It’s almost like a fantasy. Here I am sitting on my couch saying ‘play top news’ to hear stories from The Indian Express read out loud. No, this is no dream. This is what happens when technology gets a voice. Yes, Alexa is here, in our offices, in our living rooms. Amazon Alexa is the first smart voice service to be activated in India and is now available through Amazon Echo series of devices. Alexa has launched with a bunch of Indian partners including Indian Express for news, Saavn for music, Zomato and GoIbibo.
But what can a virtual assistant residing inside a smart speaker really do for you?
Amazon Echo Plus review
Amazon Echo Plus price in India: Rs 14,999
How does the Amazon Echo work?
Amazon Echo is a connected smart speaker. The first thing you have to do is download the Alexa app on your smartphone and link it to your speaker and then connect the latter to your Wi-Fi, after which the speaker does not really need the phone. After this, Alexa uses the Wi-Fi to independently connect to the cloud and search for whatever query you might have and gives you an answer, be it about the weather or the square root of 3, within a few seconds. Alexa has a lot of skills and most of these need to be enabled via the app where you can see partners like Indian Express which can be linked.
What all can Amazon Alexa do in India?
Amazon has brought Alexa to India with its own set of localised skills that come with a good amount of context. So I can ask what the weather is like and Alexa will tell me all about smoggy Delhi. If I ask it for a joke, chances are it will read out a Rajinikanth joke, not something from the US. I ask for a song and it goes into Bollywood by default.
I can also ask Alexa to do things for me, like set an alarm, create a shopping list or even switch on the lights, provided I have the Echo Plus and the Philips Hue lights connected to the same Wi-Fi. My son who seems to have a crush on Alexa, keeps bothering her with all kinds of questions and no, she has not been able find him the TV remote.
How good is Amazon Alexa in India?
Well, I was more than impressed by how Alexa works in India. For one, Alexa has a very Indian voice and not some western accented virtual assistant that might intimidate a lot of us. Also, it catches our accents pretty well and repetitions are not really needed. In fact, it has been able to understand my six-year-old’s queries without much hassle, resulting in both of them becoming great pals over the past week or so.
Most of my queries have been around news or music and it has been able to bring up relevant content more often than not. In fact, I have been listening to a lot more music with Alexa in the living room. But I have also been listening to a lot more of the same music. For instance, if I ask Alexa to play Malayalam music, it invariably picks the same playlist again and again.
So I have been learning to make my queries more specific like ‘play Malayalam music by Yesudas’ and it works like a dream. Another feature I really liked is Alexa’s ability to read books from Kindle. These days while having breakfast, I just ask Alexa to read a book I have open on Kindle. I could also connect a Philips Hue bulb to the Alexa app and then control it with voice commands. I asked Alexa to change the lights to red and it happened in a jiffy. It can connect to more smart home devices, but then we don’t have many options for that in India.
How good is the Amazon Echo Plus?
The Amazon Echo Plus is the top-end unit in the series. So it comes with the added ability of being able to connect with smart home devices like the Philips Hue. It comes with a dial on top that adjusts volume — something you can do with voice as well — as well as a power and mute button.
It has good audio output, but I would not have bought this just to listen to music. It can be loud and the audio quality is rich, but it is not the best Bluetooth speaker you can get at this price point. But then it is the best connected smart speaker at this price point. And that will work in its favour for now.
However, for the average household, where we still have not started using smart bulbs or locks, the Amazon Echo Plus is bit of an overkill. So I would suggest the more affordable Amazon Echo for everyone. This one is priced at Rs 9,999 and comes with the same skills and similar audio quality. It is also a bit more stylish with the fabric cover. For those who are more bothered about the smart features and not so much about the audio quality, the Echo Dot is a good option at Rs 4,499. Use this on your study table for queries and in case you have more planned, connect it to your speakers with a wire.
Should you buy the Amazon Echo?
Yes, if you have been looking for a smart assistant in your house. It does bring in an element of convenience into the house and is fun to have around, not just for the jokes. I would just suggest that you pick the right Echo model as per your need. Till the Apple Homepod and Google Home hit the Indian market, this is our best bet to have a connected smart voice experience at home.