Echoing Frustration [#18]

I received an Amazon Echo for my birthday. I honestly wasn’t expecting to, so it was a really fun and exciting surprise to unwrap; although, I have to admit that my initial reaction was “What am I going to use this for?”.

So, a month on, what do I find myself using the Echo for? Because we do use it, all the time (probably every day, in fact). The obvious use for an Echo is music. It syncs nicely with Amazon Music (obviously), Spotify, Pandora and a bunch of other services. Straight away though, we run into problem number one with the Echo: I live in the UK. So that long list of music services is actually just Amazon and Spotify. Sure, I have a Spotify premium account, so that list suits me just fine, but it is something to keep in mind. If you live in the UK, a lot of the features and services that actually use the Alexa platform just don’t exist.

But, still, Spotify works wonderfully. It took a few days to get used to the way Alexa, Amazon’s assistant, wants you to request songs but once we worked it out it became surprisingly natural. There are some issues, particularly with albums with unusual names such as Watsky’s X Infinity. It should be pronounced “times infinity”, but Alexa only understands “ex infinity”. Still, not the most irritating problem in the world.

No, that title goes to the single largest gripe that I have with the Echo and Amazon’s implementations in general. Because Amazon really want you to use their own music platform on the service, not their direct rival Spotify, the interaction with the service is as stripped back as possible. To be fair, Spotify has been removing features continually for years anyway, but I use most of what’s left pretty consistently. Chief amongst those extras is Last.FM integration which is frustratingly absent from the Echo. This has caused some pretty big issues and a whole lot of irritation.

I initially hoped to hook up a recipe in IFTTT, but Alexa’s API only allows you to know when a song is being played through Amazon Music, not third party services. It also turns out that IFTTT has dropped Last.FM support. That’s a whole other complaint for another time but… dammit, really?!

But, I thought, I’m a Prime subscriber as well. That means I can just use Amazon Music on the Echo and create an IFTTT to record a list to a Google sheet. Not the most elegant solution, but coupled with the Universal Scrobbler, it would be relatively low maintenance. Except, you see, Prime Music and Amazon Music aren’t the same thing. I hadn’t noticed this before, as I use Prime for shipping, storage and TV, but apparently Echo doesn’t work with Prime music itself. Sigh.

So, at the moment I’m stuck in limbo. For a brief time it looked like casting from my PC or phone would work, albeit at the complete loss of voice control, which is pretty much the main selling point of an Echo. Unfortunately, that appears to be hit and miss at best. I’ve temporarily accepted defeat, but I will say this: the moment a competitor comes out with a product that lets me Scrobbl music, I will be switching immediately.

Because, here’s the thing. In spite of this huge, gaping black hole of missing functionality, we use the Echo every day. It sits in our kitchen, where it has completely replaced a collection of speakers, digital radios and iPods with a single, elegant device. It lets you change songs, check the time or convert measurements whilst elbow deep in food preparation or washing up. It’s even replaced our old egg timer, allowing us to time multiple dishes all at once, and looks set to do the same with our shopping list. My initial thought of “What am I going to do with this” has been answered many times over with a wealth of surprising little features. Plus, it sounds great; we pretty much use it as our main audio player in fact. Despite everything I’ve said above, I am a complete convert to voice controlled audio players and cannot wait to see what functionality comes to them in the future. It’s just that, right now, the one piece of functionality I most want is missing. Fingers crossed, not for long!

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