I behold the pile of Alexa devices that Amazon has sent me to review, and I do not immediately know what I want to do with them. There’s an Echo Studio smart speaker, a Fire TV Cube, an Echo Flex (which defies description), and a couple of accessories to go with the Flex. Our household already has an Echo Spot (smart clock with a screen), a smart plug, and a pair of Fire tablets for the kids. And of course, we have the Alexa app on our phones.
Given the volume and diversity of Alexa devices now populating my home, I decided to go all in and try to create as unified a smart home system as I can, comprising all these parts and pieces. This is, of course, what Amazon wants. I bow to the will of the tech giant for the purpose of testing out this smart home stuff.
After doing so, I have three key observations:
- These devices, what they offer, and what they require are simultaneously too much and not enough.
- To extract any significant value from these devices, you need to have a specific problem (or problems) that a specific Amazon device (or devices) can solve.
- These Amazon devices cost a lot of money, and in many cases you’ll need more than one to get the full functionality you need.
The task of creating what portends to be a convenient, virtual assistant-enhanced home feels overwhelming — so many devices; so many individual device settings; so many possible types of lists, reminders, alarms, skills, routines, games, and “Blueprints.” It costs a lot of time, work, and mental energy to dig around to find useful ones and set them all up.
There are some 100,000 Alexa skills you can enable on these devices. Some of them are eminently useful, like a “find my phone” skill to help you keep track of your phone, while a great many of them are utterly banal, like the Spongebob Challenge skill that’s just a themed memory game. It can be a challenge to separate a small bit of wheat from so much chaff.
I do not ascribe to a “tech for the sake of tech” ethos. I’m interested only in what sort of tools or new capabilities tech can provide. That’s a necessary approach to take with these devices — not “what can they do,” but “how can they help me.” If all you want is a nice speaker that you can control with your voice, great — the Echo Studio is for you. If you want a way to control your lights with your voice, you’ll need to pair an Alexa device with an Amazon Smart Plug, if not a third-party lighting system that works with Alexa. If you want an alarm system, you can pair a Ring doorbell with an Echo Flex plus a motion sensor accessory. And so on and so forth.
The point is, although Alexa is an extremely broad, generalized tool, the devices on which you find it are incredibly domain specific. Because they have a discrete purpose, each item in the vast and growing ecosystem of Alexa-powered devices has commensurately limited capabilities, too. Combining multiple domain-specific devices can get you increased capabilities, but only to an extent. A fully tricked-out Alexa-powered smart home needs more than just a handful of devices.
And that’s problematic, because these devices are not cheap. It’s true that Amazon kept costs impressively low on things like most of its Fire tablets (never mind that such devices are loss leaders) and some Fire TV devices, but other devices aren’t so affordable. Even the humble Amazon Smart Plug (which works with Alexa but doesn’t have the virtual assistant on board) is $25. The costs build up from there.
All the things
The devices at hand — the Echo Studio, Fire TV Cube, and Echo Flex — are compelling in their own rights, despite their respective costs.
The Echo Studio ($200) is a smart speaker designed to play high-quality music, as opposed to a smart speaker that’s meant to be simply a hands-free voice assistant. The idea is that the Echo Studio offers the sort of audio range and fidelity that you’d want from a nice home speaker system, with five internal speakers, including a tweeter and a subwoofer. It’s able to automatically adjust to a room’s acoustics, too.
The large black cylinder measures approximately eight inches tall and seven inches in diameter, so it’s reasonably compact, such that you can stick it on a shelf or corner of a kitchen counter and it won’t take up an egregious amount of space. It has the normal slate of Alexa buttons — volume controls, mute mic button, and “action” button that obviates the need to use the wake word– and the telltale LED light ring that shows you Alexa’s status or activity.
Subjectively, the audio quality, range, and spatial sound is on par with the stereo speakers-plus-standalone subwoofer that I was previously using — which is impressive, given that the Echo Studio is a single unit. The volume was sufficient to fill the entire main floor of my house with clean, distortion-free music.
The Echo Flex is a palm-sized device that plugs into a wall outlet and is designed to control things like your lights, locks, thermostat, and so on. It has its own little speaker (and mic) on board, but that’s for communication purposes only — the tinny, distorted sound is grating if you try to play music through it. You can augment the Flex’s capabilities by plugging in attachments to its USB port. Ostensibly the roster of such add-ons will grow, but the two that Amazon sent along are the Third Reality Smart Nightlight and Motion Sensor.
