Amazon Echo Review

Introduction

Last fall Amazon announced the Echo:  a combination personnel assistant (think Siri) and bluetooth speaker. For some reason I found the cheezy video strangely compelling, so I signed up for one (and at $99 for Prime members it seemed pretty reasonable). And here we are in February and it just arrived.

Unbox and Setup

IMGP7806The unit arrived in a nice compact box. The internal box followed Amazon’s Fire branding: low key black outside with a pop of orange on the inside. Contents of the box:

  1. The Echo tower
  2. Power adapter
  3. Remote control
  4. Batteries for remote control
  5. Getting started guide and Echo tip sheet

The Echo tower itself is nicely finished and pleasantly hefty due to the two speaker drivers with large magnets. On top of the tower is a light ring that is both a volume knob and a visual indicator that changes color/pattern depending on what’s going on with the Echo.

So I plug it in and it powers up, first flashing some blue, then changing to a sweeping orange. Echo then speaks, telling me that it’s time to start the setup app. My dog is slightly spooked.

The companion app for the Echo runs on iPhones, Android phones, and browsers on your computer. I decided to do the setup using my iMac and Safari, so I went to http://echo.amazon.com and the app loaded. So far so good. I advanced to the connection screen where I’m informed that the Echo has set up a WiFi network, and it was time to turn on my iMac WiFi and connect to Amazon-XXX. I did, and the Echo pleasantly informed me that my client had connected and to continue with the setup app.

And then I hit a problem. The application was stuck on “Connecting….”. My iMac had joined the temporary wifi network just fine (according to my network settings), but it couldn’t connect to the Echo. I tried all the normal things you try in this situation: power cycling the Echo, trying the app on an iPad, etc. Nothing helped. So I called Amazon support.

Initially I talked to a general support engineer in some far away country, but he quickly transferred me to an Echo specialist, Stephanie, who sounded like she was right next door.  After going over some basics, Stephanie had me reset the Echo by inserting a paper clip into a small hole in the base of the Echo. And to make a long story short — that did the trick. I was able to perform the setup process. So to highlight this for others:

If your Echo setup application hangs on “Connecting…”, then turn your Echo over, insert a paper clip into the small hole in the bottom of the Echo, hold for 5 seconds to reset the Echo to factory defaults, and then re-do the setup process.

OK! So now our Echo was up and running.

Speaker Quality

The first thing I was interested in was the speaker quality. One of the primary uses of Echo is to play music so it better sound pretty good. And it does.

The tower contains two downward firing drivers: a 2″ tweeter and a 2.5″ woofer.  Clearly you’re not going to get window shaking bass, but the Echo does produce a full rich sound. Since it is a point source of audio, it’s not going to fill your room like a good home system does. But for background music while you are cooking dinner? Perfect!

Overall the Echo played louder and sounded better than the Cambridge Soundworks Oontz we have (a small decent sounding bluetooth speaker). But it likely lacks the punch of higher end ($200) speakers. I do wish the Echo had some way to support adding external speakers — maybe a headphone out.  But it does not.

In general I have no complaints with the sound quality. It sounds great for what it is.

Voice Recognition

To get the Echo’s attention you use a wakeup word — “Alexa” by default (you have an option to use “Amazon” for those families that already have an Alexa). In general the voice recognition works well. Both my wife and I had no problem using the Echo, and even when it is playing music it easily recognized me without needing to shout. The Echo comes with a remote control with a microphone for those cases when the room is too noisy, or you are too far away. The companion app contains a voice recognition training feature, but so far we’ve felt no need to use it.

In terms of range — it is quite good. The Echo seemed to easily hear us from any point in a large room — and even a room away (with no music playing).

In fact, the voice recognition might be too good! We were watching American Idol one evening, and there was a contestant named “Alexis”. I’m not sure exactly what Ryan Seacrest said, but in the middle of the show our Echo announced “Adding Books to your shopping list”.

Music Streaming

Currently the primary use of the Echo will be to stream music. The Echo has access to your Amazon Prime music, as well as the streaming services iHeartRadio and TunieIn. Some example of requests you can ask Echo:

  • Play my “Dinner Party” play list
  • Play Journey
  • Play KNBR radio
  • Play Taylor Swift
  • Louder
  • Softer
  • Next
  • Volume 4
  • Mute

Generally Echo first tries to satisfy your request using your Prime Music library, then falls back to free content on Prime Music. At times it has also fallen back to iHeartRadio and TuneIn. For example Amazon Prime has plenty of Journey, but apparently no Taylor Swift. So “Play Journey” played stuff from Prime, and “Play Taylor Swift” went to iHeartRadio.

iHeartRadio also streams live radio, so “Play KNBR” plays our local sports radio station. And of course you can explicitly pick an iHeardRadio custom station by saying “Play iHeartRadio My Jazz”.

