Amazon Echo Is This Year’s Perfect Lazy Gift
There are plenty of gift guides out there to help you whittle down your holiday options with surgical precision. Those are good and helpful, and you can check out ours here. There also are those circumstances, though, that require a brute force approach, giftees who defy easy targeting; the in-laws, the roommate, the especially esteemed co-worker. Don’t get them a gift certificate. Get them an Amazon Echo.
If you’re unfamiliar, the Echo is a cylindrical Bluetooth speaker that listens when you talk to it. This alone makes it ideal for anyone who enjoys making noise or bossing around inanimate objects, and we haven’t even gotten to the fun parts yet.
Before we enumerate the Echo’s manifold wonders, it’s healthy to address two potential concerns. First, the Echo is not cheap. It’s $180, with no announced Black Friday deal yet (though who knows!). So it’s not the type of thing you’ll want to bring to Yankee Swap. That it’s slightly fancy, though, works to its advantage; it’s the kind of gift that says, as the iPad did before it, I care enough about you to spend real money, just not on anything necessarily specific to your needs.
Second, and this should go without saying, no, this is not sponsored content. We’ve been writing news articles about the Echo here at WIRED since it was released. The only thing this content is sponsored by is my heart, which has grown three sizes since the Amazon Echo came into my life.
OK! Here we go. Let’s talk Echo. Specifically, let’s talk about every single thing it can do (which is, by the by, a lot more than it could when it launched).
The most obvious use case for Echo is to play music or podcasts or NPR or whatever. Frankly, if that was all you ever used it for, that would be enough. Echo lacks the wallop of a premium sound machine like the UE Boom 2, but it’s more capable than you might expect. Definitely gift-level quality.
You can connect Echo to any of your other devices (and tap into any streaming service) via Bluetooth, and it also packs Amazon Prime Music, TuneIn Radio, iHeartRadio, and Pandora functionality. That means instead of pairing with a smartphone and tap-tap-tapping your way to the right Spotify playlist, you can simply shout “Alexa, play WBHM,” or “Alexa, play A Charlie Brown Christmas album” and it will. (Echo commands are triggered by the word “Alexa;” if you’re worried about privacy, know that Echo doesn’t connect to the cloud until you say it, and you can always go back and delete everything the device has recorded.)
You can also get vague. “Alexa, play some music.” “Alexa, play alt-country.” “Alexa, play something for kids.” If you’re into audiobooks, you can link your Audible account and doze off to the dulcet tones of vintage Grisham.
Needless to say, giftees will get much more out of this experience if they’re members of Amazon Prime, with full access to Amazon Prime Music. They don’t need to be, but it opens up their free music options dramatically, at least until unless Echo gets Spotify compatibility, which seems unlikely. And if you’re down on Amazon Prime’s selection, remember that it just enlisted Universal Music Group a few months ago, broadening its scope enough that there’s not much they’ll end up missing.
This is where Alexa starts to get handy.
I’ll concede here that most if not all of the Echo’s personal assistant features can be replicated by your phone. That, though, involves digging your phone out of your pocket or purse, or tracking it down from whatever nightstand you left it on. Alexa is hands-free, with solid range and responses to a list of commands that grows seemingly every few weeks.
As you might expect, you can use Echo to create a to-do list and (surprise!) shopping list. Amazon Prime members can even order eligible items (“Alexa, buy some toothpaste”). There’s more to Echo than commerce though! Want to know what your schedule looks like? Echo can link with your Google calendar; just ask what events are coming. It can juggle shared calendars as well, in case you need to coordinate with your partner’s comings and goings.
You can also find out how long it’ll take to get where you’re going (“Alexa, what’s the traffic like?”) and how much you should bundle up before you head out (“Alexa, what’s the weather today?”).
The most helpful personal assistant trick, though, is that Echo works with IFTTT (If This Then That), a service that lets you create “recipes” that create a cross-app cause and effect. There are already dozens of IFTTT Alexa recipes available, including gems like: find your phone by asking Alexa; keep a Google spreadsheet of the songs you listen to on Echo; add your Alexa to-dos to Evernote; turn on the television.
And those are just the pre-loaded recipes; you can also create your own without much hassle.
A Smart Home Wrangler
As an extension of its personal assistant duties, Echo works as a smart home hub. Smart homes aren’t necessarily mainstream yet, but there’s nothing wrong with a future-proof gift.
Right now Echo works with SmartThings, Insteon, WeMo, Hue, and Wink devices, which covers most of your bases. Commands are mostly limited to turning things on or off, or brightening or dimming lights. But even basic triggers are fun when you’re barking them at a machine. It feels like you’re giving the commands in the future.
The Weird Miscellany
There are so many tiny one-off things you can do with an Echo! You can ask it for a sports score, or a customized update that runs down the latest news your favorite teams. You can ask how late a nearby pharmacy is open, or where you can get some decent Thai food (sourced from Yelp). You can ask Alexa to tell you a joke, although no guarantees it’ll actually be funny.
And all this is before you dive into the “skills” section of the Alexa companion app, a treasure trove of oddities. On-demand Shakespearean insults! A verbal game of blackjack! Literally three different ways to fetch the current Bitcoin price! Something called “Ask Daddy” that I’m frankly a little concerned about!
You can get cat facts, summon up a fortune teller, find out how BART’s running. Echo can serve up famous quotes, various number-based guessing games, or topics of conversation in case you’ve run out. “Skills” is the wild west of personal assistants; there’s something there for everyone, and plenty there for no one at all.
The Hard Sell
If you’re not yet convinced that the Echo is the perfect lazy/thoughtful gift, consider the following.
They (Probably) Don’t Already Have One: Look, the Echo is weird. It’s not the kind of thing that someone stumbles into. And while it’s in the top ten of Amazon’s best-selling electronics, it’s nowhere near ubiquitous. Put another way: You’re likely to have a pretty good idea of whether they’re the kind of person who would have already spent nearly $200 on a Bluetooth speaker personal assistant.
It’s the Ultimate Kitchen Companion: Does this person cook, or even just microwave things? Will they ever in their lives? The Amazon Echo is their new best friend. Being able to bounce around different songs, playlists, and radio stations without using your sticky casserole-prep fingers is revelatory. Not only that, but Alexa will happily convert quarts into cups for you (along with any other quick kitchen math) if you just ask nicely.
It’s Your Very Best Option: Otherwise you’re going to get them, what, a hoverboard? Might as well put a gift certificate for one free ankle injury under the tree. An Apple TV? They’ll just need a new one when 4K comes around. A smartwatch? Do not give anyone you love a smartwatch.
Amazon Echo is versatile, it’s original, it’s weird, it’s useful, and it looks nice on a countertop. The only thing it’s not, right now, is on sale—but you can’t put a price on the perfect default gift.
See the original post: