Amazon’s Echo and Alexa: A User’s Experience


Over the holiday break a new acquisition in technology took place in the Afonso household, we purchased an Amazon Echo Dot. At $50, the price seemed reasonable enough that it was worth a shot to try and get on the cutting edge of smart home technologies. Unfortunately, due to a lack of smart devices in our home, we were unable to use Alexa’s greatly touted integrations with things like the Nest Products or Zigbee based lighting products. However Alexa can be used for much more that controlling a smart home, I’ll speak to some Alexa Skills (the Echo’s version of Applications) that we tried and our experiences with them.

Built-In Functionality:

Out-of-the-box, the Echo can be easily configured for integration with a wide array of streaming media services. Built-in are Pandora, Spotify (restricted to premium accounts), iHeartRadio, and Tunein Radio. This makes a the Echo a perfect candidate for the smart radio, as it has a small speaker built-in (low fidelity mono speaker so another speaker is recommended) as well as Bluetooth connectivity to connect to larger and better audio equipment. Built-in news, weather, and sports integration which at setup time needs to be configured using the Amazon Alexa app (available for both iPhone and Android) There is also built-in smart device detection which I was unable to experiment with that detects smart devices and performs a pairing procedure that allows you to perform actions with keywords like (“Turn on, Turn off”) additional smart home skills are needed to perform in-depth control of other smart-devices.

The Skills:

These can be turned on for use with your device by stating “Alexa, enable *insert skill name here*”.

To use any skill, state “Alexa, open *insert skill name here*”.

To use a skill and pass it information, state “Alexa, ask *insert skill name here* to *insert parameter name here*”

Anymote Smart Remote:

After configuring the skill using the Anymote App for iPhone (instructions are openly available), I was able to control my Roku Smart TV device using my voice. Simply stating “Alexa, open Anymote” followed by the remote input you’d like to perform such as “Volume up”, “Home Button”, “Up Button” will interact with the device you’ve configured it with. Overall, a very useful skill for those looking to remote control any of their network connected devices.

Jeopardy J6:

This is a shortened version of the classic game show that allows the user to answer questions from a recent airing of the show. Alexa will provide responses with whether the question you provided to the corresponding answer was correct. The performance of this app was superb, and really allows for an interactive experience with Echo.

Twenty Questions:

This is another classic game that allows you to think of any object (limited to a category set) and within 20 Questions, Alexa will aim to guess what you’re thinking of. The interactivity with this app is also superb, and the shock when Alexa get’s those obscure guesses correct is pretty amazing.

Ooma Telo:

This skill is perfectly utilitarian – it allows the user to place a call via the Echo, with a caveat, the call must be completed using an existing phone line and cannot proceed via the Echo. Essentially, once you ask Ooma to place a call it will initiate a three-way call between it’s VOIP service and the phone you choose, thus it’s limited to initiating calls.

Drive Time:

This skill is the perfect companion for a commuter, since Alexa has no built-in time estimation for destinations, Drive Time allows you to ask for driving times to favorited locations that the user must configure. There is no search function, and locations must be stated before-hand in the skills settings in order to use them.

Experience Summary:

Alexa can do some really remarkable things, and at this point due to it being released about 2 years ago (2014), the Skills that have been developed allow functionality to be extended to a variety of platforms and devices. The Echo Dot does beg for a better speaker, but at the $50 price point, it’s expected, and also provides incentive for buying the Dot’s larger brother, just the standard Echo. The overall versatility of the connections on the device (3.5mm output, Bluetooth Connectivity, Wireless Connectivity, and Zigbee via Wi-Fi hub) make it perfect for controlling audio and other devices.