TuneIn has a variety of podcasts and NPR shows, so “Play This American Life” will play the latest episode.  Unfortunately I have not found a way to select a specific podcast episode via voice command. For example I want to listen to Episode 1 of the Serial podcast, but I can’t get the Echo to do that unless I use the companion app to select it.

Overall the music streaming works pretty well, but it is not without frustration. There have been times that I just can’t get the Echo to understand what I’m requesting. For example, I have some tracks from the soundtrack to Whiplash in my Prime music library, but no matter what I said it kept playing some song name Whiplash. I had to resort to creating a specific playlist — at which point “Play playlist whiplash” did the trick.  Also, sometimes requesting specific classical pieces does not go well. It just has no idea what I’m asking for.

But these frustrations have been relatively minor, and we find ourselves using the music streaming capability often.

Other Features

In addition to streaming music Echo has some additional features:

  • Sports: The Echo has some integration with sports results. It’s very handy to be able to ask: “Alexa, when do the Warriors play next” or “What was the score of the Giants game?”.
  • Setting a timer: we love this feature! If you’ve just phoned in your Japanese take out order and you need to leave in ten minutes to pick it up: “Alexa, 10 minute timer!”. Our your hands are covered in bread dough: “Alexa, 15 minute timer!”.
  • Shopping and ToDo list: You can add and remove things from these lists by asking Alexa. These lists are made available in the companion app so you can access them on your smart phone. “Alexa, add Almond Milk to the shopping list”.
  • Flash Briefing: You can get a brief update on news and weather by asking: “Alexa, flash briefing”. We have ours configured to use NPR for the news.
  • General info: I was concerned that the Echo might be a temptation to cheat on my Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle — after all, I’m used to asking my wife questions. Why not Alexa? Well no worries there — the Echo is not as smart as some of the other digital assistants — at least not yet. For example it did not know the largest lake in South America. And in general, these type of queries are hit and miss. But the Echo does know about local sports teams, which is huge! So this does work: “Alexa, when do the Warriors play next?”.  And I get the answer in Pacific Time  (which is better than Yahoo Sports which seems to list everything in ET).
  • Spelling: oh yes, the Echo can spell. So now my family can ask Alexa instead of me!

Conclusion

So why is this better than Siri on your iPhone plus a bluetooth speaker?

It’s better because the Echo is always on, and always there. You don’t have to find it. You don’t have to touch it. You just talk at the room and voila — you have your answer or your music. So for $99 bucks I think it’s a bundle of fun for Amazon Prime members.

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Backyard Landscaping: Paver Patio

My wife hated The Deck. We had lived in our house 18 years, and every single summer she asked “when are we going to tear out The Deck”? The Deck was dirty, high maintenance, and was elevated 18″ which, although not a great height, still made you feel like your head was poking above the fences — further reducing any sense of privacy. We really didn’t use our backyard — which was a shame — in large part because of The Deck.

Each year I mumbled something non-committal. Tearing out the deck is the easy part. But then what? We would need a new patio, and after fits and starts and high estimates from contractors I continued to avoid that endeavor.

Finally the spouse had had enough. She hired my son and his friend to tear out The Deck. They were quite efficient. It was gone in a couple days.

So that was that. We were getting a new patio. And we decided to do it ourselves.

There are lots of DIY articles on installing a paver patio. They make it look so simple. And really, it is not rocket science. But there is a big different between laying a 10′ x 10′ patio and a 20′ x 30′ patio. And there are lots of details the DIY articles gloss over.

In this article I’ll go over how we did our patio, and highlight some mistakes we made.

Materials

We wanted a fairly large format paver which ruled out the smaller pavers found at your big box store. After looking around we chose Calston Quarry Stone Versailles (the same manufacturer we used for our garden retaining wall materials) in Sequoia Sandstone using the Versailles 3 pattern. Along some edges we used a border of 6×9 Quarry Stone.

One thing to keep in mind when doing a large landscaping project is the weight of materials. For exaIMGP7635mple, I think the 16″x16″ pavers were around 40 pounds each. You have to haul those around, try to set them delicately, and then sometimes remove them and reset them. I would not have wanted to work with any larger of a paver. And I’m glad “only” 40% of our pattern was the large paver.

Once you have picked the pavers, pattern and know your square footage your supplier can help you determine how many pavers of each size to get. Also most manufacturers have estimation guides that you can use for budgeting purposes.

In addition to the pavers you will need baserock, bedding sand, and grouting sand. Again, your supplier can help you determine how much you need of each.

And finally, you will need some sort of edge restraint. There are various products. We ended up using a couple of different brands of flexible plastic edge restraints that are held in place with metal spikes. This was especially helpful on our one curved section. The professionals often pour cement footings with a little rebar, but I didn’t want to mess with that.  So far the plastic restraints have held up just fine.

