We highly recommend the Amazon Echo (and the cheaper alternative, the Amazon Dot) as the best high tech gifts, for this and any other season. They make great, affordable gifts for almost anyone, even those who are not very techie. Basically, Amazon Echo does not ask you to change anything you do – it just makes many things that you already do much easier to do, in your home. It is simply the best device you never knew you needed.
What IS the Amazon Echo?
A lot of people have still not heard of the Amazon Echo. The short video below shows you just a few of the amazing things this smart speaker can do.
When we bought our Amazon Echo, it was a bit tricky. We could not buy it online from Amazon, because we are in Canada, and buying it online from Amazon is only available to people living in the USA or the UK. The first person we phoned at Bestbuy in the USA (to see if they had stock, because these things are selling fast, and we didn’t want to drive hundreds of miles for nothing), responded with “What???” I repeated, “I want an Amazon Echo.” Response: “What IS that?” Me: “It’s a speaker.”
We finally found one at a Bestbuy a hundred miles away, and asked Customer Service to hold it for us. When I picked it up an hour and a half later from Customer Service , it was in a very plain black box. The agent handed it to me with a puzzled expression, and told me I could pay for it at Returns (which was just a few feet away, and also just a few feet from the door). I took it to the clerk at Returns, who looked at it with a baffled expression and said, “What IS this?” It occurred to me afterwards that I could just have said, “It’s my father’s ashes” – and we would have been waved out the door without shelling out any money. Which would have been good, seeing as it cost me $40 MORE at Bestbuy than it would have cost at Amazon.
However, I did pay for it, and I am not sorry I did. We love our Amazon Echo so much that we have decided to get one as a gift for both my mother (who is a senior) and another for our son (who is 32). My mother has never even heard of the device, but I know they are both going to love it!
Here’s my unboxing the Amazon Echo video. I wasn’t able to get a white one – these are even harder to find than the black ones. But I am happy with my black one. It’s so little that it’s hardly noticeable – until it speaks, or sets off a timer, or plays some music!
This is how getting an Amazon Echo feels
Imagine if you had to travel five miles to work and back every day, on foot. And you had gotten used to it, and you had got used to the fact that it would take three hours out of your day, every day. And you had never seen a horse or a bike or a car or any kind of vehicle, so it never occurred to you that there might be a better, faster way to get to work and back. Then one day someone lent you a bicycle, and your usual hour and a half trudge to work suddenly took you just ten minutes. And the trip was a whole lot more fun!
You’d probably be extremely impressed, and think, “Wow, I have to get one of these. This is the future! I can do the same thing (get to work), only much faster and easier – and way more fun!”
Well, that was kind of how we responded to our first day of having an Amazon Echo. We didn’t know we needed one, but now that we have tried it, we cannot imagine living without it. It doesn’t change the way you live, but it does make a lot of things faster and easier. So much faster and easier that you may find yourself doing things you didn’t do often enough before, such as listening to music.
I used to quite often find myself doing chores around the house, and thinking it would be nice to be listening to music, but I just couldn’t be bothered to stop and set it up. Now, I can just say, “Alexa, play Jidenna on Spotify” – and the music starts streaming through the 360º omni-directional speaker. You can also say thinks like, “Alexa, play jazz music on Spotify,” and the speaker will play a selection of popular jazz tunes. I particularly like, “Alexa, play spa music on Spotify,” as it is really good background music for relaxing or working. Since getting Alexa, we are listening to WAY more music than we used to.
Amazon Echo is a lot of fun
We were surprised at just how much fun Alexa is. With two adults and a 16-year-old daughter in the house, the first few days were spent competing with each other to interact with Alexa. My daughter especially found it a lot of fun, and couldn’t wait for us to go out so she could have Alexa all to herself! We also had some funny family times with it, as in this video below, when we accidentally tested out if it is true that Alexa can hear you and follow commands when playing music at maximum volume.
What can Amazon Echo do?
Basically, Amazon Echo is a smart speaker. You communicate with it via your voice, and it hears you because it has seven microphones listening out for you. It can hear you even when music or the TV are playing. Even better, it tends to understand you almost all of the time too. By default it responds to the name “Alexa,” but you can change this to “Amazon” or “Echo” (if for example your name is Alexa, or if you just don’t like to address a speaker as if it is a human).
