Do you hear an Echo?

No, that isn’t some snarky comment about how little I’ve been posting around here: I’m talking about the Amazon Echo.

Echo Dot 3rd Generation

In case you aren’t aware, there has been a bit of a technology war going on, with Amazon, Apple and Google all vying for the lead in the “smart speaker” market. Each has a voice assistant (Alexa, Siri and “Google Assistant”, respectively) and each company sells products that you put around your house. They can answer questions, play music, radio and podcasts, interact with smart home systems, play games, act as an intercom, and a lot of other things. I have been very interested in these, but hadn’t tried them until this year. The cheapest one is the Echo Dot, which normally costs $70 Canadian, and prices climb from there. I was leaning towards the Apple HomePod for a long time as it was reviewed as having the best sound quality, but it also costs $449. I was never interested in the Google Home just due to my general disinterest in Google products. I am a regular customer of both Apple and Amazon. Amazon’s strategy is to price these low, and get them in as many rooms as possible. Apple fought this trend for a while, thinking that people always had their phones with them anyways.

The way these things work is that they are listening for a “wake word”. For the Apple HomePod, it’s “Hey, Siri”, and for the Echo it can be set to: “Alexa”, “Echo”, “Amazon” or “Computer”. Once you’ve got the speaker’s attention, you can speak to it. What they understand is somewhat different across vendors. If you’ve used “Hey, Siri” on your iPhone, you know what voice activated computing is like. Generally speaking: Alexa is simplest but once you know how to ask for something it is very predictable. Siri understands the most complex language interactions but is somewhat erratic. There just is something weird and magical about being able to stop and just speak aloud and having your house understand you. It’s very reminiscent of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In the summer, Amazon has a sale called Amazon Prime Day, and when that came around this past summer, the 2nd generation Echo Dot went on sale for $35. I figured for that little amount, we could try it out. It arrived, and I set it up in our living room, which is adjacent to the kitchen and dining room. You could talk to the Echo from most places on the main floor, but not from upstairs or downstairs. Interest was there at first, but Tammy and the kids almost stopped using it entirely within a week or so. Tammy claims she just never thought of it (especially once I moved it to the piano: out of sight, out of mind) and for some reason the kids just didn’t care. I was the biggest user, but even so it was very limited.

As a person who has worked professionally with computer users and understanding what they want and need, I was very interested in why there was little or no uptake. My suspicions focused on two areas specifically:

  • Since the Echo was only in one location, it was not available in most of the house, including the major traffic areas of bedrooms and bonus room. Nobody built any habits around asking for information or getting Alexa to do something.
  • The 2nd generation Echo Dot has sound quality about equal to a cheap clock radio. You can ask it to play music, but it’s not a great experience. It’s good for voice interactions and that’s it.

The first point is solvable with more devices, and the second pointed towards higher-end devices that cost significantly more. I was wondering if there was a next step in this experiment. I didn’t want to spend a lot to prove my point. Then three things happened:

  1. Tammy started discussing our home security with me. It has been good for five years, but it’s not cutting-edge and needs updating. There are a lot of DIY solutions like Ring Alarm now, and that got me researching home automation and security stuff.
  2. Apple announced that Apple Music will be available on Alexa-enabled devices like the Echo. That immediately changed my thoughts on music and the Echo, because Amazon Music is pretty weak by comparison.
  3. The 3rd generation Echo Dot was released for the same price as the old one. It had significantly improved sound quality and volume.

Black Friday came along, and the Echos were on sale again. With credit card points, I ordered two more Dots (3rd generation) and an Echo Plus for future home automation control (more on that sometime later). And then when Tammy was shopping at Superstore, she spent over $250 and the free reward was… an Echo Dot.

I set the new “Superstore” Dot up and the difference was incredible. The sound quality made music listening pleasant. I moved the 2nd generation Dot upstairs and having a smart speaker in two locations changed the game. Everyone started using them more. So much so that despite my best intentions to make the other Echos I’d ordered something to put under the Christmas tree, I unboxed one of the Dots and set it up in the bedroom. When Christmas comes, we will have five smart speakers all around the house. You will be able to activate it wherever you are. All for practically no cost: $35 and some credit card points.

The experiment continues…

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