Tools

The tools you will use most are good old fashioned, hard working hand tools. I also rented a mini loader since I had a fair amount of dirt to push around (and yes, part of the benefit of DIY is being able to rent fun equipment). You’ll want to rent a plate compactor twice. Once for compacting the base rock and once (with a rubber pad) for compacting the pavers after laying and grouting them. A brick saw is necessary if you have cuts to make (which you will if you have any curves).

Rentals

Hand Tools

  • Shovels, pick axe, digging bar
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Two 4′ x 1″ external diameter iron pipe
  • Hearing protection
  • Buckets
  • Various hand trowels for leveling sand, etc
  • A few straight 2×6’s for screeding sand
  • Wooden stakes
  • Hammer
  • Rubber mallet
  • Hand plate compactor
  • Levels: 4′ and short
  • String for doing layout

Layout and Pitch

Layout seems simple — you know where you want your patio after all, but there are some things to keep in mind:

  • The dimensions given for the pavers are typically “nominal”. That means they are not exactly that size. Just like a 2×4 isn’t 2″ by 4″. The pavers will likely be a bit smaller than their nominal dimensions.
  • Think about where you want full pavers versus cut. You might have some fixed sides — against the house for example, or against a sidewalk or retaining wall — that prevent you from rounding to the next whole paver. In that case you will have to make some cuts. In our case we wanted hole pavers on the outer edges of the patio and cuts up against the house.
  • Remember, not everything is always square! In our case we had the garden wall that ran parallel to the house. But not exactly parallel!  We choose to keep the patio square to the wall which means it hit the house slightly skewed.

The recommended pitch for a patio is 1/8″ to 1/4″ per foot. And you want to pitch it away from your house (so water runs away from your house).

We pitched our patio 1/4″ per foot (or 1″ per four feet) and this was our first mistake. Pitching this much caused two problems:

  1. The slope is perceptible. It’s not a big problem, and you certainly don’t feel that the patio is sloped, but you can still perceive it (or at least I can!).
  2. On one section of our house the stucco comes down fairly low. Our reference elevation point for the patio was the base of our retaining wall, and the patio rose up from there to meet the house. Since we had a decent pitch, the patio rose nearly 6″ from that point. That resulted in the top of the pavers hitting the house above our stucco line. If we had done a more gentle pitch the pavers would have met the house below the stucco at the foundation.

I think if we had done a gentler pitch, like 3/4″ per four feet I would have been happier with the results.

Excavation and Grading

First you need to plan your grade. For our patio it went like this:

  • The thickness of our patio is: 6″ baserock + 1″ bedding sand + 2.5″ paver = 9.5″
  • We wanted the top of the patio to intersect our garden wall at a certain spot at its base. This became our reference point.
  • I hand dug a shallow trench along the garden wall that was about 9.5″ deep. I then hammered in a stake such that the top of the stake was 3.5″ below where I wanted the top of the patio. The top of the stake represented the top of the baserock layer so about 6″ of stake was exposed. This was the reference point for laying out our grade.
Excavating with the SK350

Excavating with the SK350

To dig out the rest of the soil I rented a Ditch Witch SK350 mini skid steer loader. It was fun. The entire family took turns. A couple tips while excavating:

  • Tape a 3/4″ wood block (in our case it was a 1″ wood block — see mistake above) to one end of a 4 foot level.
  • As you excavate, use this to check your grade. Place the end of the level with the wood block on the downhill side, and when the level is level, you have the correct pitch.
  • Your pitch doesn’t have to be perfect, but if it is close it helps
  • We used the mini loader to dig the grass up in the rest of our backyard too
  • We distributed the dirt around the rest of the yard to generally raise the grade of our backyard up a bit
  • Wear hearing protection if use something like the SK350. It was pretty loud.

We were able to excavate in one day. And yes, it was a long day.

IMGP7582

Pushing dirt around

It is recommended that after excavation you compact your base soil with a hopper or vibrating plate compactor. I have to be honest that I did not do this. Our soil has a high clay content and is really dense and compact as it is. So I took a shortcut and skipped this. This has not proven to be a problem, but if your soil is loose you’ll definitely want to compact it.

After you finished excavating it’s time to set the rest of the grading stakes. These will help you lay your base rock to grade. The idea is to have the top of the grading stakes be at the level that you want the top of your baserock.

Use that first grading stake as a reference. Hammer in stakes every four feet across the pitch from your reference stake. The tops of these stakes should be level with each other. So for us these ran parallel to our garden wall.