It’s unclear why the Smart Nightlight exists at all. It’s essentially an overcomplication of the traditional night light, which is arguably already a perfect product. The Smart Nightlight lets you set different colors for the light, adjust the brightness of the glow from 1% to 100%, and determine when it turns on and off.
The Third Reality Motion Sensor is more practical. From its position in whatever outlet you’ve stuck it and the Flex into, it detects movement that crosses its sensor. Then, you can use the Alexa app to enact all manner of subsequent actions, from giving a verbal welcome to using Alexa Guard — a security notification feature that’s part of Alexa — to alert you to intruders.
You configure all of the above from the Alexa app on your phone. The Flex costs $25, or you can buy either (but not both!) of the Third Reality accessories in a bundle with it for $40.
Fire TV Cube
Essentially, the Fire TV Cube can supplant whatever other media streaming devices you may employ with your TV, like a Roku.
It’s small and unobtrusive at a little over three inches square (it’s technically a rectangle, but barely). You have to plug it in to a wall outlet, and it doesn’t come with its own HDMI cable. You’re supposed to position it at least one to two feet away from any speaker, including your TV’s built-in speakers, which can create some placement challenges. However, it includes an IR extender that will help you keep your home entertainment setup’s clean look if you need it.
You can control the Fire TV Cube with the included remote, your voice, or both. The box itself has a mic and Alexa, as well as Alexa buttons, so you can speak commands to it with a wake word and do things like adjust the volume directly from there. The remote has an Alexa action button on it, though, so you can press and hold it and issue voice commands without saying the wake word.
The $120 Fire TV Cube has the same on-screen interface as any Fire TV device, giving you access to streaming channels, live channels, games, and more.
I incorporated all of the above into my home network. None of the devices proved terribly onerous to set up. (You do need to have a Wi-Fi network and your Alexa app handy to perform any necessary configurations.) They joined an Echo Spot (smart speaker with a screen), smart plug, and two Fire 8 tablets that we already had — and of course, the Alexa app on the phones we own.
The app and everything
Even though Alexa is a voice assistant, the organizational center of any and all Alexa devices is the app. It’s where you do everything from adding devices to configuring their settings to checking your device activity.
One could fill numerous tedious pages with all the items and features included in the Alexa app. But a few screenshots tell much of the story:
Most of these items are self-explanatory, like reminders and lists, but some are more specific to the Alexa ecosystem. Routines are essentially a way to string together commands or set up cause and effect relationships between commands. If you tap Things to Try, you’ll get a little overview of all the things that you can do with Alexa, from communication to productivity to music. The Skills & Games section is a sort of marketplace where you can hunt for skills, which are essentially apps for Alexa.
The Activity section is one to keep an eye on; it’s where you can see your personal history with your Alexa devices and even play back to recordings of your commands. (Yes, Alexa records and stores audio files of all your queries and commands, although you can delete them.)
Blueprints is one of the more compelling features. It lets you easily create your own “Skill Blueprints,” which are customized skills that you can create from templates, like a chore chart, special date countdown, or study aids. Like many of the Alexa skills, though, a lot of these are frivolous, like a custom Q&A where you create your own answers such as making your hometown the answer for “Alexa, which is the best city in the world?”
I created a basic but customized to-do list in just a couple of minutes, but it was indeed basic — for instance, I included leading items like “email Mike” and “check my meeting schedule,” but Alexa didn’t follow up on any of those things by, for instance, sending the email or checking my actual calendar and reading off my schedule.
What to do
Armed with a group of Alexa devices and the Alexa app, I had to come up with things to try, given the nature of the devices I had on hand and the specific things that made sense for me to use them for.
Listening to music
My family has a propensity for playing music in the house, so voice-controlled music via the Echo Studio seemed ideal. There’s a Spotify Alexa skill you can toggle on (from the app), which is perfect, because we have Spotify Premium. Setting this up took just a few minutes and a few taps in the Alexa app.
However, Amazon really, really, really wants you to use Amazon Music. By default, that’s the pool of content from which it draws. Some of it is free, but to get the best experience, you’re strongly encouraged (by Alexa, via the Echo Studio) to subscribe. Although we believed we obviated this need with our Spotify subscription and Alexa skill, the Echo Studio seemed unable to tap into Spotify like we wanted.
