Smart speakers are one of the most popular gadgets at the moment and now Kiwis can buy one that’s tailored to them.
The Amazon Echo ($179) is a voice-activated speaker that can, when asked, tell you the latest news, play music, set timers and alarms and tell jokes.
It’s powered by Alexa, a digital assistant, which has a nice manner and an Australian accent. Along with the standard Echo, there’s also the Dot ($89) which has all the smarts but only a tiny speaker and the Echo Plus ($269) which is taller, has a better speaker and includes tech that makes it easy to set up a smart home.
After living with Alexa for a few weeks I found the Echo to be a great gadget – but that doesn’t mean you need one.
Before you even open the box, make sure you have an account with Amazon Australia. It needs to be with amazon.com.au so you can access all the New Zealand features. If you’ve got an existing account with amazon.com, switch it to the Australian version before starting.
To make the most of it, you’ll also need a Spotify or Amazon Music account, as playing music is one of Alexa’s top talents.
The Echo is set up using the Alexa app on your smartphone (either Android or Apple). The app is key customising your Echo and it’s where you’ll find and download what Amazon calls “skills”, which are similar to apps for a smartphone. There’s also an Alexa website if you prefer using a computer.
Using your voice to select music and to skip songs is great. It’s so much easier than using an app, though it can get a bit rowdy if several people are competing to choose a song.
Amazon Music is also good. After a free 90-day trial it costs $14.50 a month. You can also use Spotify, iHeartRadio and TuneIn. The downside of using those as opposed to Amazon Music is that you have to say their name when requesting music. For example, “Alexa, can you play Better Man by Pearl Jam on Spotify”.
Alexa is pretty accurate at hearing song requests, though occasionally she slipped up – I kept getting Kid Rock when asking for a “rock playlist”.
Overall its ability to hear your voice is impressive especially when music is playing. However be prepared to occasionally raise your voice and annunciate your words.
The sound is good and will satisfy most people although it struggles with a lot of bass.
So far, there are few Kiwi skills available. Most of the news companies (including Stuff) do a flash briefing (news bulletin) and asking Alexa “what’s the news” is one of the most useful skills available.
One handy skill is New Zealand Quakes which tells you the size of the most recent rumble. There’s also skills for Wellington and Auckland public transport.
Hopefully more are added soon as having Kiwi-specific skills will make it handier.
Alexa also needs to work on her pronunciation and understanding of Kiwi place names. Asking for the weather forecast for Whakatane stumps her.
It’s handy for setting alarms and timers but Alexa sometimes has trouble with the Kiwi accent, especially with six and 10.
It also takes a bit of work to use it to make phone calls and send messages. Both your phone and the person you’re calling need the Alexa app installed.
It would be great for any sight-impaired user. Being able to ask for the news, time and weather and for a Kindle book to be read would make life easier.
Alexa is also good at running smart devices, such as lights, in your home. This takes time to set up and the effort and fun factor needs to be weighed against just getting up and doing it yourself.
PRIVACY AND INTRUSION
If you buy an Echo, you need to be happy for Amazon to record your commands and use your data. While this can be deleted, in reality, Alexa works best when it has access to it.
You also need to accept another level of gadget intrusion in your life. While Alexa is convenient, it’s another device to deal with and some people may be put off with it invading your living room, especially if you are trying to limit tech in your household.
I can see why Amazon has sold millions of Echos – they’re fun to use and if you’re willing to spend the time they’re very useful.
It’s also the best choice for Kiwis at the moment. Google’s smart speaker is not on sale here yet and needs to be imported. Apple’s HomePod has no arrival date and early reviews suggest it’s not as smart as its competitors.
The standard Echo ($179) is the best option for most people and offers good value.
If you love music, Alexa is great. While it’s easy to control music using your phone, being able to ask for songs and playlists is brilliant. However, it means signing up to Amazon Music or saying “on Spotify” a lot.
It also takes quite a bit of work to get it to do more than the basics. You’ll need to spend some time to get the most out of it or risk it becoming a fun party trick you roll out when friends visit.
Voice assistants are going to play an increasing role in our digital lives so if you’re keen to make them part of your life then the Echo is a good place to start.