Less than 24 hours ago I became part of a small but rapidly growing set of enthusiasts. Until yesterday the community was almost exclusively in the US but yesterday Amazon released the Amazon Echo to the UK. Take a Pringles can. Paint in black and plug it into the wall with a speaker, little computer and seven microphones inside and put a little LED ring on the top and you’ve got the Echo. Only no one calls it the Echo. She – and she’s definitely a she – is called Alexa.
Those microphones and speaker let that little computer connect up to Amazon’s servers and make the little speaker into a personal assistant and smart home controller. The Echo launched in the US in 2014 and the UK (and Germany) are its first foreign adventure.
So what can she do? Out of the box she’ll give you personalised news reports, play music on her surprisingly impressive speaker, give you the weather, act as a to-do list and shopping list manager, set timers and alarms, look things up for you on Bing and control any smart home devices you’ve got. When I’d gotten her hooked up and signed in my first command was to play me music – and it put me on a country music playlist. I’m not sure what that says about what Amazon thinks about me but with a little more specificality from me I was able to get Sting playing quietly in the background.
When my daughter got home from school the Alexa’s musical ability was much better tested. She demanded ballet music and after a little negotiation (Next, louder!, Next) got what she wanted. It also helped with her spelling homework and provided a good explanation of contrails seen on the way home.
On a more negative front I have already hit a few problems – IFTTT isn’t working in the UK, starting radio streams seems to get me referred back to iHeartRadio which isn’t available here but I’d expect both of those to be solved in the coming weeks. Perhaps more annoyingly the functionality of being able to read your Kindle books is region locked to the US and it doesn’t look like it will be available at all and a number of the skill apps don’t work because they’re set to US English rather than UK English.
This isn’t meant to be a full review of the Alexa. I’ve had it for less than a day and I’ve barely scratched what it can do. I do however have a good feeling about her and even if she’s no more than I’ve already seen she’s earned a place on our shelf. Would I recommend buying her yet? No not quite. There’s too many holes caused by region locking in an already luxury product but assuming Amazon can fix these bugs she’s going to be a hit.