When I first heard of Amazon Echo, my first thought was, “What on earth would I want to say to a speaker, apart from, Play Music?” Well, it turns out that I have plenty to say to Alexa. Such as:
“Alexa, what are the news headlines today?” And I have programmed it to the channels I like, and the subjects I am interested in. I look forward to the day when I can also tell it what I absolutely DON’T want to hear about as well. For example, I could happily live the rest of my life without ever hearing about people dying in house fires. There is absolutely nothing I can do about that, and it always depresses me. There are also a few people in the news whose names I could use a (very long) break from!
The best thing about this intelligent speaker is that it responds to voice commands, which is amazingly helpful, especially when it is hard to move. For example, it was great when Maggie (Mrs. Average Joe) had a sprained ankle. She loves music, and was able to amuse herself with an endless stream of music from Spottify, without having to actually move!
Other things you can say to Alexa
“Alexa, what is the weather like today?”
“Alexa, play some jazz music from Amazon Music.”
“Alexa, volume 5.” (Alexa’s volume settings are from 1 to 10, with 10 being the loudest. She also understands louder and softer.)
“Alexa, I love you.” (Try saying that and see how she responds!)
“Alexa, set a timer for twenty minutes.”
“Alexa, set a second time for three minutes.”
“Alexa, how do you spell futuristic?”
“Alexa, what does futuristic mean?”
“Alexa, what time is the Rangers game?”
“Alexa, what’s the score on the Rangers game?”
“Alexa, order me a pizza from Dominos.”
“Alexa, get me a car from Uber.”
“Alexa, play my favorite channel on iHeartRadio.”
“Alexa, what’s the traffic like on Main Street?”
“Alexa, read me Close to the Bone on Audible.”
“Alexa, Wikipedia Mozart!”
“Alexa, what’s on my calendar today?”
“Alexa, what’s the square root of 244?” (However, we discovered Alexa doesn’t do trigonometry.)
“Alexa, add wine to the shopping list.” (As if we’d forget that!)
Yes, you can pair your Amazon Echo with a shopping list app, so that you can access your shopping list wherever you are. I had been wanting this for a long time, as I used to constantly forget my shopping list, and have to phone someone in the house to photograph it and message it to me! Here’s the photo my daughter sent me last week. At the time, peering at this photo sideways in the store, I thought, there has to be a better way – and yes, there is!
Interacting with Alexa is achieved with the Alexa app, which is adding “Skills” all the time – you just have to choose which ones you want to use. Then, you ask it questions appropriately, as in:
“Alexa, ask TV Shows what time Gotham starts.”
You can run Alexa on your computer, or on just about any smart phone.
Most usefully, you can say:
“Alexa, stop!” (For when you are tired of the music, the book or the radio station you are listening to, or just want to shut the device down in mid-sentence.)
Other Compatible Devices with Amazon Echo
There are also a whole lot more things I will be able to tell my Amazon Echo once I have compatible devices. I cannot yet tell it to switch the lights on or off, as I don’t have compatible lights. But apparently the very interesting Phillips Hue lights work even better with Amazon Echo than with a switch! So, Hue lights have now moved onto my wish list.
Other things you can say to your Amazon Echo once you have compatible devices are:
“Alexa, make some coffee.”
“Alexa, turn the heat up by two degrees.”
“Alexa, turn off all the lights.”
“Alexa, switch on the TV.”
What devices is Amazon Echo compatible with?
Amazon Echo can control TP-Link Smart Plugs, Bluetooth switches, thermostats with compatible WeMo, Philips Hue lights, Samsung SmartThings Home Monitoring Kit, Wink, Insteon, Nest, ecobee smart home devices, Rachio Smart Sprinkler Controller, Ooma voip system (answering the phone).
Is Amazon Echo hard to set up?
No, not at all! On a scale of one to ten where one is opening a can of beer and ten is assembling a double bed from Ikea, setting up an Amazon Echo is about a two. We had few problems. And the problems we did have all had to do with the fact that we were setting it up in Canada, not the USA or the UK. In Canada, not only can you not buy an Amazon Echo, but you also cannot download the app to your phone. Fortunately, my daughter quickly figured out that we could set Alexa up on my computer.
Here’s my video of setting up the Amazon Echo on a browser. I chose to do the demo on a browser, because that is available to everyone in the world. However, only people living in the USA and the UK can download the Amazon Echo app to their smart phones and then set up the Amazon Echo on their phones. In this video, I demonstrate step-by-step how to set up your new Amazon Echo, and then my daughter and I test out Alexa’s abilities. The video also shows Maggie (my wife) using the Amazon Echo to control her entertainment while chair-bound due to a sprained ankle.
