Oz Blog News Commentary

Alexa in the house

February 12, 2018 - 16:49 -- Admin

It's hard to believe I got an Echo before an Apple Homepod, but I did. The Echo is now sitting in our kitchen, where I would never dare put a Homepod. I've had a Bose bluetooth speaker in the kitchen for a couple of years now and it's given sterling service. But it's getting old, the charging brick has fallen apart, (I shudder to think how much it would cost to replace that sucker) and the whole unit looks like crap. Over the years it's picked up a second skin of cooking grease, microscopic organic debris, oily particulates. You know, kitchen crap. It looks awful.

There is no way I want to drop $500 on a piece of Sir Jony Ive's handiwork in that environment.

The Echo, however... meh.

It's a fraction of the price, a literal fraction, about 1/5 I think, and it's not going to look any better once it's been exposed to a couple of weeks worth of cooking, but it's not going to break my heart either. Also, to be honest, the Echo is likely to be a lot more useful in the kitchen. The Homepod's inability to settle multiple timers has already been noted by most reviewers, as has Siri's constrained functionality compared to Alexa (and Google's eponymous AI). I think that misreads the purpose of Homepod, which is a mid-range premium speaker first, and a smart speaker a distant second.

Still, it creates an opening for Alexa. I've had her parked on the kitchen bench for a few days now and I'm getting used to the syntax and constraints native to Amazon's lady in a can. Because Alexa's APIs were opened up to developers immediately, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of 'skills' she can learn that are completely beyond Siri and probably Google.

I've taken to asking her for the surf report from Bondi every day.

Not having listened to the radio anywhere but the car for nearly a decade, I found myself listening to news bulletins again to start the day, because it's such a simple matter to ask Alexa to bring you up to speed. There are cocktail recipes, bus and ferry timetable information, cooking suggestions, podcast players, dictionaries, weather reports, all sorts of useful shit. It's a device focused on very broad but low-level functionality. That makes it a perfect fit for the kitchen. Or maybe just a very good fit. I don't find Alexa to be any more intelligent or responsive than Siri. There were some hilarious misfires when asking her to play music from an Internet radio service. (It's better now I've picked up an Amazon Music subscription on a free trial for three months).

I suspect the functionality will also greatly improve when Amazon Prime launches locally, and the Beast of Bezos starts competing with Coles and Woolworths for the food delivery market. The ability to add an item like butter or baked beans to a shopping list and have it turn up a day or so later will be a pretty compelling use case. It's pretty much why I got the device.

It's a lot cheaper than Homepod, of course, and it sounds it. There are some types of music which sound authentically awful coming out of this speaker. OTOH there are plenty of other types, usually older albums for some reason, which sound just fine. Maybe it's the way music is produced these days, maybe it's the instruments, I don't know. But my old man music does sound way better than my new music playlists on this device.

It's hardly a dealbreaker, though. This is a kitchen speaker, and kitchens are terrible places to intensively listen to music. There's always something else going on, usually something noisy. Everything echoes of the hard surfaces. And people tend to be talking at or over each other. In that sort of environment a speaker which can pump out tracks at a reasonable volume is good enough.