When they launched it in the US, Amazon's Echo devices were a revelation for everyone. They seemed like an essential step towards a home we've only seen in science fiction movies. A speaker that listens, understands and responds – wow!
It's been a few years now and the dust has settled. Amazon sells a whole host of these smart devices and three of these entered India last year.
But for any kind of AI, India is a different beast altogether. Smart as they might be, they are awfully dumb in India, or at least that's what I personally think.
It's been months since I first ordered my Echo Dot, and just about a month with the Echo. And as one of the first Indian customers to own one of these devices, I can honestly say I love it. Yet, I also have to admit that it's a device that raises more questions than it answers.
Using the Echo
The larger Echo Plus is the most powerful of Amazon's three offerings here. But the biggest difference between that and the Echo is that the latter controls smart homes. I don't need that because the lights and appliances in my home are surely dumb.
So, I have an Echo. A cylindrical, fairly sleek speaker that can speak. It plays music when I tell it to, reads the news if I want, even tries to book an Uber for me and get me restaurant recommendations. Neat.
I bought the Echo Dot first and I was in awe in the first few days of using it. The accent was Indian, it recognised my voice without fail and had me do things I never thought I needed. But those were the initial days and the novelty wore off rather quickly.
With the Echo, you basically get better audio quality than the Dot, which is essential for those buying this as a speaker rather than a smart device.
But if you're buying this as a speaker first, you aren't using its strengths. This is the second generation Echo and it would work well for average listeners. Yet, it doesn't sound as good as the (similarly priced) UE Wonderboom. Bass-heavy songs are somewhat underwhelming, while high and mid frequencies aren't very well defined either.
As a portable speaker, the Echo does the job for regular listeners. But if you're used to the kind of speakers I mentioned above, the 2.5″ (downfiring) woofer and 0.6″ (upward firing) tweeter aren't enough.
Amazon never meant for this to be an audio device in the first place. It's all about the AI inside. In the nearly four months that I've used it, Alexa has understood my commands 80% of the time, better than Siri has ever done for me, and up to the standards set by the Google Assistant.
But here's the thing, in the last two months, all I've ever told Alexa to do is “Play Music”. Nowadays, I actually play music over Bluetooth and use my voice only to “stop” or “increase volume”. Amazon added 12,000 skills to Alexa (in India) since October, but nothing that I really need.
For instance, when I try to book an Uber, Alexa insists on it being a cash trip, even though my payment information is neatly set up inside the Uber app.
When I ask for a podcast, Alexa returns the voice equivalent of a blank face, because the functionality is apparently not available in India. Somehow, I can still play podcasts from Tune In manually, though.
Next, I ask Alexa to play a song and it confidently plays some cover of the song instead. It reads the news in a monotonous robotic voice, severely reducing the number of news sources I can choose from, and so on. Also, I can't just ask for news from one news source yet, it will play my entire news briefing whenever I do. That's one of the features available overseas, but not in India.
Oh, and the most annoying, when I say “Alexa, play music”, it plays the same few playlists again and again. I try refining my search by saying “Alexa, play Blues”, but that doesn't really get me very far either. I always end up having to resort to my phone.
There's one last case I'd point out. I told Alexa to order an item “I usually order”. The AI successfully recognised what I order, but instead of ordering it to the address I usually get delivery on, it decided my default address is the way to go. An unusually dumb thing for a “smart” assistant to do. Why can Amazon read my order, but not recognise my behaviour?
So it's bad?
All that I have just mentioned makes the Echo a device I do not need. You know what though? It's a device I really want. Over the past four months, I've developed the habit of playing a podcast when I go to bed, asking for a song when I wake up and asking for weather updates when I get out. Things I never did earlier, with my dumb speakers. I don't regret buying the Echo Dot. It adds some much-needed smarts to my dumb Harman Kardon Soundsticks III.
Connecting to Bluetooth is much smoother with Alexa. I just say, “Alexa, connect to Bluetooth”. I really appreciate not having to pick up my phone to skip a song (when I'm playing over Bluetooth). I could go on.
What I'm really saying is, you have to be a geek like me to even think of buying the Echo in India. And even then, you should buy the Echo Dot and make your legacy system smarter. The Echo Dot is the smartest wireless dongle I've ever used and compared to all others, it's the most useful.
For the early adopters
In short, Echo speakers in India are early adopter devices. They are neither perfect nor useful. But Amazon's betting it can change your mind. Early adopters like me are giving the company the data it needs to improve, and Amazon's voice assistant has made a much better start in India than all its competitors (You listening, Apple?).
I wouldn't even expect regular improvements here. Frankly, I'm a little annoyed that India still doesn't have an Amazon Music app. It would have been so much easier to create my own playlists and just direct Alexa to them. I've actually created a library of 50-60 odd songs using my voice alone, but it's tedious.
Does Alexa learn?
For Amazon, it's important that Alexa learns. That's how the company will know what products you're likely to buy. So, it's inevitable that Alexa will learn eventually, failing which, it will die. But I've seen no real signs of learning over the past four months.
Amazon has set up Indian versions of Alexa to play Indian tracks when you ask for music. But, it took Alexa about two days to recognise that I listen to western music more. Now, when I request music, the AI starts with an English playlist. If I say I don't like the playlist it chose, it goes to another, shuffling about four playlists before telling me to listen to Karan Johar songs.
While that is indeed a sign of intelligent learning, you will realise it's not. What I found over time, is that if I say “Play music”, Alexa just cycles through a pre-selected collection of playlists, coming full circle quickly. A particularly annoying aspect that makes me just play music over Bluetooth all the time.
Amazon may have added a bunch of skills over time, but this particular aspect of Alexa is particularly worrisome. Perhaps the company is just working out the bugs before it can start “learning”.
Speaking to the Echo
My bedroom is small, so I never have to raise my voice for commands. My indoor voice works just fine. But, I keep the Echo close to my TV, and it often fails to pick up the wake word (Alexa) when the TV is playing at above average volumes. This can be a problem if you're using the Dot as a dongle though. Unless you have an exceedingly long AUX cable, the Dot would be quite close to your speakers, and will hence fail to hear you when playing loud music. This only happens at really loud volumes though, something few would face.
I've successfully barked commands to Alexa from my kitchen, on occasion. The seven far field mics that both the Echo and Echo Dot have, pick up your voice quite easily.
Setting up the Echo
The easiest part of using the Echo devices is setting them up. The initial Wi-Fi connection takes a few minutes, but you never have to touch settings after that. After downloading the Alexa app, you put your Echo on pairing mode and connect to WiFi, and that's that.
Build and Design
The Echo is short and fat, wrapped in a similar fabric (you don't get the wood versions in India yet) as Google's Daydream VR. It's reasonably pretty and I don't think it will hamper the style quotient of any media centre. And though it's not meant to be portable, it's light enough to carry around in a pinch.
If you're asking me whether the Echo is a device you need, the answer is a firm no. But, the geek in me really does like this device. It's nowhere close to being powerful in India yet and is meant only for the early adopters, who've been saving money ever since this first launched overseas. The Echo Dot is good for turning a dumb speaker smart, but that's about all I can say about the Echo line.