We’ve been using an Amazon Echo Dot here in the SmartHomeGuide.ie offices for the best part of six months now and feel we are in a good place to pass on some of our long term thoughts on the product.
First of all, if you are reading this then you probably have some specific things in mind that you would like to use your Amazon Echo for. If you are looking for a list of what features do and don’t work in Ireland on an Amazon Echo, then one of our writers has created a great guide here which goes into deep detail on this.
The pre Echo days
If you are like us and love gadgets and consumer technology in all its glory, then you will have followed the news coverage on the stateside release of the Echo with a great deal of curiosity. This is because for a few years it seemed like a new breakthrough/new product in consumer technology was being released every other month. First our phones became smart. The iPhone innovated at a blistering pace with 3G, then HD video capability, then HD screens, then all of the above and super slim, then 4G etc etc
The humble television then went through its largest ever transformation during this time. First becoming a flat screen, then HD, then Full HD, then super slim, then 3D (which was around for 10 seconds), then it became Smart etc etc. Whilst these two products were iterating at a breakneck pace, completely new hardware and software products were being thrown at us too. iPads, the first new VR headset (in the Oculus Rift), Netflix and Spotify arrived to
disrupt change our media consumption habits, apps like Facebook/Twitter/Hailo/Google maps arrived, Google Glasses were released (and then the next day shunned), FitBits arrived etc etc
But then relative silence. Sure all these products (hardware at least) got slimmer, faster and cheaper. Smartphones are now essentially commodities. TVs too. iPads never introduced any meaningful innovation after release. The PS4 is cheaper and faster than the PS3 – nothing more. After a month you realise FitBits are pointless unless you run marathons. VR has gotten cheaper with PSVR, but is still a niche product for now. Like all these products Spotify, Netflix and other apps are still amazing, but we have assimilated them into our daily routines and can’t recall our lives before them.
A few new products came out for the sake of making it look like this run of innovation was continuing. But they weren’t products people asked for. They were smart watches that let notifications – the most annoying part of your phone – be stuck to your body. Hoverboards that couldn’t be used in the real world. A smattering of smart home stuff like the Nest (which is great but is STILL a thermostat), fridges with TVs and cameras in them and so on.
Amazon releases the Echo
Then the Echo arrived stateside and then in the UK. At first it was a novelty just like the above products and people weren’t sure how to take it. Amazon wasn’t sure either and released the product slowly and cautiously, without any fanfare. For a while it stayed like that. Just a curiosity and a larger version of Siri that you could play Spotify on.
Then the Alexa Skills (the Echo’s version of apps) started growing and adding controls to for all those smart home products that didn’t make sense being controlled by a smart phone app. Controlling our environment by voice is the Jetons-esque future we were promised and when the Echo works it is amazing. The same awe inspiring amazing that you had when you realised every song you ever heard was available to you on demand in Spotify, amazing in the way pinch and zoom was the first time you tried it, amazing in the same way a flat screen TVs seemed impossibly thin the first time you saw one. In the same way these products have, the Echo fits into your life so easily, you wonder how you ever lived without one.
Similar to the flat screen TV back in the day, it was hard to justify buying the original Echo. After all there is a good chance you don’t have any smart home technology already. You have a voice controlled assistant in Siri or Google already in your phone, who is easily capable enough to to the basic things like set timers. You probably also have a bluetooth speaker which connects to your phone in seconds then fills any room with sound. The problem is these are the reasons you need to justify dropping ~ €180 on a new toy.
Thankfully any required excuses went out the window with the release of the Echo Dot. The Dot took the microphone embedded part of the original Echo, got rid of the speaker and dropped over a hundred euro of its cost in the process. It can also often be found on sale for £40 or £45, dropping it right into the (the admittedly higher end of) impulse purchase territory. It doesn’t ship to Ireland yet though so remember to keep a fiver spare to use one of these shipping services too.