For example, when I said, “Alexa, play Yola on Spotify,” it played “Yola radio” — which includes Yola’s songs, but also the songs of others. When I specified that I wanted to hear Yola’s album Walk Through Fire, I got the same frustrating result. “Maybe we should just use Amazon Music,” my wife sighed, annoyed but resigned. “But that’s what they want us to do!” I yelled, in the general direction of the Echo Studio.
Whatever tracks we did get the Echo Studio to play sounded terrific, though. We did not spring for an Amazon Music subscription.
In order for the Fire TV Cube to be of any real use to you, you need to subscribe to streaming services. We’re cord-cutters, so that was not a problem in our case. Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Netflix, etc. were all there and available on the little cube. All you have to do is install their respective apps and log in to your accounts, all through the Fire TV interface and using your remote.
I found that navigating to and through the various streaming services using Alexa was intuitive and direct. (You can also turn on follow-up mode, where you can ask Alexa trailing, contextual questions without re-saying the wake word.) From the home screen, for example, I could say, “Alexa, play Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” or “Alexa, play Tiny House World,” and it opened Prime Video and took me to the right show. If I’d previously watched an episode, it returned me to the exact spot where I left off.
Only a certain number of the apps on the Fire TV Cube work with Alexa, but for the ones that do, Alexa is smart enough to know that a given show or movie is on multiple streaming platforms. For example, when I said, “Alexa, play Good Girls,” it asked me if I wanted to view it on Hulu or Netflix.
However, when I asked Alexa to play Little Women (which is a new show on Prime Video), it instead suggested that I buy the book on Audible, and by the way wouldn’t you like to buy an Audible subscription? No thanks, Alexa.
You can also use the Fire TV Cube and Alexa to turn your TV on and off. This feature may or may not work on TVs of a certain age, though.
Lists and reminders
One of the advantages of an ecosystem of devices that all have the same virtual assistant on board is that the experience of interacting with Alexa is essentially the same, no matter the device. It’s true that the commands you might make of a given device are dependent upon what it can do, but Alexa offers plenty of capabilities that work across all of them. For instance, you can ask about the weather or the day’s headlines, or set a reminder, or add to a list, whether you’re near the Echo Studio or browsing on a Fire tablet or watching TV show on the Fire TV Cube.
These are applications where you’re using the cloud-centric strengths of Alexa and not the purpose-built tasks germane to, say, a smart speaker. You could say, “Alexa, remind me to take out the trash tomorrow morning,” and as long as you’re within earshot of an Alexa-powered device, you’re good to go.
But even here, you’ll bump into limitations, like if you make a list. It’s ideal in one sense, because it’s in a shared Prime account, and anyone in the house can say, “Alexa, create a new list” or, in the case of an existing list, “Alexa, add [item] to the list,” and there it shall be. But that just creates a “dumb” list. To get any kind of advanced features, like a grocery list that organizes items by food category or shows you which items you’ve ticked off already so you don’t miss anything, you need to locate and enable a skill, or hope that an automatically suggested one fits the bills. Also note that if you try to use the “dumb” list for groceries, you really need to enunciate clearly, because Alexa isn’t trying to match your words to any sort of domain-specific bank of terms. That is why when I said, “Alexa, add to my grocery list,” and it asked what I wanted to add, when I said “beer,” it added “fear.”
You’ll want a skill, like the OurGroceries skill. This was quite handy, because we already happen to use that app. I found it in the Alexa Skills Store on the web, clicked to enable the skill, and had to create and enter a password for the skill. But then, any additions to our shared lists we made via Alexa automatically synced to the app on our phones. The only slightly annoying bit is that you have to invoke the skill every time — “Alexa, ask OurGroceries to add milk” instead of “Alexa, add milk to the grocery list.”
One of the most compelling uses of Alexa is communications, especially if you have a lot of devices on your network, as we presently do.
You can make calls from an Alexa device to a phone, and vice versa. Setting this up can be a bit complicated, mainly because you have to know contact names, who has which devices, and so on. But for my specific purposes, it was fairly easy: I turned on the calling ability in the Alexa app and made sure every device on the network was enabled, too. If the kids want to get ahold of me while I’m out, or my wife wants to call me hands-free, they can just ask Alexa to do it from any of the many Alexa devices around the house. If I need to call home but doubt that anyone will pick up a smartphone and answer, I can use the Drop-In feature.
