in tech

I got the chance to buy the new Echo Auto from Amazon recently. I could only order one, so I’m playing with it now and will pass it on to my brother soon.

Some thoughts on this new product from Amazon –

1. Terrible packaging – Amazon has this idea of basic packaging for their products. I was recently in the Amazon 4-Star Store in Seattle and noticed that they’re selling their Kindle Paperwhite in an blue (cardboard? paper?) box with bare-minimum packaging. This is both great, because we’re reducing waste, and terrible, because the overall experience is cheap for a >$100 product. The same is true for the Echo Auto. It came in a black box that barely fit the product, charging setup, and a booklet as cozily as possible. The unboxing experience was not impressive.

2. Not-so-good setup, partly because of the app and partly because of Bluetooth – The Amazon Alexa app is your be-all for the Echo line of products. I updated the app before trying to connect the Echo Auto with it and the setup experience was meh. The app is janky and does an OK job of connecting with the device. The problem for me was two-fold – first, the idea that the Echo Auto doesn’t directly connect with the bluetooth of the car, but goes through the app. This has the effect that if you’re in an underground parking, or if your phone has killed the backgrounded app, the Echo Auto gives you an impolite beep as soon as the Accessories come on in your car, to tell you that the Echo Auto has lost the connection with the app and whenever you can, you should start the app so that the process can be completed. I park in an underground parking. This happens every, single, time. This dependence is a boon, because you’re not buying a data plan for yet another product, and you’re not constantly worried about an expensive product being stolen from your car, and because somehow, apps like Spotify work perfectly through this setup, but the impatience shown by the device to connect to its conduit is irritating. The second issue is that BMW doesn’t seem to have a good bluetooth vendor. Their bluetooth is one of the worst I’ve ever used in a car. But hey, this is a post about the Echo Auto, so let’s focus on that.

3. The wait for the beep is funny – when I setup the Echo Auto, the setup explained that I must wait for the beep of the device before I give it a command. So I followed the instructions – Say “Alexa”, wait for a few seconds for the beep, and then give it a command. Nope, not worth it. I have first gen Echo Dots and Google Home Minis and they launch a lot faster than this! I guess this has to do with the device first confirming that the connection with the app is present, and then letting me give it a command. But here’s the thing – after only the first few commands, I stopped waiting for the beep, and lo and behold, it still works! So even if you don’t wait for the beep, the Echo Auto passes everything you say to the app and understands the command. This is both great, and weird. If it starts recording as soon as you say the magic word, then the beep is nothing more than an unnecessary audio feedback, specially since the device also lights up LED to confirm that it’s listening. If this is about a11y, give me the option to turn off the beep.

4. It listens to any Alexa word on sentence – It seems like the Echo Auto doesn’t have a filter for conversations. I can be talking about Alexa in a sentence and the Echo Dots don’t pick it up, but the Echo Auto does, and then complains loudly when it doesn’t understand the command that I didn’t give to it. It’s a first gen Echo Auto, so these are issues that can be ironed out, but it’s not a first gen Echo, so these issues shouldn’t exist to begin with.

5. The air vent is dumb. Just dumb. – When I got the package, it came in a typical Amazon yellow jacket, with not one but two things in it. The Echo Auto in a black box, and the Echo Auto air vent mount, in a blue box. This $15 accessory came free, and I set it up, and took it down within a day. First of all, all air vent mounts are dumb. If I’ve got a thousand dollar phone on an air vent, and it’s freezing cold outside, my expensive phone is being blasted with super hot air on its back. That is NOT how you treat your electronics. So I have it out against air vent mounts in general. On top of this, the wiring is just ugly and inconvenient. I understand that the Echo Auto needs to be in a place where it’s easy to use, and centrally located to hear all voices, and should not cause the driver to move their eyes off the road, but instead of the air vent, I just placed it next to the BMW media controls and it felt just right over there. A weak 3M adhesive strip would work wonders, but even that is not needed, as the USB power cord can just be reeled in and used as a leash for the Echo Auto. So Amazon, thanks for the $15 freebie, but it’s useless.

Overall, the Echo Auto is an interesting product. It conquers the one place Amazon hasn’t fully reached yet – your privacy in your car. It works great with apps and services that the Echo line has tied up well with – ask it for the news, or tell it to change music on Spotify, and, thanks basically to Spotify’s absurdly good API, it all works smoothly. But the device itself is jerky. It’s dependence on your phone, its imperfect listening skills, all need an update. So if you want to play with it, sure, go for it, but maybe wait for v2 or v3 to come along.

I give it two out of five stars.

What do you think?

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