As part of the sale rampage that will be Amazon’s Prime Day tomorrow, July 11th, Amazon has cut the price of its Amazon Echo by half — from $180 to $90. And the Echo Dot is getting a price cut as well, to just $35. Buying an Echo is not more attractive than ever, but do you really need a computer you yell at? It depends.
If you’re unfamiliar, both the Echo and Echo Dot are voice-activated computers which utilize Alexa, the voice assistant tied to Amazon’s web of internet services. In theory, you can use these apps, called skills, to do everything from checking your credit card balance to getting the news to reconfiguring your smart home just by talking to Alexa. But the reality is a bit more complicated.
While Amazon is quick to hype up the fact that the Echo has 15,000 “skills,” the truth is that the Echo is a niche tool with two jobs: running a smart home and serving as a smart radio. The device excels at the latter. It can throw you weather reports, a quick summary of the news, play back your music, set alarms and timers, offer up your to-do list and give you the time on command. It also has an impressively far range for picking up your voice, although you’ll want to test it from various points around the house before you start issuing demands.
There are some annoyances here, though. For example, you need a Spotify premium subscription to play it on the Echo, and if you’ve got your music stored on a rival service like Apple Music or Google Play, your only recourse is to fiddle around with GitHub experiments or pair your phone via Bluetooth, which is thankfully a quick, painless process. Also, how well the Echo performs depends on how well you know the skill. Many skills require you to ask the right question with words in the specific order, making any skill Amazon hasn’t coded a crapshoot. Still, as a simple assistant cued to the sound of your voice, the Echo’s quite good.
As the command center of your smart home, though? The echo isn’t quite necessary yet. As we’ve noted before, retrofitting your home to be “smart” can be a frustrating process. Not all smart home products are created equal, and they don’t all work together well. It’s more likely you’re going to buy one of a handful of smart home products to handle one or two tasks, at the moment, than you are to completely retrofit your house to become a Star Trek-esque home of the future. Is Echo compatibility nice? Sure, but it’s not essential right now. And, really, do you need to yell at a computer to flip on the lights when you get home from the bar at 3am? The Clapper still exists (and yes, it’s available on Prime.)
For now, Amazon’s little smart speaker is a useful little productivity tool. It won’t change the course of your life, but it will at least make it easier to get out the door, get dinner cooked, and help handle all the little tasks. That tends to make the Dot a better choice than the Echo proper, especially at $35. As the Internet of Things improves, the full-size Echo might eventually become the brain at the center of your house. For now, though, go cheap and tell Alexa to stick to music and the weather.