In their continued effort to join the ranks of titans in the mobile tech world, Amazon has recently announced a new gadget that they hope will change the dynamic of your home life for the better. We know about Siri, its more Internet savvy relative Google Now, and most recently we’ve had the pleasure of meeting Cortana. Now it’s time to meet Alexa, Amazon’s solution to the virtual personal assistant.
Fortunately, you don’t have to invest in the recently flopped Amazon Fire phone, or even one of the popular Kindle Fire tablets, in order to see what Alexa is all about. That’s because Alexa, unlike the other aforementioned virtual assistants, doesn’t come in the form of a tablet or a smartphone; instead, she’s a standalone cylinder that’s designed for use in the home. Her microphones are always on and she can hear you from anywhere in the room that you put her in. Officially, she's called the "Amazon Echo".
The Amazon Echo is small and lightweight enough to be portable, but since the device needs to be plugged in to the wall and has no batteries you’re still limited with where you take the Echo. This can either be seen as a good thing because you don’t have to worry about charging yet another gadget, or a not-so-good thing because that already sets some limits on the Echo compared to the take-anywhere virtual assistants on our phones. This family doesn’t seem to mind too much, though:
While the actual Amazon Echo device won’t be going very far very often, you can still use the Amazon Echo companion app on-the-go (Android, iOS) to manage shopping lists, alarms, music, and more. You can also make requests through your Amazon Echo to make changes to your companion app (i.e. add stuff to shopping lists, set alarms, etc.). However, the Echo companion app does not work as a voice activated assistant on your phone or tablet - you can only communicate by voice through the Echo cylinder itself.
So what makes Amazon Echo a better choice than Siri, Google Now, or Cortana? To be honest, not much. It’s nice that the Echo has always-on listening, which was a feature that I was once extremely skeptical of when I first heard about it being featured in the Moto X - and a feature that I ended up loving. Not a lot of phones have this feature right now, so that’s a plus. Also, if you’re a BlackBerry user you don’t really have a designated virtual assistant, so the Echo could be a decent stand-in until BlackBerry (hopefully) develops one of their own. Although Amazon doesn’t include a companion app specifically for BlackBerry, since BlackBerry 10.3 includes the Amazon App Store, I imagine that the Echo companion app will also be available through there.
The price of the Echo is probably what will make it or break it for people. If you’re not an Amazon Prime member, the price for the Echo is $199. If you are, the price is $99 (for now, at least). I could probably justify spending $99 on this device if having a voice activated personal assistant is important to me, especially because I work mostly from home and spend a lot of time here anyway. If you don’t spend a lot of time at home, or if you’re not an Amazon Prime member, or even if you have access to Siri, Cortana, or Google Now, the Echo really won’t provide you with anything that you don’t already have.
Is Alexa enough to crush the competition? Probably not, but it is a good alternative for people who don’t have access to popular virtual assistants and also happen to spend a decent amount of time at home.