Amazon's smart glasses that can beam Alexa straight to your ears feel like the future, but with some major downsides
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- Amazon's Echo Frames prove that smart glasses can be more than a gimmick by providing useful, hands-free notifications and music playback.
- You can do many of the same things on the Echo Frames as you can with other Alexa gadgets, such as listen to music, set timers, ask questions, and receive alerts.
- But many of the things that Echo Frames are designed for, like playing music and delivering phone notifications, are still better executed by other wearables like wireless headphones and smartwatches.
- Amazon has expanded its privacy offerings in recent years, but it can still be difficult for others to know when Alexa is activated on the glasses.
From light bulbs to door locks, TVs, thermostats, security cameras, and even toothbrushes, Amazon's Alexa assistant has been cropping up in just about everything over the past several years.
But in 2019, Amazon found yet another new home for Alexa: prescription eyeglasses. Amazon unveiled the Alexa-enabled Echo Frames during its annual product event that year alongside the Echo Buds and a slew of other gadgets.
The Echo Frames, like Amazon's now-canceled Alexa ring, was part of the company's Day 1 Editions program, but the company finally decided to move forward with it as a real product in December. Day 1 Editions is a sort of purgatory for new Amazon gadgets; products in the program aren't quite ready to be launched on a massive scale, but they're also more advanced than prototypes.
I was skeptical of the $249.99 Echo Frames to say the least. As popular as Amazon's virtual assistant has become, I'm probably not alone in saying I'm feeling some Alexa fatigue. The last thing anyone really needs, I thought to myself, was yet another gadget with Alexa in it.
It wasn't until I spent a few days using the Echo Frames that I really began to understand why Amazon made them in the first place. The Echo Frames feel like what smart glasses should have been all along: unobtrusive, connected glasses that add convenience without getting in the way.
It's sort of a mashup between Google Glass and AirPods, minus the camera, tiny screen, and painfully short battery life that came with Google's eyewear. Instead, imagine wearing AirPods continuously all day so that you can listen to music, hear incoming notifications, and ask questions to a virtual assistant — but without actually wearing AirPods.
The Echo Frames are enough to convince me that smart glasses can be more than just a gimmick. But there are still plenty of reasons why a pair of Amazon smart glasses should give you some pause to say the least.
Although the Echo Frames may make the strongest case for smart glasses yet, it's still unclear precisely who this gadget is for. Many of the tasks the Echo Frames are designed to do, like listening to music and receiving notifications, can still be done much better through other wearables like smartwatches and wireless earbuds.
While Amazon has rolled out more privacy-oriented features in recent years, it's difficult for others around you to tell when you're using Alexa through the glasses, which could raise some privacy concerns.
All told, the Echo Frames show a lot of promise, but with some pretty big caveats. Here's a deeper dive at what it's been like to use Amazon's first pair of smart glasses.
Amazon Echo Frames specifications
- Speakers: 4 microspeakers
- Microphones: 2 beamforming microphones
- Durability: IPX: 4 for water and sweat resistance
- Weight: 31g
- Sensors: Capacitive touch sensor, ambient light sensor, and accelerometer
- Compatibility: Android 9.0 and iOS 13.6 and higher
- Battery: Estimated 14 hours
- Bluetooth: Bluetooth 5.0
- In the box: Echo Frames with non-corrective lenses, carrying case, cleaning cloth, power adapter, and charging cable
Design and setup
The Amazon Echo Frames look almost exactly like a pair of regular eyeglasses. The only giveaways are the buttons along the bottom of the glasses' right arm and the charging connector.
One of those buttons is referred to as the action button, and it can be used to turn the glasses on or off and mute the microphone as well as phone notifications, while the other button is for adjusting the volume. There's also a touchpad along the right temple of the glasses that can be used for accepting or rejecting calls and notifications, accessing your phone's virtual assistant if you don't want to use Alexa, and controlling media playback.
The Echo Frames also feel just as lightweight as a regular pair of glasses, making them easy to wear all day long. My main complaint about their design is that they only come in one style, and I don't particularly love how that one style fits my face. The glasses come in three colors: black, tortoise, and blue, but all in the same shape. The build quality of the glasses also feels a bit flimsy for the price compared to standard eyeglasses.
