I've been talking to my kitchen counter, and she's been talking back. She's a great listener, Alexa, and clever, too. She knows the forecast, the score of the latest Jets game and what's on my calendar. My only complaint is that she gives me the silent treatment when I ask where I am.
I have a history of acquiring aspirational home appliances, but the Amazon Echo might be one of the few I'll actually use. Unlike my bread maker, saddled with a manual the size of the Gutenberg Bible, Echo simply listens for my requests. Say "Alexa," and it lights up, eager to serve. It's like having Apple's Siri across your home.
Despite some impressive internal tech, the Amazon Echo doesn't require much counter space. A spare black cylinder about nine inches tall and three inches in diameter, Echo is about the size of a half bottle of wine—and it's almost as simple to put to use.
Thanks to noise-cancelling tech and seven—count them, seven—internal mics, Alexa is a keen listener. Address her, and you can see her listening through a cluster of lights nearest to you. Voice recognition is excellent out of the box, and it improves as Echo learns from recordings. Alexa answers most queries by voice, which is ideal if your hands are full. I have her on my kitchen counter because she's great at converting measurements, but thanks to all of those mics, I can address her from other rooms, too.
While Alexa isn't quite Samantha (the voice of artificial intelligence in the movie Her), she sounds less robotic than Siri, and she's nearly as competent. Alexa is less savvy with location-sensitive requests. Anything that involves a map inevitably ends with the nonanswer, "I can't find the answer to the question I heard." A good rule of thumb is that Alexa can answer questions you would ask of Wikipedia. Most of the time she'll answer by voice, but sometimes she'll send you to the Echo app on a mobile device. When I asked her what a Euro was worth, she shared Bing results via the app.
You can also use the app to set a work location (for traffic reports), view recent questions or browse recommendations for anything you add to your shopping or to-do lists. Tucked in the app are a growing list of third-party integrations, including Amazon Prime Music, Pandora and Audible. Thanks to integrations with connected home devices, you can even command Philips Hue bulbs to dim, à la Captain Kirk.
Whether Alexa earns her keep ($179.99) depends upon how many of those third-party integrations you use. But even if an integration is missing today, it might appear tomorrow. Since I began using Echo, Alexa learned how to play content from multiple Amazon accounts and added support for more connected home devices. You could say that Echo improves over time, unlike my bread maker.