Drop-In is a fabulous tool that lets you connect to one of your Alexa devices from another — including your phone. It’s basically a smart intercom. If I’m in the kitchen and don’t want to yell down to the basement playroom for the kids to come up for dinner, I can tell the nearby Echo Studio to drop in on the Echo Flex (which in this scenario is plugged into an outlet downstairs). After confirming that’s the device I intended to drop in on, Alexa will turn on the Echo Flex’s mic so I can talk to the kids, and they can respond that they’re coming. Even if I’m not at home, I can “drop in” on any of the housebound Alexa devices from the Alexa app on my phone.
Airing of grievances
Here is a short list of annoyances I encountered in the course of setting up, using, and evaluating these devices and Alexa — in addition to any aforementioned grievances.
- If there are multiple Alexa devices within range of your voice, the wrong one often picks up the command, like when you’re trying to tell the Echo Studio to play a song, and the Fire tablet jumps in instead. (This was abated by Echo Spatial Perception [ESP]), a feature that determines which device you’re closest to if there are multiple Alexa devices nearby. But if you’re shouting at the Echo Studio from across the room while you’re prepping dinner, the tablet your kid is playing with at the kitchen counter may actually be closer to you.) You can change the wake word on the devices so they don’t all respond to “Alexa,” but you can choose from only a few options. Even then, you have to remember which of your devices has which wake word enabled.
- When your children interrupt you when you’re in the middle of saying something to Alexa. (This happens no matter what virtual assistant you’re using.)
- The presence of multiple voice assistants. In addition to Alexa devices, you will likely have one or more Google Assistant or Siri devices. Sometimes I’ll find myself using the wrong wake word for a given device.
- The Alexa app can technically be the default assistant on your phone, but it’s tough to consider ditching Google Assistant or Siri, for all the reasons they’re valuable to your phone experience. If Alexa is not your default assistant, then you have to open the Alexa app and tap the action button in the app before issuing voice commands.
- The constant upselling is annoying at best. Amazon wants you to keep buying back into its vast service and device ecosystem. This is why a search on the Fire TV Cube resulted in a pitch to subscribe to Audible, why there are ads and promos all over the Fire TV interface, why the Echo Studio tries to steer you to an Amazon Music subscription, and so on.
Something of value
Any time you add to the roster of devices you depend on, you have to come back to the fundamental question of whether it provides something of value — in particular, something of value that you don’t already have or can’t acquire via easier or less expensive means. Although results will vary depending on what each individual wants or needs, for me there’s very little that I got from the pile of Alexa-powered devices that I found indispensable or superior to other options.
Although the calling and drop-in features are nice to have, we already have a smartphone as a dedicated house phone that serves that purpose. “Dropping in” is way more fun, and potentially more effective because you can essentially call a room and anyone in it rather a specific device. But in order to maximize its effectiveness, you need to have multiple Alexa devices spread out across multiple rooms, such that you guarantee that a drop-in can be heard by someone in the house.
The voice features on the Fire TV Cube work quite well, but in most cases I can navigate to what I need faster by pressing a few buttons on the remote. The interface is more cluttered than, say, that of a Roku device, and although the Fire TV Cube does have more features, such as games, there’s nothing particularly compelling about playing games on a device like this one instead of a phone, tablet, or console.
The Echo Studio provides excellent audio performance, and it’s nice to be able to speak the music I want into existence, but it didn’t hook into the music streaming service I prefer in the way I wanted it to. (And although not everyone has the luxury of such a setup, I have a PC with decent speakers already set up in a common area of the house.)
The Echo Flex, along with its accessories, does offer some functionality that you can’t readily get from other devices, like motion sensing and the resulting routines you can employ such as alerting you to the sound of breaking glass. But in order to really extract value from it, I felt as though I needed two or three of them, plus an accessory for each, placed strategically around the home.
Everyone has their own predilections, but in our house the most useful application we’ve found for Alexa so far is connecting the Echo Spot in the bedroom with a Smart Plug so we can turn off the lamp across the room without getting out of bed.
Of course, there are literally tens of thousands of things that Alexa and its many devices can do, so the specific things that clicked for me won’t necessarily appeal to others, and vice versa. But that brings us back to the notion that before you spend a lot of cash on the Echo Studio, Echo Flex, or Fire TV Cube, make sure that they’re going to solve a problem for you, or make something more convenient, or bring new and valuable capabilities to your home — and that those advantages are worth the setup and management overhead.