Alexa In The Living Room – Living With Amazon Echo

Back on January 9th, while working on what was likely a very important project, I received an email inviting me to purchase an Amazon Echo device. As I had been waiting months on the invitation list, I jumped for joy (well, I got really excited at least) and spent the next few minutes ordering the device, followed by another month and a half of waiting.

On February 21st, my Echo device arrived and the journey of testing yet another voice command system began.


You see, this isn’t the first voice recognition system I’ve used. First, there was Siri, who still has a constant use for me all the time, though mostly for reminders and timers.

Then, when I was on Android for a while, there was “Okay Google”. Isn’t it funny how Google is the only big name who’s voice system doesn’t have an actual name like Siri or Alexa? Not sure what the decision was there.

Next up in my journey was Ubi (or “The Ubiquitous Computer”), which is a small box that is based on the “Okay Google” system and lets you write custom commands and tie into your smart home appliances such as SmartThings. Fairly neat box, though the voice recognition part has a long ways to go.

Of course there’s Windows 10’s Cortana, which may still be in a very early beta, but holds a lot of potential for connecting me to applications on my laptop, so we’ll see how that turns out.

Finally we get to Amazon Echo’s Alexa, the newest entry in the world of voice recognition systems and, from my few days of using it, the system that has earned a place in my living room.

Voice Recognition

My initial observation, which hasn’t changed yet, is “wow”. This device has what is very likely the best recognition system I’ve ever tested. I’m sure it’s because of the multiple microphones in the cylinder, but I have it sitting about three feet away from my home entertainment sound bar, and if I have Alexa playing music alongside my television throwing around noise, it can still hear me. When I have the volume level at 50% and tell it to pause the music, it somehow still picks up my command and executes it.

In short, if anyone wants to learn how to do voice recognition right, ask Amazon. Ubi, you reading this? Ask them. Your system lets me command my SmartThings hub. This system plus your device would be home automation heaven. Unless Amazon beats you to it (see below).


Honestly, the commands I’ve found and tried are okay. Obviously the device is great at playing music. The speaker is a lot better than I thought it would be and, while it’s no Sonos speaker, I find myself using it just because I can simply say “Alexa play music” a lot faster than I can unlock my phone and open the Sonos app. Pure laziness, I know.

It’s not bad for reading the news either, though it is strange when it goes from NPR’s recorded audio news back to Alexa’s text-to-speech news. Additionally, the audio levels tend to be higher on the recorded news and slightly lower on the computer generated voice news, and I found this morning that once Alexa started doing text-to-speech news, I couldn’t hear it over all the other morning noise.

Shopping and to-do lists? Sure, they’re useful. I was in the kitchen this weekend (where I also store the included remote), looked through my fridge, and ran off a list of things that I needed to pick up at the store today. Alexa logged all the items and I used that list to stock up for the week. Definitely something I’ll continue to use.

One sore point I ran into was reminders: You can’t create them. Yes you can set timers, but those just make noise when they’re done and won’t tell you why you set them. With Siri, I’ll set reminders all the time for various things, such as reminding myself to look into an issue in 30 minutes when I get home (which I actually forgot to look into, now that I remember). Alexa has no idea what you’re talking about and, in one case, added a random weird string of words into my to-do list.

If Alexa could set reminders and either send a push notification to my phone or somehow remind me using the device itself, I would definitely use it. Until then, I’ll just stick with the basic timers to remind me that it’s time to move the clothes from the washer to the dryer.

Information Lookup

Sometimes you want to look up some information or do some conversion (such as converting pounds to grams, as an example). Much like Siri, Alexa is good with handling some of this information. Out of curiosity, I ran a battle between Siri and Alexa to see who would provide the more useful (or just interesting) response. Let’s look at the results:

  • Who is Penn and Teller
    • Alexa: Gives extremely basic information and their names
    • Siri: Directions to a photography shop
  • What time is it in Russia
    • Alexa: Tells you there are multiple time zones, the ranges, then returns Moscow’s time
    • Siri: Just returns Moscow’s time
  • When is Presidents’ Day
    • Alexa: Gives date
    • Siri: Gives date, tells me it hopes I get the day off
  • What time will the sun set
    • Alexa: 5:40 PM
    • Siri: 5:44 PM (Google also says this)

So, as you can see, both systems tend to output similar data. Alexa gives slightly more data in some cases, but there are commands I can throw at Siri that Alexa has no way of doing today (such as traffic reports).

Other Features and Extensibility

Amazon Echo has the ability to perform other functions as well, such operate as a Bluetooth speaker, but I have yet to try that since it’s not something I will likely ever have a use for. With that said, I imagine it works fine performing that function, since the speaker is already great.

The one thing I am looking forward to today is extending the device out to perform additional operations. There are already users out there writing systems that allow Amazon Echo and home automation devices to interact using some slight trickery with your voice command. I’ve been reviewing and studying some of the code that has been released for these projects, and hope to deploy it locally in my apartment for testing and use.

In Closing

So those are my thoughts on the Amazon Echo. It’s a great device for listening to music and adding items on your shopping list, and the future of third party integration looks very promising.

Now if I could just buy another for my bedroom.

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