We've been waiting for Alexa, the smooth-voiced, Amazon-powered digital assistant from the Echo line of speakers to make her way into other products. The first test case is a device called Triby, branded by its creator, Invoxia, as a "smart speaker." If that makes it sound a lot like the Amazon Echo, that's because it feels a bit like an alternate universe take on the Echo, doing much of what an Echo does -- but not everything -- while adding a handful of its own unique features.
But no one will mistake this for an Echo, which has a distinct tube-like shape with a light-up activity ring on top. Instead, the $199 Triby (£159 in the UK, not currently available in Australia) looks a bit like a vintage radio, with an e-ink screen in place of the tuning dial, and shortcut buttons for contacts and streaming radio stations in place of radio band and tuning controls. (We saw pre-production versions last November and at CES this year.)
The back panel is a giant magnet, which makes it perfect for slapping on a refrigerator or other metal surface. It's battery-powered, too, making it closer to the Amazon Tap, and Invoxia says the battery could last for up to one month between recharges.
The way Alexa has infiltrated so many lives, controlling playlists, light bulbs, and thermostats, I can see a real appeal to having easy access to her cloud-connected brain from a wide array of devices. The setup process to connect the Triby to my Alexa account was trouble-free, despite the Triby app lacking polish or detailed instructions.
But once connected to my Amazon account via the Triby and Echo apps, I could indeed ask it questions, pull in music from my Amazon library, and yes, control mylightbulbs. It's both reassuringly familiar and also jarring to hear Alexa's familiar voice come from this retro-looking metal box.
But the Triby never felt as smooth and responsive as an Echo. When it works, you get an awkward-sounding bing to indicate Alexa has heard her activation word, but she didn't hear me as regularly as the Echo version, and I had to repeat my requests much of the time. And for some reason the Triby was convinced we were in Seattle, and I could find no way to correct it to New York, making accurate weather reports a pain to ask for.
Sound quality is decent for a kitchen radio, but not quite as good as the Echo itself, which is already not a favorite of audiophiles. For news and talk radio streams, it was fine, but music lacked depth and character.
Using the Triby as a speakerphone was an exercise in frustration. When placing a call, the remote party often could hear me only intermittently -- even after I selected the Triby as my Bluetooth device, the call didn't always transfer to the device. After several test calls, I'd call it generally unreliable as a speakerphone.
I had better luck using the two built-in telephone-shaped buttons to call contacts on my approved Triby list -- using the device to make an VoIP call via the Triby app. But that's impossible to use for making a quick one-button call to a contact who is not already using the Triby app and part of your circle or approved group. If there is a way to expand the functionality of the call buttons on the device via the app, I have yet to find it.
Despite all this, I kinda love this thing. And that's because it has one killer feature that sounds pointless on paper, but shines in real life.
The "doodle" function on the app takes anything you draw on your phone or tablet, and sends it to the small e-ink screen on the Triby. Even better, when a new message comes in, a little yellow flag pops out from the side. You can push the flag back in, or respond with one of a handful of pre-set emojis by pressing a button on the side of the unit.
Yes, it has an emoji button.
This seems like an overly complex way to send a message, something we have no shortage of tools for. But, here's the kicker -- kids love it.
This ridiculous idea of sending drawings to the e-ink screen on a smart speaker kept my 4-year-old occupied for the better part of a weekend, sending doodles to himself. Then his friends came by, and I had a hallway filled with a half-dozen youngsters sending sketches through the Triby app and watching the little flag pop up, over and over again.
Listen, $200 is a lot for a glorified babysitter, especially when so many other parts of the system don't work all that well. But if you want a no-nonsense opinion of whether a gadget is fun, just ask a 4-year-old.
We'll follow up with a rated review soon, once Triby has a chance to work some of the bugs out of its software.