IMGP7594

Grading stakes installed

Now off of each of those stakes run a row of stakes up the pitch four feet apart. Use your 4′ level with the 3/4″ wood block to check the height of the new stake: place the end of the level with the wood block on the downhill stake and rest the other end of the level on the uphill stake. When the level is level your uphill stake is the correct height. Repeat this process until you have a grid of stakes 4′ apart.

When you are done do some sanity checking by running a line down a row of stakes and ensure the total drop from top stake to bottom stake is what you expect.

You might also want to spray paint the top of the stakes with florescent orange spray paint. This makes the stakes more visible and helps you not to trip over them.

Base Rock

IMGP7605

Tucker the Cavalier helping lay baserock

Now it’s time to lay down the base rock! The recommendation is to do this in multiple 3″ lifts, compacting between the lifts. Once again I took a short cut. During the week my family hauled baserock and spread it until it was even with the top of the stakes (all 6″ at once). Then on the weekend we compacted it with a plate compactor and hauled and compacted more as needed.

Once you think the baserock is done, you need to double check it to make sure it is even. And this is where we made our second mistake.

IMGP7609

Tucker inspecting

To check the baserock  get a nice straight 2 x 4 and lay it on edge on the baserock and check for low and high points. Make sure to keep turning the 2×4 90 degrees so you are checking both across and with the ptich. If you have a gap (that a pencil will slip through) under the middle of the 2×4 then you have a low spot If the 2×4 wobbles on a high spot, then you have a high spot.  Fill, level and recompact as needed.

Our mistake is that we rushed this and ended up with some low spots that we did not detect until too late. That caused problems later (see below). So do a good job and make sure that base rock is even!

Compactin

Compacting baserock

Edging

Where you have exposed edges of your patio you need some form of edge restraint to contain the pavers. Professionals often do this with cement and some rebar. We used a couple different brands of plastic edging product that you secure in place with metal spikes. The plastic edging is especially helpful if you have any curves as the edging makes it easy to get a smooth even curve.

I don’t recall the specific brands we used — but I don’t expect there is much difference.

Since it is difficult to exactly predict where the edge of the patio will end up (due to variations in pavers) we did not install all of the edging to start.

Laying Pavers

Once we had the baserock compacted we started to lay the pavers. We did not install edging on one edge of our patio, since we knew we’d need to adjust that to fit tight up against the pavers.

Before you start laying your pavers make sure to do some dry fitting to confirm your layout and dimensions. Think about where you want full versus cut pavers. For example on our patio we wanted full pavers on the outer edges of our patio, and cut pavers against our house. We also did a border along those edges (and not against the house). IMGP7625

Laying the pavers is the fun part of the project. First lay down those two iron pipes parallel to each other (see photo). Next dump sand between the pipes and rest a 2×6 on the pipes. Then pull the 2×6 along the pipes to screed, or level, the sand. Once you have a nice area of sand gently remove the pipes and fill the gaps left by the pipes with sand (using a small trowel).

Once the sand is down start placing pavers following your pattern. Make sure to drop the pavers flat — try not to let a corner dip and gouge out the sand. Tap the paver with a rubber mallet. Periodically check the pavers to make sure they are pretty even and none are sitting low.

This was our third mistake! We were behind schedule at this point and rushing and did not carefully check for uneveness. After we had laid most of the pavers we could tell we had low spots — all caused by not double checking our baserock (see mistake #2). We ended up going back, pulling up pavers and re-leveling with sand. This was a huge pain — especially with the larger pavers. Rookie mistake. We were able to correct the most egregious of the low spots, but it was no fun.

After laying the main field you might have to cut pavers for some edges. We needed to cut pavers against the house, as well as the pavers in the curve. For this I rented a brick saw.

Compacting and Grouting

At this point all your pavers are laid, and it looks pretty darn good. But you’ll notice that the pavers aren’t completely even (even if you did a nice job leveling them). No worries — compacting smooths that out.

When you rent the plate compactor this time, make sure you get one with a rubber pad that is designed for running over the tops of the pavers. Even with the pad we had a couple pavers chip. Once the pavers are compacted it’s time to grout.

You can use plain old grouting sand — but the latest thing is polymeric sand. When activated with water this sand hardens and binds together. It makes for a great, durable, weed resistant grout. The down side is it will be more work if you need to repair or replace pavers. But we used it and I am pleased with the results. Just make sure to follow the directions on the bag.

Enjoy

Ready for a party. Note the ugly white post. We later wrapped with a sythetic stone post wrap.

Ready for a party. Note the ugly white post. We later wrapped with a sythetic stone post wrap.

When we did our patio we had a deadline. We were throwing my daughter a going away party on the day we planned on finishing the patio. We had until 5pm! I was just finishing activating and rinsing the grout when the first guests arrived. Just made it!

So make sure to throw a party to celebrate your new patio!