The glasses come with non-corrective lenses by default, but you can take them to eyewear professionals like LensCrafters to get them fitted with your prescription. Amazon also says they should be eligible for out-of-network insurance reimbursement with providers such as VSP Vision Care, Eye Med, and Cigna.
Setting up the Echo Frames is just as simple as any other Alexa accessory. Just plug them into their charger, launch the Alexa app, and tap the "Add a device" button. From there, select "Amazon Echo," and then "Echo Frames" to connect the glasses to your phone.
The Echo Frames can do just about anything other Echo devices can, such as set timers, answer questions, play music, control smart home devices, and answer phone calls.
If you're concerned about others hearing your notifications or music in public, don't be. The Echo Frames come with open-ear audio, which as its name implies directs sound to your ears so that only you can hear it.
The technology worked surprisingly well in my experience. Even though I was listening to holiday tunes at what seemed like a reasonably high volume during a walk in the snow recently, my husband standing right beside me couldn't hear a thing.
Amazon isn't the only company using this type of technology. Bose's Frames sunglasses also direct audio toward your ear so that it's difficult for others to hear unless they're standing right next to you.
Music coming through the Echo Frames sounded louder and crisper than I thought it would, but it still pales in comparison to dedicated headphones. Music playing through the Echo Frames lacks depth and isn't as punchy or full-bodied as what you'd get when listening through a pair of wireless earbuds like the AirPods. It's more like listening to music playing from your phone's speaker than headphones.
Still, audio is loud enough to enjoy casually but not the point where it becomes difficult to understand what's happening around you. I could imagine that being useful for city dwellers like myself that do a lot of walking under normal circumstances.
After all, listening to Spotify on your walk to the store without having to remove an earbud to talk to the cashier would certainly be convenient. But that seems like a very specific audience; most people are probably fine with using dedicated headphones when they're on-the-go or playing music from a speaker while at home.
I haven't tested the Bose Frames sunglasses myself. But reviewers at The Guardian and CNET seemed satisfied with its audio quality, so they may be a better choice of listening to music is your top priority. But they're sunglasses instead of everyday prescription glasses like the Echo Frames, so you likely won't be wearing them all day unless you're spending the day outdoors.
Notifications and battery life
Alexa can also deliver notifications from your phone, essentially filling the same purpose as a smartwatch in this regard. If you have phone notifications turned on, Alexa will chime in to tell you which app you're receiving a notification from. From there, you can choose to hear the full alert by swiping your finger alongside the right arm of the glasses.
During my time with the Echo Frames, I found Alexa most useful for receiving texts and Slack messages when I wasn't near my phone or computer. You can also choose to cut down on the number of notifications you receive by turning on the VIP Filter, which as its name implies lets you choose which apps and contacts you want to hear from.
The ability to deliver phone notifications to a wearable device so that you don't have to constantly grab your phone isn't new. Smartwatches have been doing this for years, and it's exactly what makes them so useful besides their health tracking capabilities.
But receiving notifications through your glasses is an entirely different experience that's better in some ways and worse in others. For example, having Alexa read my text messages to me while I was cooking dinner felt more convenient than receiving the same notification through my Apple Watch.
Even though smartwatches make it easier to see more information at a glance compared to your phone, you still must pause to look at your watch and actually read the message. Having Alexa built into your glasses almost feels like having a true virtual assistant since it can read my incoming message hands-free as I'm chopping vegetables at the counter, typing away at work, or taking a walk without any interruption to the task at hand.
But while I generally enjoyed having Alexa tell me every time I received a new message, I could easily see how it could feel overwhelming or annoying to some, even if you decide to turn on the VIP filter. Smartwatch notifications, on the other hand, are much more subtle and easier to ignore since they're not audio-based and usually just result in a light buzz on the wrist. They're also better suited for longer messages that are better read than heard and might not translate as well to Alexa.
The Echo Frames should last long enough on a single charge to get through a whole day depending on how you use them. After about seven hours of usage which included listening to music for roughly 30 minutes, taking a short phone call, and otherwise receiving notifications, I still had 50% of a charge left. If you use these spectacles for lengthy phone calls and listen to a lot of music, you'll probably burn through its battery much faster.
For a device like the Echo Frames that isn't meant to be worn overnight, a day's worth of battery life is fine for most people. I also had my glasses set to shut down automatically whenever I took them off, which helps preserve battery.
