Thursday 21 June 2018

Tech Review: Voice takes over the kitchen with the impressive new Echo Plus

Amazon Echo Plus, €175

Amazon Echo Plus, €175
Amazon Echo Plus, €175
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

It was nice while it lasted. For some 80 years, Irish homes have relied on manual execution of switches, knobs, dials and other electrical triggers. But voice control is now here. And its chief conduit is arguably Amazon's Echo, which has officially been launched onto the Irish market.

For the uninitiated, the Echo uses Amazon Alexa, the shopping giant's clever voice-activated system. It's designed to be the ultimate home assistant so that in future you'll shop using it. (A little like the Kindle was introduced so you could buy ebooks from Amazon.) But Amazon has ramped up the hardware a little with its new Echo Plus device, which integrates a smart home hub. So you can now control things like smart lightbulbs (and, particularly, the Philips Hue, which comes bundled with it), or anything that connects through the Zigbee system, through it.

One thing the Echo is very good at is picking up your voice. So far, I have found that it will hear me quite consistently regardless of where in the room I am, or even outside the room if I speak loudly. It's also decent at picking my voice out through quite a lot of ambient noise, such as a kettle, a washing machine or another person talking. On entertainment, it has a few significant advantages. Because it's linked with RTE radio and the independent stations, you can simply say "Alexa, play Radio One" (or whatever station you want) and it will do it fairly instantly.

For those who might chop and change a bit between different shows in the morning or the evening, using your voice to do it from the others side of the room represents the same efficiency leap as going from manually changing a TV station to a remote control.

For things like podcasts, it's arguably even more transformative. Just say "Alexa, play The Big Tech Show", or whatever the podcast you listen to is. It will reach right in and play it. It's a similar story with audiobooks for anyone with an Audible account.

There are small frustrations. Despite the marketing, the term 'artificial intelligence' doesn't sit comfortably with the Echo. Alexa isn't very smart, nor does she display any obvious signs of learning from your linguistic style. She is a bot and you generally have to learn how to talk on her terms rather than the other way around. Sentences have to be a little stiff or she'll just say that she doesn't understand.

There are also some things that don't work. Shopping is one. Unlike the US and UK, you can't order things from Amazon through your Echo. This won't bother a lot of people, but it comes in the context of Ireland missing out on many of the real advantages of a 'Prime' subscription, such as free delivery or discounts on lots of products. (Indeed, there's a lot of disadvantages to being an Amazon customer stuck in Ireland, from geo-restricted deliveries to advertised movies and TV shows not being available for streaming once you try to click them on Prime Video.)

And, for a certain type of person, there's still an existential leap in using a smart speaker with your voice. Tragically, there may even linger a fear of rejection. What if Alexa doesn't recognise what I'm asking for? Does that mean I don't speak clearly enough?

In this way, the first-time user experiences many of the ticks one might expect for other unfamiliar services. Like clearing one's throat before speaking, or drifting into a telephone voice, as if an interaction with Alexa is a public representation of oneself.

If you're an iPhone owner and already using Siri, is it worth holding out for an Apple Homepod? Apple's own new smart speaker, which may be launched in Ireland later this year, doesn't have the range of features that the Echo has, even taking into consideration the restrictions for Amazon's Irish customers. The Homepod's audio prowess is generally rated as better than the Echo, but it's also far more expensive. Besides, if audio quality is what you're after, you might be better off buying a Sonos 1 speaker and using Alexa on that.

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