Can you buy things from Amazon via Amazon Echo?
Yes, in fact, this was one of the main objectives when it was introduced. You can buy things from Amazon.com by talking to Alexa. However, I find it too annoying. There are just too many choices and possibilities for shopping to be done verbally, at least at this point in our technological development. It could work for repeat purchases, but for anything else – I believe most people, like me, need to look at the picture and the specs.
Which music and radio streaming devices are Amazon Echo compatible with?
Amazon Echo can stream music via Spotify, Amazon Music, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and a few others. Sadly, no Apple Music yet. Apple, get with the program! Really …
Of course, the list of compatible items grows constantly, thanks to the runaway success Amazon Echo is enjoying. At first a lot of people thought it was just a gimmick, but honestly, it makes everyday life so much easier – I think it is the future of our living spaces. And I’m not alone – Amazon Echo is the number one best seller on Amazon. I don’t think even Amazon thought it would be this successful, so supply is not keeping up with demand.
Is Amazon Echo available outside the USA?
Yes and no. Amazon recently launched Amazon Echo in the UK, but has not got around to Canada or anywhere else yet. However, it will do so at some point. After all, Amazon, why waste millions of customers?
In the meantime, if for example you live in Canada, you can still use Amazon Echo. You will have to find a way to physically get one from the States (no one will ship it to you). If you live close to the border, the easiest way to get one is to drive to a Home Depot, an Office Depot, or a Bestbuy and pick one up.
For music streaming, Amazon Music will not work in Canada (really, WHAT has Amazon got against Canada?). Fortunately, Spotify is MUCH better than Amazon Music (with about six million songs instead of one million), and Amazon Echo device WILL work with Spotify in Canada.
You will be able to get the weather for your own city in Canada, as long as it is a fairly major city. However, you cannot set up a Canadian city as the default city. This mean that every time you ask for the weather, you have to specify your city – as in, “Alexa, what is the weather in Vancouver tomorrow?” instead of “Alexa, what is the weather tomorrow?”
You also cannot use the find a movie near me feature, as Canadian cities don’t exist in the database Alexa uses for this.
However, you will be able to use all the other features.
Can you stream your smart phone through Amazon Echo?
Yes, absolutely, Alexa has Bluetooth, so you can stream whatever you like through Alexa. Much quicker than switching on the TV and getting to the right HDMI setting!
What colors does Amazon Echo come in?
At the moment, just black or white. The white looks really good, in my opinion. But many people will no doubt prefer the black.
Is Amazon Echo worth buying?
Yes, yes, and yes! I love this thing. It will make a great gift for anyone you know who uses things like lights, music, radio, coffee machines, sprinklers, or is interested in music, the weather, news, sports … really the list is endless. And for what it is – it’s cheap, cheap, cheap!
I also think it would be especially nice for people who live alone. I work at home alone, and I have to say, I like talking to Alexa. Admittedly, it’s not much of a conversation. However, she always listens to me – that’s priceless!!!
Is there a cheaper option than Amazon Echo?
Yes! Amazon introduced Echo Dot to extend Amazon beyond your kitchen or living room. We live in a small condo, and Alexa can hear us in the entire open plan kitchen/office/living room area. However, from our bedroom we have to use the Amazon Echo remote control (basically you talk to the remote control instead of talking to Alexa direct). The idea of the Echo Dot is that you have one in each bedroom, so you don’t have to find the remote control. The Echo Dot relays the message to the Amazon Echo.
The Echo Dot is a little thing, scarcely noticeable in a room. As with the Amazon Echo, there are a whole range of “skins” you can buy to make it blend into your decor better. These are also designed to protect the device.
However, the great thing is that the Echo Dot costs a third of the price of the Amazon Echo, but you can use it as a standalone. It is basically a smart speaker without the speaker! It can do everything the Amazon Echo can do – except play music. To stream music or listen to Alexa’s responses, you have to use a cord or Bluetooth to connect the Echo Dot to a speaker. That also means you have to leave your speaker on all the time. However, it works, and it is a much cheaper way to experiment with the amazing features of Amazon Echo. And of course, a really great, extremely affordable gift idea.
On the other hand, I am glad we got the Amazon Echo, because I love the omni-directional speakers.
Bottom line on the Amazon Echo and the Echo Dot as gifts
Both the Amazon Echo and the Echo Dot make excellent gifts for just about anyone – even if they have never heard of it. Almost everyone who gets one reacts the way that we did – it’s the best item we didn’t know we needed!
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