Amazon this week officially removed the velvet rope from Echo, its "Siri-with-a-speaker" smart home device. You can now buy Echo for $180, no invitation needed, though you have to wait until at least July 14 for it to ship.
The big question: Should you buy Echo? My quick-and-dirty answer: Yes, if ... you tend to be an early adopter (that's me); love gadgets (check); want to get in early on a cool product that regularly gets new features (yes please); and could use a little hands-free help at home (definitely). However, if you think $180 is too much to spend on a smart home gadget that, to some degree, does nothing more than the other gadgets you already own — and that's a perfectly logical conclusion — Echo probably isn't for you.
I've had Echo since March, and I've developed a personal pattern of use with it. Some mornings, as I fix breakfast, I ask Echo for the day's weather forecast. I work from home, and during the day, I rarely interact with the device. When cooking dinner, I ask Echo to set a timer and to tell me the latest news updates. Then, during dinner, I get Echo to play relaxing music to help me unwind.
Of course, I can perform all of these tasks with a smartphone — and in some cases, my Apple Watch. But with Echo, I don't have to look at a device to take action. For example, I can put a chicken into the oven and simultaneously speak Echo's wake word — "Alexa," or if you prefer, "Amazon," which sounds kind of creepy to me —followed by a request. Does this save me a huge amount of time? Nope, but every little bit helps, and I like being able to keep moving through my routines without having to pause to get information.
The best thing about Echo is how Amazon regularly gives it new features, which you can add using Echo's mobile app. A recently released Echo IFTTT channel lets you create new IFTTT "recipes," or use existing ones that work with Gmail, Evernote, Nest thermostats and more. Other recent Echo enhancements include voice-control interaction with Pandora (though using Spotify and iTunes is a bit more complicated); integration with several popular smart home gadgets; access to current traffic conditions; Audible audio-book playback (with support for Amazon's cool Whispersync for Voice feature); and access to Google Calendars.
Honestly, I only utilize a small portion of Echo's full functionality, and some features — such as the ability to make purchases on Amazon via voice — I'll probably never use. (I want to see products before I buy them, thank you very much.) The value I do get from Echo is worth the price of entry for me now, however. And who knows what cool new features Amazon will add next week?