A closer look at the Amazon Echo

So let’s take a few minutes to have a closer look at the Amazon Echo and go over what’s good and what needs work and who would benefit from such a device.

First off, the device is heavily reliant on Amazon Prime. Obviously, this is the first group that is allowed to buy it, so if you’re not keen on Amazon Prime and don’t see the benefit, Echo clearly isn’t the right device for you.

The Echo is really a device to push the benefits of Amazon Prime Music which I think will develop into a pretty good service. Amazon has vastly improved Prime for shipping and the catalog for Prime Instant Video continues to grow. I have no reason to doubt their music collection won’t grow and many more albums will be available under the Prime umbrella. To that end, Echo is a nice way to hook into that service.

You can easily talk to the device or you can use the companion app. I used my iPad to hook into Echo and although it doesn’t offer a slew of features, it does work well and I have no problem selecting albums or songs.

The offerings are a bit Spartan at the moment. You can either stream music off Amazon or pick from IHeartRadio or TuneIn. I’m sure there will be more offerings in the coming months, but for now you still get to pick from a lot of Internet based radio stations or podcasts. Using the iPad app, I navigated through a whole series of Internet radio channels and within a couple of seconds I could hear the broadcast. I’m not a huge radio fan, but it’s nice to have it there.

Echo does answer simple questions and can look up certain types of information for you. Don’t expect Alexa to read entire Wikipedia articles to you, but it can give a simple recap. You can also ask Alexa to put items on the included ToDo list. It’s all pretty basic, but this is the first pass. It would be nice to see an improved ToDo list as well as things more related to building a shopping list. I guess that begs the question, is Echo a streaming media device, Internet Appliance or Personal Assistant? It has a touch of the last two, but not enough.

The setup is easy and it’s just as easy to pick up Echo and move it around. Just plug it back in, wait a few seconds to reconnect to your WiFi network and it’s all back up and running. This means it’s easy to move from the office to the patio and bring the music. That will be a nice way to play music outside during summer.

Since Echo is only available to Prime members currently, the price is $99, down from $199. I can live with the $99 price tag, although I think it’s a bit high for what we currently get. I expect more features to come online and that is the price you pay for early adoption. Even fully loaded, I think $199 is far to expensive. For the first generation it seems more reasonable to price Echo at $79 or $69. It would have been nice to pay $99 and get a year of the Prime Music Subscription thrown in. That’s a hard bundle to argue with.

A small disappointment is the fact the original Kindle Fire doesn’t integrate with Echo. Ouch, not good. I jumped on board with your first generation Fire device and you can’t write software for it to control Echo? Come on, that’s pretty lame. Are you really saying you couldn’t come up with a simple playlist interface?

I guess that proves the point, read the fine print to make sure it’s compatible before buying. If you don’t have a recent Kindle Fire, iPad or Android you could be in trouble. And if your PC isn’t wireless, that can cause issues as well. So yes, a few setup tricks you need to be weary of.

Another issue of contention, which I’m sure will be worked out shortly, is that Echo can’t play any of the Prime Stations. Amazon has built up quite a few of these based on genre – like the 80s and 90s, as well as for artists like Pink, Elton John and others. Pity Echo doesn’t know what to do with these, but I’m sure it will be able to play them before too much longer.

While the feature set is somewhat limited, I still like Echo. It’s a simple and efficient way to stream music without using an additional computer or laptop. If that is your goal, you can be happy with Echo. If you’re looking for Echo to be a personal assistant and data miner, then you will be disappointed.

In some ways I’m surprised Apple didn’t come out with this sort of device first, it’s right up their alley. They’re version would probably cost $400 though.

So, is this a device for the masses? If the masses have a Prime account, then yes. If the masses are looking to fill a small space with music, then yes. If the masses want a small appliance that can answer a few questions, set an alarm or timer, take simple notes and talk about the weather, then yes.

If the masses are looking for a completely hands free device that can play music from multiple sources and scour the web looking for new and exciting information, Echo isn’t quite there. Yet.

Let’s keep an important detail in mind though. Amazon, not a multi-billion dollar computer company, beat Apple, Google and Microsoft to the punch and got a stand alone voice activated device on the market. That’s a pretty impressive task.

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