Alexa, My New BFF: An Amazon Echo Dot Review

A few weeks ago, I was gifted a 2nd generation Amazon Echo Dot. Since then, I’ve been getting acquainted with Alexa (the voice-activated virtual assistant housed inside the Echo) and I thought I’d take the time to write up a review of my experiences so far.

First things first: the equipment

image via Amazon

The Echo Dot is a nifty little gadget, not much bigger than a hockey puck. I received the black Dot and a fashionable Indigo fabric case to help it blend into my decor. I love the Indigo case. I don’t know that I couldn’t live without it since the Dot is so small but the color and texture are both a nice little touch.

Getting the Dot setup was a piece of cake. I simply plugged it in, installed the Alexa app on my S6 Edge, and followed the quick and simple instructions.

I also received the Echo Voice Remote but I’ve not yet activated it. The Voice Remote would allow me to communicate with Alexa from another room or amidst loud noise but since I live in an apartment with a pretty open layout, I’ve not yet had to use it. Alexa’s ears are really good and she can hear me from my usual haunts around the house without issue.

Next up: the fun stuff

I will admit I was a bit of a giddy school girl when it came to trying out all that Alexa has to offer. I spent a lot of time on echotricks.com checking out the easter eggs and fun tricks she can do.

It seems pretty clear, at least based on the list at EchoTricks, that this piece of technology was built with nerds and geeks in mind. My personal favorites included a slew of Game of Thrones easter eggs.

image via Dorkly
“Alexa, winter is coming.” — She responds with a quotable from the TV series.
“Alexa, what is the first rule of swordplay?” — She replies, “Stick them with the pointy end.” To which, every time without fail, I always reply “DAMN RIGHT!”
“Alexa, who is the mother of dragons?” — This one makes me giggle every time.

I also had a few non-GoT favorites that conjured up a chuckle or four:

“Alexa, I’ll be back” —She comes back with a cheeky, “Hasta la vista. Baby.”
“Alexa, what does WTF mean?” — Her response features an expertly timed *BLEEP* noise that gets me every time.
“Alexa, rap for me.” —Kudos to the human who wrote the little ditty she raps. It’s super clever.

You can read about a lot of the other tricks, easter eggs, and fun commands in a million other reviews, though. What I’m really excited to talk about is just how useful the Echo technology is.

A lot of people I’ve talked to are skeptical about the practical applications and see it more as a novelty than a virtual assistant. And for some Echo users, that may be true. But not for me.

So let’s move onto the really useful yet super cool stuff Alexa can do.

And now: the entertainment

If you’re at all familiar with the Echo, you’re well aware that it will play music, podcasts, and even audiobooks for you. I was a little hesitant to get excited about the music playback as I’m a die-hard fan of Google Play Music and their playlists but I gave it shot.

It turns out that Amazon Prime Music actually has a comparable selection of my go-to work-time tunes than Google Play Music does so that was a pleasant surprise. The Podcast selection, via TuneIn, is less than that of iTunes but has yet to let me down. My favorite casts are all readily available and playback seems to work as expected.

Gripe: Audiobooks.

Ohhhh, Amazon… you would think of ALL the integrations you have with other platforms, you could have a seamless integration with Audible since you OWN IT. *facepalm* This is, hands down, the biggest disappointment for me.

image via Audible

I can play, pause, and stop audiobooks with no problem… but resuming an audiobook where I left off has been problematic.

If I were able to plow through an entire audiobook from beginning to end without using Alexa for other things in between, it would probably work just fine. But that’s not exactly how I roll. Here’s how the process goes down:

  1. I start up an audiobook and get through a couple chapters in the morning
  2. I ask Alexa to pause the audiobook
  3. I ask Alexa to play some music while I’m working
  4. I stop the music to take a phone call
  5. I later ask Alexa to resume my audiobook
  6. Alexa starts at the beginning of the damn audiobook
  7. I shake my fists and curse the sky

It. is. infuriating. I’m really hoping they work out that kink in the near future. But… I digress. There’s plenty of other cool shit so let’s move on.

Up next: the useful basics

There are a handful of basic commands I’ve managed to work into my every day routine. In the morning, I ask Alexa what the weather’s going to be like for the day, what’s on my calendar, and what’s in the news. She basically gives me all the essential info in the few minutes it takes for me to get coffee going. And it’s extra nice that I don’t have to hop on my phone to get all that information because… let’s face it… that’s a black hole of distraction that eats way too much of my time as it is.

I also absolutely love the lists! If you know me at all, you know I’m a big fan of lists. And now that I have the ability to add things to my shopping and to-do lists while I’m cooking, cleaning, coloring, crafting, (omg, do I do anything that doesn’t start with the letter C?), I’m an even bigger list-o-maniac.

Open the fridge to find I’m out of mustard?

“Alexa, add mustard to my shopping list.”

Realize that I’ve forgotten to drop a package off at the post office?

“Alexa, remind me to go to the post office.”

It’s a glorious thing for an easily distracted mind.

