive down the muck-filled hole exploring why I would possibly want to find songs by Coldplay. People also like vanilla ice cream and whipped cream and my wife tells me I'm supposed to respect their repulsive and disgusting little tastes.

Alexa seems to handle natural language, but that's just a facade. It parses some words well, but drops a lot. It also doesn't make the logical jumps you would expect from a sophisticated system. On the other hand, that could be a case of Amazon's agenda conflicting with natural language science. Here's an example of what I mean.

If I ask Alexa to play Preservation Hall Jazz Band (a far more reasonable choice than Coldplay), it responds with the usual "I don't see any songs by Preservation Hall Jazz Band in David's music library," followed again by a hint to go visit the Amazon music store. But if I tell Alexa, "Play Preservation Hall Jazz Band in Pandora," the Pringles can complies.

I honestly can't believe that's an example of poor programming, After all, how hard could it be, on failure to find a listing in one music set, to search another linked music account? I have to think that this limitation in Alexa's understanding is because some Amazon product manager somewhere wanted to make it just slightly less convenient to play music from non-Amazon sources.

If Amazon is nerfing its own flagship to pimp for its own music store, that sucks.

Alexa always asks if it should add an artist as a playlist to Pandora, but it can't read back the playlists it has already added. Alexa has other odd limitations as well.

For example, you can tell it to set the volume to a number between one and ten. But ask Alexa "What is the volume?" and it returns a set of directions for setting volume. For some requests, it simply sends the user back to the Echo app. And for some requests, it gets overwhelmed and just responds with a low-key, quiet "boink."

It feels like it's still a beta product

When you buy an Echo, you first need to link your Amazon account to an Echo app that runs on Android and iOS. There's a Web version, too, but you need to run the phone app to get started.

This brings us to Alexa's execrable todo and shopping list functions. You can tell Alexa, "Add buy cookies to my todo list". You can even tell Alexa, "Read me my todo list." But tell Alexa, "Delete buy cookies from my todo list," and the response is "To clear your list or remove an item, visit the Echo app." That's not exactly helpful.

In fact, I have yet to figure out how to mark an item as complete on the todo list. Each time I would try a variation, Alexa would add that variation to the todo list -- often incorrectly. The list parser has some other weird limitations: if you use the words "Amazon" or "echo" in your todo item, they're deleted before they wind up on the list.

The todo list and shopping list apps are identical, with the exception of their names. You can't prioritize todo items even in the app, you can't group them. You can't do much of anything.

The shopping list app is similarly limited. You can't tell it which store to add the item to, let alone what grocery aisle to look in. These apps would have been disappointing on the original iPhone. They're certainly not what we have come to expect from apps today.

I could go on and on about the limitations of this very pre-1.0 Amazon product. If you start to push its boundaries, you'll almost immediately notice they're everywhere. It is a very limited device. In a lot of ways, it sucks.

You know what? That's okay. We still want two more of them.

That's because, out of the box, the Pringles Can of Doom can do just enough to make it a very nice added convenience. Again, don't think of it as a Jarvis-level personal assistant. Think of it as a can that you can talk to in order to turn on your lights.

We have most of the house configured to run Philips Hue bulbs. Our long love-hate affair with X-10 ran out of lives sometime last year, and we decided it was time to up our game. So we installed 19 Hue bulbs over the year (and we'll probably add more this year). Our ability to control lighting and lighting scenes (like the settings to watch a movie) via smartphone turned out to be very convenient.

One of my big projects was wiring a lot of that into Tasker, and I did manage to get some Ok Google scripts working to control the lights. But Alexa makes it so much easier. We set up different lighting groups for Alexa and now we can tell it to turn on the TV lights, or turn on the side lights, or turn off the bedroom lights, or turn off David's desk lights.

It is a slight and even somewhat unnecessary convenience that we've become hooked on in less than a week.

Another surprisingly helpful thing Alexa can do -- in the you wouldn't expect it category -- is math. Alexa can be asked to add and substract, to multiply and divide.

Until you're holding a can of puppy food in one hand, and trying to write a note in another hand, you don't realize just how helpful it is to ask Alexa to divide the amount of ounces in the can by three. Or multiply that by 30. Or divide the number of cans in a case by the number of meals in a month.

It's all simple stuff you could do in your head, or use a calculator to do if you're lazy. But the simple ability to get that sort of information while hands free is ... well ... freeing.

Yes, Alexa is limited. You can't get it to take or read notes, never mind trying to get it to give you a good cookie recipe. And yet, it has something going for it.

Even though there are rock-stupid aspects to Alexa's ability to play music, the quality is pretty good and once you get the hang of making requests, it's very convenient to simply ask for a little Dirty Dozen Brass Band to play while doing other work. A little Cusco here, a little Stanton Moore there. An occasional blast of Rush and even a dash of Frank Sinatra.

You can ask Alexa to play some smooth jazz from Pandora, but don't go all Will Riker on her and ask for something sultry. Alexa doesn't understand sultry.

There is no doubt this is something new and potentially special, although you really can't explain why it's got legs until you use it for a while. The idea of a standalone, hands-free, voice-responsive device that can also do home control will probably be copied.

There's no reason Apple can't add something like this to a future variation on the Apple TV or why Google... well, Google hasn't had that much luck with home devices. But someone will find a way to mix Ok Google with a bunch of microphones and a good speaker, and there will be an Echo competitor.

This is where Amazon has to take care. The balance between a device that's genuinely useful and yet another device that exists to suck you into buying yet more stuff from Amazon is a fine line. I can't yet tell which side of the line Amazon is on with the Echo.

But I will tell you this: we want one in the bedroom and we want one in the gym. And we don't want to go back on the "request an invite" list and wait, one per customer. We want them now.

For a device that does a lot of things poorly, for a device that cries out "1.0," for a device that barely adds minor, don't-really-need conveniences, that's saying a lot.

It's still not good. But it's right. Amazon has something here. And yeah, we want two more. Maybe also one in the kitchen.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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