Our Amazon Echo finally arrived. I’d originally wanted it for Ted’s birthday last December, but Amazon was doing a phased release. Once I signed up for the waiting list, it finally let me order in around March and the thing itself has just arrived. On the plus side, as a Prime member I got it for half price.

The Echo is supposed to do a bunch of stuff – tell you the weather, various other useful facts, play music, let you put stuff on a to-do or shopping list, set a timer. To let it know you’re talking to it, you start each utterance with “Alexa…” So far the most fun thing I’ve found to do with it is to have it compete head to head with Siri – giving the same command to the Echo and as a voice command to my Apple phone.

Alexa wins on hands-free use; I think you can set Siri to wake when summoned by voice, but only when the phone is plugged in.

Alexa is also better at music. You can tell her who to play and if you don’t have that artist in your Amazon library (which appears to consist of music you’ve downloaded from Amazon, but I didn’t think I had much) and are a Prime member, it will play that from the Prime music library. Siri will play any music on your phone, and will also play iTunes radio – but I tried that out the other day and was very unimpressed. (I set up a radio station similar to one I have on Pandora, with lots of different music I can sing to, and while Pandora grasps the concept of singable music (she refers to it as “acoustic sonority” and provides me a wide range of music where I can tell that the different seeds (songs or artists) I put in are influencing the music choices, with the iTunes radio even though I listed lots of songs and performers, the whole station seemed to be keyed to the first song I listed. As that happened to be “California Dreamin’ “, it decided that what I wanted was music that could have been performed on the Sonny and Cher show. It probably goes without saying that that was not what I wanted – I just like the song’s harmonies and folk-rock sound.)

Alexa and Siri both do well on the weather. I suspect this will be the prime use for the Echo – I can check weather on my phone or iPad, but it will be convenient to do it handsfree as I’m getting ready. Alexa also can provide a news report, which can be customized. It can read my Audible audiobooks, but I’m more likely to keep having my phone do this, since I need to use headphones t hear well when I’m erging. (I used to use earbuds attached to an iPod clipped to my waistband; now I use my phone with Bluetooth headphones.) It was nice that when I told Alexa to read my book, it went to my current location. (I have the audio version that’s synced with my Kindle so Amazon is supposed to be remembering where I am in it – this isn’t an unexpected invasion of privacy.)

But where Siri way outclasses Alexa is on information. Alexa can provide Wikipedia entries, but Siri harnesses true websearch capabilities. The result was that Alexa was totally confused by “What is the value of the Dow Jones index today”, and “what is the Dow Jones” just gave me the Wikipedia entry for it – not too helpful. Siri brought it right up. When I asked “What is the right temperature to cook fish to?” Alexa was again baffled. Siri websearched, and came up with a table of safe cooking temperatures at the top of her list of responses – but to see it I’d have had to open it up, which since I didn’t have my phone open at the time would have meant putting in my password or fingerprint. Not the most helpful thing when you’re cooking and have raw fish all over your hands.

Verdict: nobody’s perfect yet, but both are god enough to be useful. Siri is better – but only when your hands are free.