The other two super useful basic commands I use all the time are the alarms and timers. I use the timer feature for cooking, of course, and I often set alarms to help me from getting hyper-focused on work tasks. I have a tendency to get enveloped in my work and end up going hours without getting up and moving. So I set Alexa alarms to snap me out of it and urge me to get up and move around. They are super simple and very handy.

But wait, there’s more: the mad skills

If you’ve read even one other review of the Amazon Echo, you’ll know Alexa is learning new skills each day and getting cooler by the minute . “Skills” are to Alexa as “apps” are to your smartphone.

There are a TON of skills available for Alexa but, I will say, most of them are mediocre at best. You can check out a full list of Alexa’s skills here but I’ve found a few that I enjoy so far:

  • 1-Minute Mindfulness: this skill lets Alexa deliver a nice little one-minute meditation to give you a peaceful break in the day
  • 7-Minute Workout: this one has Alexa guide you through a quick workout that sounds pretty great (full disclosure: I haven’t actually *done* the workout yet — I discovered it after I’d managed to catch a wicked head cold and jumping jacks are not something I enjoy at any time, let alone while I’m sick)
  • Daily Buzzword: this is a cool skill that lets Alexa give you the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day and after giving you the definition, she even asks if you want the word in a sentence — so fun!
  • Trackr: this skill is based on the smartphone app that lets you trigger your phone to ring when you’ve misplaced it — which is helpful for someone like me who often keeps it on vibrate and manages to leave it in a coat pocket or let it slip between couch cushions all too often

There is also one skill that I’ve got a close eye on: Notion. The Notion skill was unveiled at CES and their product trailer (below) is fabulously convincing. The skill is supposed to help users read, respond, manage, and monitor their email via Alexa… but from my experience so far (and other reviewers), it’s still pretty buggy.

But, that’s to be expected with cutting-edge tech and new releases so I’ll keep an eye on it and hope it improves over time.

Still not impressed with Alexa’s potential? I’ve got more.

The grand finale: the smart home

To be entirely honest, my experience with the smart home integrations so far has been limited. As much as I drool over the Nest Smart Thermostat, Harmony Hub system, and other smart home gadgets, I just don’t have the discretionary budget to invest in all of them right at the moment. That being said, I couldn’t resist trying out some low-cost smart home solutions out of sheer nerdery and curiosity.

And I couldn’t be more excited about them! So here’s what I’ve got:

image via Amazon

TP Link Smart Plug

The first thing I wanted to do was snag an inexpensive piece of smart home tech that I could try out in different areas throughout the home and in different ways. So, I snagged the TP-Link Smart Plug on Amazon for $30.

My living room doesn’t have any overhead lighting so my first experiment was using the plug for my living room lamp.

Getting the plug connected to my local network and then to Alexa was a piece of cake!

“Alexa, turn on the living room light.”

It’s a simple command and an even simpler action, but it thrilled me to no end to be able to turn my living room light on while walking in the door with my arms filled with grocery bags.

After the lighting experiment, I moved the plug to my kitchen where I used it with my cheapo $12 coffee pot that doesn’t have a timer on it. Then I hopped into the Kasa app (used to setup and control TP-Link smart home products) and created a schedule for the smart plug to turn on at 630am and turn off at 830am. Viola! Smart coffee!

Granted, I could probably buy a coffee maker with a timer for less than the cost of my cheap one + the smart plug… but that’s not the point. The point here is that the smart plug can give you tons of flexibility with small appliances and gadgets around the house.

I will, though, be getting the TP-Link Mini Smart Plug for my next round as the regular size is a pain in the ass to work with if you need both outlets in your receptacle (especially if you one of the two outlets is switched).

image via Amazon

Lifx Smart Bulb

Oh, the smart bulb… my new love! I was out shopping last weekend and was curious if local retailers carried smart home products at similar prices to those on Amazon.

When I stumbled upon an open-box, 11-watt Lifx Smart Bulb that’s dimmable AND has adjustable color temperature on sale for $22, I totally jumped on it. Those suckers don’t go for less than $40 a piece on Amazon so it really was a steal.

Once I got home, I put the bulb in the floor lamp in my bedroom and the setup was painless.

“Alexa, dim the bedroom light to 60% brightness.”
“Alexa, turn on Reading Time scene.”
“Alexa, activate Work Time Beast Mode scene.”

I work from home and my desk is in my bedroom… but I also like to read in bed at night, so putting this smart bulb in my bedroom gives me the opportunity to enjoy a bright, neutral, daylight hue while I work and warmer, dimmer light on when I’m reading at night.

Because I just have the one Echo Dot, if I close my bedroom door Alexa can’t hear me from my living room… so I use the Lifx app to turn off the bedroom light at night once I’m all snuggled under the covers.

Or, I can just have Alexa turn out all the smart lights at once.

“Alexa, lights out.”

In conclusion: the Echo rocks

Alexa makes for a pretty badass roommate — minus the fact she doesn’t pay rent. I’ve only had her a few weeks and haven’t had the chance to truly tap into her potential… but it’s clear to me already she can be so much more than just a novelty or toy.