The idea of having a a device that's constantly listening for a wake word has become relatively normal given the popularity of Amazon's Echo smart speakers.
Like other Echo devices they only start recording after hearing the wake word, and Amazon says all recordings are encrypted when being sent to its servers. The Echo Frames in particular are designed to only respond to the wearer's voice.
But there are some privacy considerations to keep in mind that make the Echo Frames different from a smart speaker, according to three privacy experts who spoke with Insider Reviews.
Unlike an Echo speaker, which has a unique and recognizable look and is situated in a more private setting like the home, the Echo Frames look just like any other pair of glasses and are meant to be worn in public. And while the wearer might be fully aware when Alexa is listening, public bystanders might not.
When Alexa is activated on the Echo Frames, a subtle blue light is visible just above the right eye. But you can't really see this light unless you're the person wearing them.
"There really wouldn't necessarily be [a] notice to a bystander, someone in public, that these are smart glasses that are capable of recording," Jeremy Greenberg, policy counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum, said to Insider Reviews.
Amazon's privacy and data collection policies, like those of other large tech firms such as Apple and Google, has also come under scrutiny in the last couple of years. In 2019, Bloomberg reported that contractors had unintentionally listened to private conversations resulting from accidental Alexa activations.
Amazon has since launched new privacy features, such as the ability to delete Alexa history with your voice, have voice data automatically deleted after three or 18 months, and ask Alexa about how to review privacy settings.
And just like any other Echo product, users can view and delete their data anytime, and there's also a physical button on the Echo Frames for muting the microphone. But unlike Apple and Google, Amazon saves your voice recordings by default, an option that must be changed in the Alexa app.
"Although it sounds like Amazon has tried to design these in a way that's thoughtful about privacy, it can be hard to predict the ways in which privacy might unexpectedly fail or if they could be misused," David O'Brien, senior researcher in privacy and security at Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, said to Insider Reviews via email.
Should you buy it?
Amazon makes a fairly strong case for smart glasses with the Echo Frames, combining the convenience of wireless headphones and smartwatch-like instant notifications in an accessory many people wear every day.
But unless you really love Alexa, most people would probably be better off using a pair of wireless headphones like Apple's AirPods, Samsung Galaxy Buds, or Amazon Echo Buds for listening to music, and a smartwatch for notifications.
The fact that they cost about $155 more than the standard glasses available at Warby Parker but only come in one shape and three colors can also make the Echo Frames a tough pick for everyday glasses wearers like myself.
That's not to say there isn't a place for them. Those who work with their hands often and aren't able to check their phone often — perhaps medical workers and restaurant staff — could certainly benefit from the ability to ask questions, play music, or take phone calls hands-free without having to wear earbuds. But they feel like a niche product for now.
What are your alternatives?
If you don't need prescription glasses but are still interested in the concept of listening to music and accepting calls through your glasses, the Bose Frames audio sunglasses have been well-received among reviewers.
The Bose Frames are available in a few different styles and models with the cheapest version costing $179.95. The glasses have miniaturized Bose speakers positioned next to each ear, and you can also summon Siri or the Google Assistant with the push of a button in addition to playing music and taking calls.
Otherwise, many of the benefits the Echo Frames have to offer — such as delivering notifications and listening to music on the go hands-free — are already available in existing devices like smartwatches, wireless earbuds, and smart home speakers.
Many of those gadgets also offer a superior experience depending on what you're looking for. Wireless earbuds, for example, offer much better audio quality than what you'd get from the Echo Frames. And smartwatches offer additional features that make use of the fact they're being worn all day, like health and fitness tracking.
The bottom line
The Echo Frames are an ambitious attempt on Amazon's part to integrate tech into everyday eyewear, a goal that many tech giants have seemingly been chasing for years. But it faces tough competition from devices like smartwatches that offer similar benefits in a design that's more universal and generally has more to offer in terms of functionality. And the Frames can also raise potential privacy concerns since it's difficult for others around you to tell when Alexa is recording.
Pros: Useful hands-free notifications; Easy setup; Can listen to music while remaining aware of surroundings
Cons: Others can't really tell when Alexa is listening; Most tasks can be done better on earbuds, smart speakers, or a smartwatch; Limited style options
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