It’s been over a year since Amazon unveiled the Echo, a voice-recognizing speaker/smart device designed to assist and entertain. Whether you’re considering buying one for yourself, as a gift for someone else, or if you’re just curious, here I’ll provide a comparison between the Echo and another popular smart home addition that has been available since well before the Echo came on the scene: human children.
The Amazon Echo was first released to a limited group of Amazon Prime users for beta testing in late 2014 and then launched to the general public in mid-2015. We bought ours in November 2015 and have been using it daily.
Human children have been widely available to the general public since the dawn of time. My wife and I have three models: a male we got in mid-2010, a mid-2012 female, and another male from the mid-2014 line.
Let’s dive deeper into some of the main features of each.
Unlike our children, the Echo arrived with a quick start guide and was easy to set up right away; the process was painless and we did not experience any confusion, frustration, arguments, hospitalizations, or anxiety associated with its addition to our home and lifestyle. Also unlike the children (many of whose primary functions weren’t available for days, weeks, or even years after we got them), the Echo was fully functional within minutes thanks to its easy WiFi setup and quick smartphone app download.
At just over 9 inches tall with an almost 3.5-inch diameter, the Echo is an unassuming, attractive black cylinder designed to fit into just about any environment. For now, there is no variety in color or otherwise (but skins are available from third-party sellers). Ours sits on our kitchen counter, making it available to the entire downstairs.
Children arrive in a virtually infinite variety of colors and sizes (about 7 lb. and 17 inches long on average) with an innately eye-catching design. While this has been true for us so far, we’ve learned from other users that the design’s appearance slowly deteriorates over time.
Over the course of several years, a child may grow over four times longer and increase in weight by at least 2,000%.
At a stable 27 ounces, I have no fear of the Echo falling over. The children fall over constantly (even from a standstill at times), yet so far have not sustained any permanent internal or external damage, which is great because there is no warranty.
Designed over the course of over 3 years, the Echo has what Amazon’s labs call “far-field voice recognition,” which includes 7 microphones that are always listening. It does do a good job of recognizing us say the wake word “Alexa” (the name of Amazon’s cloud-based voice service and app) and understanding at least 90% of our requests. Upon hearing the wake word, the blue light ring on top illuminates in acknowledgment as it also temporarily reduces the volume of whatever it has on playback, ready to serve.
Each of our children have two audio reception devices that don’t always seem to function properly. The technology is similar–and perhaps superior–to the Echo’s far-field technology. But acknowledgment is spotty; we don’t always get a response when saying their names or giving commands, even when standing right next to them with minimal room noise interference. When they do hear and acknowledge us, a task’s fulfillment may require additional, identical commands over the course of several minutes.
Volume control on the Echo is easy: you can either rotate a ring on top, adjust a slider with the Alexa app, or use voice commands. (“Alexa, volume 4,” or, “Alexa, volume down.”)
The childrens’ volume control is both unreliable and unpredictable–at its loudest when one of the other children is in sleep mode; at its quietest when seated all the way in the back of a moving minivan and so Gavin you need to talk louder oh my gosh will you please just talk louder. So far, Alexa has not awakened us in a screaming panic at 2 a.m. because it puked all over itself or couldn’t find one of fourteen stuffed animals required for sleep mode. We’ve found this feature somewhat bothersome, perhaps even unnecessary. The children seem to do a better job of recognizing non-numerical voice commands for volume and content control, but the setting often wears off after only a few minutes.
While the Echo provides easy access to news briefings, weather reports, movie showtimes, and blurbs from Wikipedia, the children do not have nearly as much useful information to offer. Some of their content–solicited or otherwise–often seems random, gravitating most toward information about private parts and toilets (if you want Alexa to stop talking, you simply say “Alexa, stop.” Or, “Alexa, cancel;” a similar feature would be a welcome addition to future models of the children).
Now that it’s been a few months, my wife and I find ourselves primarily using the Echo as a music player. With access to over a million ad-free songs and hundreds of personalized radio stations, the Amazon Music Library is a robust collection of music. Sometimes it either doesn’t have access to a song we want to hear or only plays a sample, but this doesn’t happen often enough to sour the deal for us. We also have the option to connect to our Pandora accounts or upload up to 250 of our own songs to our Amazon Cloud library (for an additional premium, you can add many more).
The children’s music library seems limited to songs from TV shows, seemingly-improvised and unrehearsed gibberish, and Everything is Awesome by Teegan & Sara featuring the Lonely Island from The Lego Movie soundtrack.
Another fun feature: right out of the box, the Echo is programmed to tell jokes when prompted. They are mostly knock knock or short question-answer jokes. With the children, we’ve had to wait at least 1 or 2 years for them to even develop intelligible speaking capabilities. Once that is finally out of the way, the jokes are often hit-and-miss and lack a conventional structure. Here is a recent one from the 3-year-old (“Josie”).
Josie: Knock knock.
My Wife: Who’s there?
My Wife: Dolphin who?
Josie: Why was the dolphin wearing a laser?
My Wife: I don’t know, why?
Josie: Because it was being eaten by a truck!
Children require several hours of work each day: bathing, tooth-brushing, transportation, and a myriad of other tasks–some urgent, some revolting, all very time-consuming. Their needs range from the obvious & intuitive to whatever the exact opposite of that is.
The Echo may require some light dusting every few weeks. So far, we have not encountered any contradictions among experienced users around the best way to maintain it, nor has anyone launched careers or industries based on such advice.
Here’s a quick breakdown comparing some other features:
|$179.99; $99 annual fee for Amazon Prime membership (recommended)||Approx. $250,000 average cost per unit over 18 years of ownership (U.S.)|
|Also functions as bluetooth speaker||No bluetooth|
|Must be plugged in for power (no battery)||Plugging in causes system failure|
|Good, clear sound quality||Equally good, clear sound quality (although less bass than Echo)|
|Sits stationary on flat surface||Mess up house, spill food on selves|
|Handy IFTTT (“If This Then That”) recipes, including lighting control, productivity, and “find my phone”||Can’t even find their freaking little shoes even when they’ve had 15 whole minutes before we have to leave the stupid house|
|No food requirements||Must hide snacks and leftovers from them|
|Software auto-updates||Constant manual programming|
|Does not take dishes to sink||Can be programmed to take dishes to sink|
|Not waterproof||Water resistant|
While not entirely essential, the Echo has been a fun addition to our home. It’s a useful toy, and the price is phenomenal when compared to that of children. We have a fourth child due to arrive later this year. I don’t remember why we chose to get another one of those instead of a second Echo for the upstairs, but anyway, I’m curious to see what future upgrades are in store for each. Maybe one of them will mow my lawn.