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Amazon Echo: We put Jeff Bezos' always-on microphone-speaker in a Reg family home

You may be surprised by the results

OK, so there are downsides

It is not perfect, however. Amazon is not lying when it says that retaining your requests makes it work better.

The first time you use a new feature (typically by enabling it through your app), you have to very explicitly tell it that you want it to use that app. So, for example, the excellent StubHub can work with Alexa and you can ask it: "Alexa, what's happening this weekend?"

But if you haven't used StubHub before, or frequently, it will look elsewhere. If you have synced your calendar, it will go there, for example, and tell you meetings you have coming up. So you need to phrase it, very clearly, "Alexa, ask StubHub what is happening this weekend."

Another sign that the machine works well is that when it is at all difficult, when it mis-hears or can't understand what you're saying, it is incredibly annoying. Only then do you realize that it works 99 per cent of time.

Except when it doesn't.

When Amazon's servers went down a few weeks ago for just over a day, the Echo was little more than a black tube that kept telling you how useless it was.

The Echo isn't good with kids' voices. And every now and again it is sure it heard its name and will blurt out some answer unexpectedly when you are in the middle of a conversation. It's a little inconvenient, like that friend that always interrupts your story to tell you what happened with them today. But the bigger problem is that it breaks the magic and you remember that Alexa is not really a family member but a machine relaying your information to Amazon.

It also doesn't do everything. "Alexa, where is my bicycle?" asks one of the kids. Of course the answer you want is "I don't know where your bicycle is," but what you get is "I didn't understand your request." Which, oddly enough, feels a little too formal.

It doesn't have the depth of Siri's answers or its smart-ass replies. But then Siri has always felt a bit nerdy. Ask Alexa about Siri and she'll give a stock response: "Siri's a great app. But I'm different."

The Echo has a really hard time if more than one person is talking and will simply give up. And the sound volumes are not granular enough. They go from 1 to 10 and you can say "louder" or "quieter" or "volume 4." But too often "volume 4" is a bit too quiet, and "volume 5" is a little too loud. This needs tweaking.


Taken overall though, the Echo really does feel like a step forward in technology. It actively improves your life. You can simply ask for things out loud and get the answer. You can turn on the radio without having to press anything. You can find out valuable information while doing something else. It's like having a knowledgeable aunt. And the part that makes it better than a fad is that it does so without getting in your way. It is simply there.

Most tech companies are investing heavily in voice recognition technology in order to take us to the place where we don't need to tap buttons or scroll through menus to get what we want. Amazon has tried very hard on a number of fronts to keep up with them, and often failed.

There is the FireTV which is not as good as AppleTV or the Roku. There are the Amazon Fire Tablets, which are not as good as an iPad, or others. There is the now-dead mobile phone. But in this case, Amazon has succeeded. It is ahead of the market. This is a good machine. It's staying on the kitchen counter.

Four out of five stars. ®

Amazon Echo: We put Jeff Bezos' always-on microphone-speaker in a Reg family home

A surprisingly good, useful piece of growing technology. Less a bug in your home than a family member. No, honestly.
Price: $179.99 RRP

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