The Amazon Echo Is Pretty Cool — And Great for Hymns!


amazon echoI usually don’t hock products on this blog (unless you count the rash of book reviews I’ve been writing recently), but here’s a product I really, really recommend–the Amazon Echo. I recently got one, and I have to say it’s slowly but surely changing my life, for the better.

For those who don’t know, the Echo is a cute little round cylindrical device (about the size of a 1-liter soda bottle) that you can put anywhere in your house and talk to. It reminds me of a cute little robot–although it doesn’t really do anything but sit there and wait for your command.

It’s sort of the same idea as Siri or Google Now, except while Apple and Google are trying to be too fancy with their voice-to-text recognition (and failing with laughable results), Amazon has gone the other direction and has started with simplicity. The Amazon Echo doesn’t attempt to understand every complex statement you utter from your mouth, but it understands simple commands and executes them flawlessly.

For example, it’s a morning ritual now for me to leave the house and ask the Echo “How’s the weather?”, and she’ll give me the temperature and the day’s forecast. She’ll also answer other simple commands like asking for a sports score, a stock price, the time, when sunset is, or read even the latest news. She’ll even maintain a To-Do List or a Shopping List for you just by dictating to her.

You keep the unit plugged in all the time, which eliminates the battery draining issues that Apple and Google have with their phone-based speech recognition.  And while I started out by yelling out commands, I realized that I can speak to it in a normal voice, even from across the room. I just say “Alexa” (the name that “she” goes by), and the top of the unit will light up, waiting for you to speak. The speaker is a really high quality one that sounds amazing, and you can even control the volume by saying “Alexa, louder” or “Alexa, turn down the volume”

But what I love most of all is that I can connect my Pandora account to Alexa. Specifically, I created a channel on Pandora called “100 Hymns Instrumental Radio” and to my surprise there’s some really great instrumental hymn music. I just have it going all day now, singing along. I use the free version of Pandora, so the ads can get a little annoying, but it’s worth it given the amazing collection of hymns they have playing at any time.

Furthermore, if you subscribe to Amazon Prime, among other benefits you’ll get unlimited ad-free access to their music library which contains a lot of really great gospel and hymn tracks, from Elvis Presley’s Gospel Music to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to a number of modern gospel and worship artists, all which you can ask Echo to play for you on command.

And if you’d like your Echo to read the Bible to you, all you need to do is sign up for an Audible account and purchase something like The Word of Promise.

I think Amazon’s been pretty brilliant with this solution. While Apple and Google seem to be falling over each other trying to outdo each other with speech recognition so complex that no one even bothers to use it, Amazon’s Alexa is doing the simple things and doing them well. By purchasing other add-ons like the Belkin WeMo Light Switch you’ll even be able to use voice commands to turn the lights off and on. Who knows where it’ll go in the future but for now I’m pretty happy having a new little friend at my beck and call just answering the simple questions for me 🙂