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The College Student Review of Amazon’s Alexa


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 “Alexa, how old are you?”

Amazon first widely-released the Amazon Echo, better-known as Alexa, on June 23, 2015. The wide release was preceded by a preorder release open to Amazon developers and longtime Prime members. By that date, Alexa will be 4 years old this year.

Although, according to some Amazon employees who wish to remain anonymous, Alexa is actually almost 10 years old. This age is based on the December 2010 placement of voice-recognition patents by Rawles, LLC—a name Amazon allegedly used to keep their name away from the patents.

Amazon first marketed the Echo as a smart speaker. After the Echo’s first year on the market and fans’ embracement of the “Alexa” wake word, they realized it had more potential. Since then, Alexa has been pitched as a virtual assistant and smart home A.I.

In this review, I’ll be evaluating Alexa as a virtual assistant. I’ll rate Alexa’s effectiveness in 3 function categories, and a 4th category, user friendliness.

As a college student, I don’t have a smart home or experience using Alexa to control smart home functions. Therefore, I won’t be considering Alexa’s smart home capabilities in the product review and rating.

Alexa as a Speaker: 9/10

Being a speaker was Alexa’s original intended function, so as you might expect, it performs well in this category. Personally, I use Alexa as a speaker more than anything else. You should know though, Alexa is a stationary speaker only, because she has no battery and must to plugged-in to work.

Alexa has 10 volume settings and is surprisingly loud at full volume. When you’re playing music you can hear the depths of the bass, and the high-pitch tones are clear. Sound quality degrades a little bit at max volume, but is solid up to the 9th setting.

Overall, Alexa’s voice commands pair well with the speaker function. I frequently use “Alexa, connect to my phone” instead of manually connecting. I also like the volume voice commands, like “Alexa, turn it up to 7.”

Unfortunately, Alexa has trouble hearing me over volumes 7 through 10. So if I say “Alexa turn it down” while the volume is on 10, she won’t turn it down. Additionally, Alexa has trouble understanding the names of artists and songs. Telling her “Play God’s Plan by Drake” might result in a response like “I can’t find God’s pan by drape on Spotify.”

Considering the few difficulties with voice command, I deducted one point from Alexa’s performance in this category.

I pre-ordered Alexa, so my device is a 1st gen Echo. Amazon has since released 2nd and 3rd gen Echoes, as well as the smaller, cheaper Echo Dot.

Although I haven’t heard music played from the newer generations, I would assume they sound even better than the 1st gen. If you purchase the Echo Dot, expect it to be quieter and have lesser sound quality, because it has a smaller speaker and is cheaper in-comparison to the Echo.

Alexa’s Blue Ring, indicating that she’s currently listening.

 

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Alexa as a Time Manager: 10/10

This category includes Alexa’s ability to integrate with your calendar and set timers and alarms. As a college student, I frequently use Alexa to manage my time.

Alexa can integrate with your calendar applications on other devices to add, delete, and remind you of your appointments. If you’ve set up calendar integration, you can say “Alexa, add a haircut at noon to my calendar for Wednesday”, and she will add it to your calendar.

My favorite way to use calendar integration is to manage all of my homework due dates. I tell Alexa all of my assignments and their due dates and she reminds me of each assignment, by name, a day before it is due.

Alexa’s voice commands come in handy with the alarm and timer features as well. I set all of my alarms before bed by saying “Alexa, wake me up at 7 tomorrow morning”. Setting an alarm isn’t a lot of work to begin with, but Alexa still makes it more convenient. Just keep in mind that if the volume is above 6 then Alexa won’t hear when you tell her to stop the alarm.

Alexa’s voice recognition capabilities really shine in this category. Letting Alexa manage your calendar is definitely faster and more convenient than typing events in manually.

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Alexa as a General Assistant: 8/10

Every once in a while, I use Alexa for what I will call general assistance. These tasks are things like telling the weather forecast, giving a news briefing, or helping me with homework.

This category is the broadest of all in terms of possibilities. Alexa can tell me the weather for the next five days in any location I tell her. She can give an up-to-date news briefing upon request. She even knows a respectable amount of math and history.

But the possibilities for this category are only limited by imagination, innovation, and integration. Why couldn’t I eventually say, “Alexa, pull my car up to the door” or “Alexa, sell half of my shares in Google.”?

Considering the major growing-room for capabilities in this category, I’ve deducted two points. Even with current technology, I think Alexa could be a better general assistant.

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Alexa’s User Friendliness: 6 / 10

This category has nothing to do with Alexa’s voice recognition capabilities or operability. Instead, it addresses the Alexa app.

You use the Alexa app to set up your Echo for the first time and to manage Alexa’s functionality. Managing functionality consists of things like changing the wake word, connecting 3rd party accounts, connecting to new networks, and resetting Alexa to resolve issues.

In other words, you need the app for Alexa to work. The only problem is that the app is far from user friendly.

I’ve had the Echo since the day it came out, and I’ll say the app has come lightyears from day one. The most recent update is aesthetically pleasing and avoids crashing about 90% of the time. Unfortunately, I still have a persisting issue where Alexa disconnects from the internet about once a week and I have to use the app to reconnect her.

Reconnecting is a long, un-user-friendly process that takes about 5 minutes and sometimes takes multiple attempts. Due to the underwhelming Alexa app, I deducted 4 user friendliness points.

Overall Score and Recommendation: 8.25/10

Alexa App’s Current Design

 

Alexa’s Red Ring, indicating she’s disconnected from WiFi.

Between the four categorical scores, Alexa averages an overall rating of 8.25 / 10.

Although Alexa is still a long way from famous sci-fi A.I. like Jarvis and Cortana, it’s still the closest thing we can get right now—and if Amazon continues to advance Alexa, then maybe one day the comparison won’t be far-off.

My recommendation is this: If you’ve been thinking about purchasing Alexa for a while, and you’re interested in using it as I’ve discussed above, then you should go for it. If you haven’t contemplated the investment for very long, then I suggest doing more research or starting out with the Echo Dot to see how useful it is to you.

 

 

 

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