There's a lot of buzz around Amazon's Alexa these days. Amazon, the company that never runs out of products frequently runs out of them. The special $99 price for Prime subscribers has been quietly retired. It doesn't hurt that both  Google and Apple are planning to introduce their own voice-activated devices within the next year or so. But for now, the only way to get one of these devices is to buy an Amazon Echo and pay $180 for it.

Wouldn't it be nice if you could take the thing for a test run before shelling out that kind of money? Now you can. Two new apps and a website all give you a feel--sort of--for what life with Alexa would be like:

1. Echoism.io

Echoism.io is a web interfaced created by Amazon to help users of the Echo's API test the skills they create for the device. "Skill" is Amazon's term for the third-party apps written to run on the Echo and give it extra capabilities. ("Alexa, ask Angry Bard for a burn," is one of my favorite things to say to the Echo.)

As with all the apps, you'll need an Amazon account, but then an Echo is relatively useless without one. Click and hold the picture of the Echo to speak to Alexa, then release to let her process your request.

2. Roger

Available for either iOS or Android, Roger is a free app whose main purpose is to enable walkie-talkie style voice messaging across the Internet. But the app also lets you converse with Alexa, even if you don't actually own an Echo.

3. Lexi

The newest of the Echo-simulator apps, Lexi is only available on iOS and costs $4.99. It lets you try out the Echo's conversation style and features on your iPhone and like Echoism.io it helps developers test the skills they're writing. Perhaps most usefully, it lets you use your Echo--even to buy thing from Amazon--while you're away from home.

The problem: None of these is really like using an Echo.

While these apps are a great way to check out the look and feel of an Echo, they won't really tell you what it's like to live with one. All of them are--by necessity--missing the functions that make the Echo special:

1. Music

You can't play your Amazon music, Amazon Prime music, or third-party music from services such as Pandora or Spotify on any of these apps as you can on an Echo. Of course, there's really no need to: If you're using a computer or smartphone then you already have plenty of other ways to listen to music.

2. The Echo speaker

One of the big pluses of the Echo is its speaker. It may not deliver audiophole-level sound, but it's great for listening to music or putting on background tunes during a party. The speaker also gives Alexa a richer sounding voice when she's talking back to you.

3. Touch-free voice control. 

This, of course, is the whole point of Alexa and devices like it. If it was just as convenient to pull out a smartphone (let alone open a web page) to interact with our devices, then we'd all be happy with Siri and "OK Google" and the Echo wouldn't be the sleeper success that it is. 

I've lived with an Echo for about a year now (my husband had the foresight to want one back when they were $99 for Prime members) and the added convenience is so huge it's hard to explain. Yelling out "Alexa, add flour to shopping list," from the kitchen when I'm up to my elbows in some cooking project is something I'll actually do, whereas I couldn't be bothered to turn on my smartphone or tablet and tell Google to do it. Same goes for yelling out questions about the weather, or what time it is, or when a store closes, or asking to reorder some item that we've used up. Would I do these things on a tablet or smartphone? Sure I would. Is it more convenient to just tell my wishes to the air? Of course it is.

So if you're hesitating over whether to invest in a voice-activated home assistant and you want to get a taste of what it's like having Alexa in your life, try her out on one of these apps. But you won't really know what it's like to live with one of these devices until you actually do it.

Published on: May 29, 2016
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