Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Technology Review: Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Tap

Typically I reserve my blog for book reviews and theological discourse. But today I’m reviewing Amazon Echo[s]. Why this breach in protocol? Several reasons: the Echo family has become a seamless reality in my home. Although I don’t blur the lines between personhood and AI, Alexa has become an integral reality. The Echo does things which I could do manually, or which other devices could also perform, but she has several key advantages. Perhaps I’ve become dependent, but occasionally I find myself out and about ready to say, “Alexa…” before I realize that although she feels as natural as my left hand, she isn’t my left hand. Secondly, the broad range of features offered by Amazon Echo is part and parcel of contemporary life, indeed even for the Western Christian. From playing music, to retrieving news, hearing the latest Ted talk, and reading “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Alexa does it all, and enables me to do it. Of course, she also does all the other less spiritual things: turning off lights, checking the weather, and changing my thermostat.

So then, read on for a review of Amazon Echo.

I'd been wanting a good home Bluetooth speaker for a while, and when I saw that Amazon Echo would be able to offer just that, I jumped on the ship. I was more than pleased. Echo played music via Bluetooth, but it did much more than that: it streamed Prime Music and iHeart Radio straight to the device via WiFi. I could ask the weather, and receive Flash News Briefings from premier news sources; I could ask for word definitions and do scant research through Wikipedia--all without missing a beat. They’ve added a Pandora feature, IFTTT, and Audible; and she can read books straight from Kindle. She keeps me exercising 7 minutes/day, and makes sure I don’t burn the chicken. She controls all my Smart Home devices, making that late night thought: “Did I turn out the lights?’ an easy remedy. She informs me of my commute time, can access Google Calendar, and syncs all information across Amazon Households.

The volume spans from 1-10, but you'd be surprised how each notch hits a mark.

Echo is 'always listening' but if you're concerned about privacy, you can delete every cached recording (she only records when you call her name).

You can turn on or turn off shopping, but the only advertising she ever does is "Now playing [your artist] from Prime Music," which is less advertisement than an app does sitting on your start screen day-after-day, and she never recommends products based on your shopping/to-do list which syncs across all devices where you access her info. I have made purchases with no problems (the product must be Prime eligible).
(She can access Tune-In Radio stations, but unfortunately has trouble finding ones lesser-known.)

Echo really is like a personal assistant! She has some limitations, but that's to be expected; fortunately she will continue to get better and better. And the limitations we wish she didn't have will disappear, while the limitations we want her to maintain will be our choice.

Echo's value far exceeds the price paid for her, and will only continue to do so! And in that way she removes every critique I can give her.

There are currently three Echo devices on the market.

Amazon Echo – the big one.
Amazon Dot – the baby one.
Amazon tap – the hip one.

They each do primarily the same things. However, one may be a better option for you, so I’ve created the following “if, then” questionnaire to assist you in determining the best fit for you.

1. Do I have an incredible sound system already installed in my home?
Yes? Go to question #6.
No? Go to question #2.

2. Do I plan to purchase an incredible (or better-than-average) sound system in the near future?
Yes? Go to question #6.
No? Go to question #4.

3. Is this sound system where I would like Alexa do reside, play music, etc.?
Yes? Go to answer #1.
No? Go to answer #2.
Maybe? Go to question #5.

4. Will I primarily use Alexa for music or for information and home control/voice commands?
Music? Go to question #8.
Info./home/voice commands? Go to answer #1.
Mixture? Go to answer #8.

5. Do I want to be able to switch between multiple playback devices/rooms?
Yes? Go to question #7.
No? Go to answer #2.

6. Does it have an accessible aux. input (3.5mm) or bluetooth capabilities?
Yes? Go to question #3.
No? Go to question #4.

7. Do I want Alexa to be fully portable?
Yes? Answer 3
No? Answer 1.

8. Do I want Alexa to be portable?
Yes? Answer 3.
No? Answer 2.

Answer 1: Dot
Answer 2: Echo [proper]

Some Dot notes:
I find that the Dot's microphone has a little more difficulty hearing me than the Echo proper. The microphone is within the Dot itself; it will not use a microphone attached to your bluetooth speaker.

