February 2018 Issue  Volume 19  Number 2

Product Reviews and Guides

Amazon Echo: Toy or Tool?

Every year, my wife and I end our holiday festivities by spending New Year's Eve with some friends. A few years ago, our friends bought an Amazon Echo, and I was able to see it in action for the first time. This cylindrical piece of hardware was small enough to sit on any flat surface, had no screen, and filled the living room of the home I was in with decent-quality sound. The Echo connects via the Internet to Alexa, Amazon's voice-activated digital assistant that is quite similar to Apple's Siri, and can perform a wide array of actions (more about that later).

For several days after my wife and I returned home, we jokingly told a nonexistent Echo device to "Set a timer for 10 minutes." I wondered then if I should consider purchasing a device for our home, but I got distracted and didn't take the plunge. The next New Year's Eve at our friends' house, I once again saw the Echo being put through its paces. Again, after returning home, I briefly considered purchasing an Echo, and then quickly put it out of my mind.

This past New Year's Eve, my wife and I spent an extra day visiting our friends. During that time, I asked some serious questions about the Amazon Echo, and even began issuing commands of my own to this cool little gadget. I played some games, listened to my favorite music, and got the latest news headlines simply by issuing natural voice commands to the unit. I finally decided it was time for me to spend the money and purchase an Amazon Echo of my own.

Which Amazon Echo Should I Purchase?

Today, Amazon offers an ever-increasing line of Echo products, from the Echo Show ($230), which uses a visual screen, to an Echo Dot ($50), which is much smaller than the original Echo device ($100). See the Amazon Echo and Alexa Devices page to compare options.

Tyson, a computer programmer and one of the friends who originally introduced us to the Echo, is in a wheelchair and has limited use of his hands. In addition to the original Echo, he uses an Echo Dot in his home office. I was able to compare the performance and sound quality of the Echo and Echo Dot, and was impressed by how well the smaller Dot performed. Although the Dot's sound quality wasn't nearly as good as the Echo's, the microphone performance was quite impressive. Tyson uses the wake words "Alexa" (for the living room unit) and "Amazon" (for the office unit). He could add another unit and give the wake word "Echo" to that device. The units are smart enough that you can tell Alexa to play music in the office from your easy chair in the living room. If you don't want to spend $100 for the Echo, you can purchase a less-expensive unit and connect it to a speaker either through a cable, or via Bluetooth. I seriously considered this option, but decided to go for the Amazon Echo with its larger size and better sound quality, since this unit would reside in my living room.

The dimensions of the Echo are 5.9″" × 3.5″ × 3.5″, and its weight is 29.0 oz.

Making Friends with Alexa

The Amazon Echo requires wireless connectivity, so you may be wondering how a device with no screen and very few controls (there's a button that controls whether the unit responds to voice commands, one that wakes the unit, and a couple volume controls) could possibly get connected to in the first place. The answer is that you must use either a computer connected to the Web, or an app to get the Echo up and running with the Alexa service. In addition to simply getting things set up initially, you can configure the Alexa service to your liking via your computer or mobile device. In my case, I downloaded the Alexa app to my iPhone. Apps for all major platforms are available, and can be easily searched for in the appropriate store.

The Alexa app was easy to use with VoiceOver on my phone, so I had no trouble moving through screens. Since I'm an Amazon Prime member, all of the relevant information Alexa needed was readily available when I signed into my account, including my address and credit card information. The Echo can make purchases, so I could say something like "Alexa, re-order my Prodigy test strips," and the order would be placed. Amazon already knows which credit card to use, because I have enabled one-click settings in my account. I set up a passcode that Alexa will ask for before making a purchase, so that not just anyone can use my Echo, and therefore my credit card, to make purchases. I also trained Alexa to recognize my voice specifically so I shouldn't need to enter the passcode when making purchases, while others will need to do so.

From the Alexa app, I was able to connect Alexa to my Sirius/XM Radio account. Alexa can read books I have purchased from Audible and Kindle and sync my reading progress across all of my devices.

It was a simple matter to use the Alexa app to configure news and weather preferences, and to link my Google calendar to Alexa. I can read the news and weather, as well as learn about upcoming appointments by issuing commands to Alexa.

It is possible to add skills to Alexa, in much the same way that you would download apps to your Smartphone. I can either enable skills from the Alexa app, or in some cases, ask Alexa to enable a skill for me. Some skills I have discovered include trivia games, interactive fiction games complete with human narration--Scott Brick, in one case--and a Bible skill. Alexa will read scripture passages for me, and I can even configure a daily Bible reading plan if I choose to do so.

Expanding Possibilities with Alexa

My friend Tyson has added some hardware to his home lighting system so that he can tell Alexa to turn on the lights in his home. He has also purchased a thermostat that will allow him to control the temperature using voice commands.

There are more and more Alexa-compatible devices coming online every day. According to this article, Alexa will soon be able to control your microwave and oven. Imagine the possibility of not needing to fiddle with a touch screen in order to make popcorn!

The Bottom Line

For many people with visual impairments, including seniors who may not desire to acquire a lot of computer skills, devices such as the Amazon Echo can simplify tasks such as reading books, playing games, and listening to music. Home automation is most certainly the wave of the not-too-distant future, and talking to your home appliances will appeal to many people.

Getting up and running with the Amazon Echo requires Internet connectivity, and the more configuring of Alexa one is able to do, the better the experience will be. A person who has little or no computer experience will need some assistance in order to get the device up and running, but once this has been accomplished, the experience for the new user should be quite pleasant. I am amazed at how well Alexa responds to my voice, even when there is a lot of activity in the room, including people talking, a furnace running, and a TV playing in the background. Someone with hearing difficulties might want to find a person who has one of these units to determine whether the Echo, or perhaps the Echo Dot will be something they are able to hear clearly. Also remember that it is possible to connect these devices to a speaker of your choice.

Some who read this article will point out that Amazon's Alexa service is available on smartphones and other mobile devices. This is certainly true, but the ability to talk to my Echo from anywhere in the room while keeping my hands free for other tasks is something I am willing to pay for. When the alarm clock that I have used since high school finally stops working, I will consider purchasing an Echo Dot for the bedroom. Today, if I use the alarm feature on my phone or watch, I need to make sure those devices are within reach and charged up. The Echo does not run on batteries, and must be plugged in at all times. The ability to set and control alarms with my voice appeals to me.

As a fairly advanced user of assistive technology, I am not sorry I purchased my Echo, and I suspect that those who have less experience with technology will be equally pleased with their purchase. I am anxious to see where technology takes us, and how many home appliances make use of technology such as Amazon's Alexa service.

Amazon automatically subscribed me to a newsletter that periodically lets me know what new skills have been added to Alexa. In the May, 2016 issue of AccessWorld, Bill Holton reviewed a tutorial by Mystic Access that teaches a blind person how to use the Amazon Echo, if you feel that you would like some extra assistance in learning to use the device.

Now, if only I could tell Alexa to make me a cup of hot tea. Maybe someday!

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