I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while but unfortunately haven’t had time to do it. Basically, over the holidays, I received an awesome gift from my brother, a Gen 2 Amazon Echo. I’ve been meaning to test these smart speakers out for a while.
So, first off, what are these called since I’ve seen the terms Smart Speakers and Digital Assistants thrown around at times? I consider them Smart Speakers. But then again, Smart may be an over-statement.
I don’t consider these hardware devices as digital assistants because digital assistants are everywhere, even on your smart phones. Digital Assistants are software based, using early AI tech.
I won’t be writing up a full review of the Amazon Echo but I’ll give my general thoughts and rants on this device and the other devices in this post.
The Amazon Echo and other smart speakers such as the Apple HomePod and Google Home have been heavily marketed. I remember the commercials for the Google Home where the people would ask a question by starting with “Ok Google, what is…?” and then it would respond with the answer.
Some of the other features that they use to market these devices is how well it plays your music with you just asking it to play it and also you asking it to order some more toilet paper or whatever.
In my opinion, it’s still too early for these types of devices. The majority of the time, people just use it to play music. Much of the other features don’t get used as they’re not fully “smart” enough yet.
Ordering Pizza and Other Items
One of the features they tout is that you can tell the device to order pizza. But, in order to do that with Domino’s, for example, you need to setup a “Pizza Profile” with them first with your information such as address and payment information as well as your “Easy Order” preference, which is your favorite Domino’s pizza.
What if on your next order you wanted to order something different? What if you want to order a different pizza? What if you want to find out the specials and order one of those? Then you need to go modify your “Easy Order” preference again and change it to what you want to order and then tell your Smart Speaker to order it for you. In all that time, you could have called in your order and be watching TV for a while already.
All of that changing the setup and then verbally telling the device to order it takes more time than ordering it directly yourself. It’s a gimmicky feature and still in its infancy.
When it comes to ordering items from Amazon, for example, it gets worse. Let’s say you want to order a baseball bat. It’ll give you some choices or recommend one. What if that’s not the one you want? What if you want more details and do a comparison? What if you want to see a picture of it?
Well, good luck with all that. With the thousands of items Amazon has, it’s near impossible for me to shop for what I want with a smart speaker and without being able to see a picture of it and do comparisons.
As of right now, none of these Smart Speakers are all that useful when it comes to ordering items.
Answering your Questions
When you ask your smart speaker a question, it’ll use an online search engine and then respond with what it finds as the most relevant answer.
Well, we all know that not all search engines give the same results. Google has always shown to give the best and most accurate results. Microsoft Bing and Yahoo don’t. With Microsoft Bing and Yahoo Search, you usually have to weed out the spam and junk results before you get the best results.
Amazon Echo’s Alexa and Apple HomePod’s Siri will use either Microsoft Bing or Yahoo search. Google Home will use their own Google search, of course.
In all independent tests, Siri has always scored the worse when it comes to answering your questions. Google has always responded with the best results. And then Amazon Echo is sort of in the middle.
I’ve always hated using Siri on iPhones, which is just another reason why I have an Android phone. We would ask both Siri and Google the same question and Siri responds with some crazy non-related answer while Google responds with exactly what I needed.
In this aspect, the Google Home devices would be better.
Controlling Smart Home Devices
So, you can connect your smart speakers to a wide variety of smart home devices such as smart lights and thermostats.
I connected my Amazon Echo to my Nest Thermostat and I’ve got to tell you, I could not get the Echo to do what I wanted. It kept telling me it could not do that!
It turns out, the capability of controlling the Nest was limited. I could only keep the Nest in certain modes and only have a few phrases I could say like “Alexa, set the “thermostat name” temperature to __ degrees”.
If the Nest was off, I could not ask Alexa to turn it on to Cool mode. If the Nest was in Cool mode, I could not tell it to switch to Heat/Cool or any other mode. I would have to manually change the mode and then tell Alexa to adjust the temperature.
If that’s the case, I might as well set the temperature when I set the mode at the same time. Why walk over to my smart speaker to change the temp after I’ve changed the mode in the Nest app on my phone???
Having Nest control your lights is just another gimmick at this time just like the clapper. With the clapper, if people started clapping on TV, your lights would turn on/off.
One of the late night talk show hosts even laughed about the Amazon Echo and its ability to verbally control your lights. Then all of a sudden, he says “Alexa, turn off my lights”. If your smart speaker was nearby and you had it connected to smart lighting, how many of your lights turned off?
I’m sure you have to say which light to turn on/off for it to work but the usefulness of this is still in its infancy.
The ability to control smart home devices is a listed feature for all of these smart speakers. But, it’s not one that they really use to market it with and showcase because it’s still very limited.
Amazon Echo may work with more smart home devices than the other units, but again, it’s interaction with them are limited. Google is making a huge push on this front though based on what we saw at CES last month.
So, this is the feature that most people talk about and what is showcased more often by the companies. Why? Because playing music seems to be the best working feature of these smart speakers.
The Apple HomePod was just released today and the main feature they touted was its speaker quality for playing music. Almost all the published articles talking about this device talks about the speaker quality as well. Well, what else is there that is actually useful right now on these devices? Nothing.
I’m not an audiophile and I’m not a music fanatic so forgive me if I feel that these devices are a waste of money to just play music and be able to tell it verbally to play music.
If I was a true audiophile, I would probably get a full Bose surround sound system in that room connected to not only my TV but other devices to play music as well that I can control with an app on my phone.
My Final Thoughts
I got tired of telling Alexa to do this and get a response that it could not do it. These “Smart Speakers” aren’t that smart enough yet. People say that these devices use AI. Well, maybe an AI of a baby.
Then again, if it had a fully capable AI, you would be able to talk to it like a real person and that would be scary. But then it would understand what you want and be able to do it without you having to memorize specific phrases.
These devices and their capabilities are still in its infancy, just like the AI that they supposedly have. Even though the Amazon Echo I received was the Gen 2 version, I doubt I would find it useful on a daily basis until maybe Gen 10.
If you want a device that you can verbally ask questions and get good answers, get the Google Home devices. They just released the Google Home Max with much better speaker quality than the original Google Home.
If you want a device that plays music with good quality speakers, I would still choose the Google Home Max over the Apple HomePod. Why? Because Siri’s capability to answer your questions adequately is extremely frustrating compared to Google Assistant.