Setting up the Echo Dot in Ireland
Setting the speaker up takes about 15 minutes as you have to download the Alexa app (which is finicky to do in Ireland on iOS and more so on Android due to the app not being in the Irish app stores), then enter in your WiFi details and Amazon account details into the app. It is also worth noting that you can just use the Echo website to set this up if you are pushed for time and aren’t bothered getting the app.
Apart from the app issue, setting one up in Ireland is as easy as anywhere else, save for adding your location. This is a right pain and you have to change your Amazon account to a US one in order to properly do this. This is only needed for being able to ask “Alexa, what is the weather like” instead of “Alexa, what is the weather like in Dublin, Ireland”. If you’re like us taking the lazy route and just saying Dublin is fine.
Using the Echo Dot
These steps are enough to get you up and running in a few minutes. Now you can do all the usual voice activated stuff like set timers, alarms, ask questions (how many pounds in a kilogram) etc. The Echo does a good job of these too. It is far better at understanding your hungover, slurring Irish accent to set a 15 minute timer for your frozen pizza then Siri can ever dream of being. It also answers questions when asked in a number of different ways, which also isn’t true of the voice assistants on your phone.
A large part of this is due to the microphones which are really, really good at picking up the wake word “Alexa”. We have been using ours in a small-ish sitting room and have the Echo about 2 meters away from us. Even when watching TV at a fairly high volume and only muttering Alexa, it will still always hear us. Also the convenience of having the speaker always listening and able to be operated when your hands are otherwise engaged becomes better over time. For example when you are cooking but want to know the football score. Not a problem. Playing playstation and want to know what time it is? Just ask.
Utilising Alexa Skills in Ireland
These moments get even better and more useful when you “enable” a couple of Alexa skills. This is the equivalent of downloading an app and it is basically the same process. For example one of the skills we use is adding things to a to-do list. To set this up, we navigated to the “skills” section in the Alexa app, enabled ToDoIst (our chosen list app), set up our ToDoIst login details and that’s it. On each skill page they will list the voice commands that work with the skill and give a brief outline of how exactly it works. The same as any app on your phone would.
In the same way that apps extend how useful your phone is, Alexa skills are the exact same. Once you enable the Spotify app, you can then just say “Alexa, play The Rolling Stones” and then about 3 seconds later it’s playing. A note here too on the Echo Dot sound quality – it is better than your phone on loud speaker. I would say a decent bit better too. If I am listening to music at a low volume or the radio, I have absolutely no problem with the sound quality. Of course it is not as good as a proper bluetooth speaker and there is no bass whatsoever but in most settings and at a low volume, I was surprised at how good it was.
Where the Skills really come into their own though is when combined with smart home products. We purchased a couple of TP-Link smart plugs at the same time as the Echo. In the same sitting room as mentioned above, we have a TV and a lamp. We connected the plugs to both of these and we were then able to “group” both of these together in the smart home section of the Alexa app. This sounds complicated, but rest assured it is just a matter of clicking a check box on both and then clicking another box which says “group these”.
Once you group items like this, you can them command both with one phrase. In our example we gave them the imaginative group name of “room”. When we walk into the room now we can simply say “Alexa, turn the room on” and the lamp and TV fire up. Setting this up was really straight forward, took about 5 minutes and has worked flawlessly since (our patchy upstairs WiFi notwithstanding).
There are a host of products that have Alexa skills now, from Google Calendar, RTE has a news app, plus all the larger smart home products do as well and these run the gamut from fridges, door locks, lighting, thermostats, ovens and even cars are now getting in on the act. We started this article by going over all the consumer gadgets that have come out in recent years and lets be honest even your smartphone you could live without. The Echo is the same.
There is activity mentioned above that your phone can’t do. But in the same way that having Spotify on your phone was less friction than putting a CD on, just telling your speakers to play “Bon Jovi” is the same decrease in friction again.
For this reason, widespread adoption of these smart speakers will take time. They will have to get faster, slimmer and cheaper just like everything else. But make no mistake, using your voice is how you will interact with technology in the future. In the next few years it will be built into your car, your desk at work, your TV and just like all your current gadgets, you will wonder how you ever lived without it.