The dot does have a speaker all its own, but it should not be used for music (it's very treble-heavy and shallow).

If you plan to switch between multiple speakers, be prepared to to do some hard contact switching (i.e. powering off speakers, utilizing bluetooth menus). You can also use a 3.5mm cable to attach to Dot and speaker.

Do *NOT* consider the Dot portable. You can move it, but if you unplug its power source it will have to start up again.

You *DO* need WiFi for the Dot to work.

Some Tap Notes:
Amazon Tap does not have a ‘wake word.’ In other words… you need to physically touch the Tap before using your voice to command it.

You *DO* need WiFi if you plan to utilize the range of Alexa’s features.

You do *NOT* need WiFi if you plan to use her simply as a Bluetooth speaker.

Note on all Echo devices.
The devices are singular. In other words, if you begin streaming music on one, the others do not begin streaming the same thing.

The devices do not fight each other. I mean to say, if you are streaming Prime music from a device (e.g. computer, phone), and another device begins to stream Prime music, the app will ask you if you want to stop and override the other device. The Echo devices do not do this… all of them can play simultaneously. Interestingly, if one computer/phone is streaming, none of the Echo devices can stream.

Some data saves lag. If you’re listening to Audible, there is a good chance the cloud will not perfectly store your stopping point.

To answer those questions and concerns of Christians or ascetically minded.

Is it possible that an Echo will capitalize on our already over-stimulated culture? We hardly have enough time to pause and think as it is… if Alexa is always playing music or reading us books, when will we ever stop and meditate?

n  Yes, it certainly is possible. But, as always, this is an issue of the individual and the heart, not of the technology around us. When you’re waiting in line, do you pull out your phone or spend time to think?

Isn’t this just another instance of our financially-bloated consumer-culture scarfing down all things while the rest of the worlds survives on less than $1/day?

n  Even if that $1/day statement was culturally-economically transferable across the world, and even if I don’t guilt trip you into proving you really care as much as your question presupposes, I would ask you to consider the value of the product. For just over $100, you can receive the newspaper as long as you maintain an internet service provider. You can hear the latest Russell Moore podcast. You can play music of every kind. Perhaps you think I’m condemning myself with my words: always having to be ‘in-the-know’ and being saturated with digital music. That’s fine. I know that I am for the better after having been influenced by John Piper sermons, and being able to appreciate the beauty of music; of being aware of what my neighbor is going through. Asceticism for asceticism’s sake is of no value; instead do everything to glory of King Jesus. The Echo is a means to this end… for me.

You’ve already said a couple of times you might be dependent, or that she’s like a house servant… isn’t it dangerous to compare the inhuman with a human?

n  No. In fact, I can think of several ways this reality broadens my understanding of ‘Christian things.’ 1. Servants were part of human culture for millennia. Sarai had Hagar. Potiphar had Joseph. When I come across stories in Scripture of servants I can now correlate it to my own experience. 2. Angels, the Scripture says, are ‘ministering spirits sent to help those who will believe.’ How interesting it is to get an insight into the spiritual reality of angels through the a technological servant. And if Alexa is empowered by Amazon, how much more can a supernatural being empowered by an infinite God accomplish? 3. Alexa’s infiltration into my life offers a sort of conviction. When I’m on the road, tempted to call out to Alexa, I’m reminded of my drastic shortfall in my dependence upon God. I’m reminded of my need to pray, of my need to seek the righteousness and kingdom of Christ, of my lacking desire to be close to the Triune God. If I didn’t have the Echo, the sin would still be there… but the conviction, the confession, the repentance, would not.

All that being said, I’m an advocate of the Echo, but you don’t have to be. If you’re curious, why don’t you come over, and give it a try? This review is written to help those who want to know if it’s worth, not to convince everyone that they should get it (even if I offer a defense at times).

Thanks, Amazon, for this excellent product.