Amazon Echo Buttons review: Fleeting moments of fun, spoiled by glitches and a thin launch lineup

Wait a couple months before getting Amazon’s new Echo Buttons. Hopefully, by then, Amazon and its partners will build out their lineup of games, and Amazon will make the devices a lot easier to set up and use. That’s the takeaway from my family after a few hours playing with the new single-button gadgets from the tech giant.

Echo Buttons, which cost $20 a pair, work with the Alexa voice assistant on Amazon Echo devices to enable new games — letting people tap to answer trivia questions and solve word puzzles, for example.

Announced at Amazon’s big Echo product unveiling this fall, the Echo Buttons are the flagship product in a coming wave of “Alexa Gadgets,” simple devices that connect over Bluetooth to an Echo to enable new ways of interacting with Alexa and Amazon Echo smart speakers. Echo Buttons officially launched yesterday. They’re so new that there aren’t any public customer reviews at the time of this writing. We pre-ordered to be among the first to receive them.

Theoretically, at least, product extensions like this are a key way for Amazon to build on its lead over Google, Apple, Microsoft and other competitors in the market for home-based voice assistants and smart speakers. But the Echo Buttons experience feels like a beta, based on our initial usage.

If you order now, Echo Buttons won’t be available until after the holidays, so you’re too late to get them as gifts this year, but that’s probably a good thing for now.

How they work

The concept is simple, which is part of the appeal. Each button can show multiple colors, one at a time. The Echo detects when a button has been pressed, which creates all sorts of possibilities for fun experiences. The devices themselves are simple plastic with spring-loaded buttons — about what you’d expect for $10 each.

Playing around the table last night, we experienced fleeting moments that demonstrated the potential for a whole new world of family games.

My family’s favorite game on Amazon’s new Echo Buttons … for 10 minutes. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

For example, our 7-year-old loves “Button Monte.” The Echo identifies a single button as the one to follow, showing it as red, then hides it by switching all of the buttons yellow. Then one player, the “trickster,” quickly mixes up the buttons on the table while another player, the “watcher,” tries to follow along. It’s just like the classic game that crowds love to play on the big screen at the ballpark. When the buttons turn green, the trickster stops and the watcher presses the button that he or she believes to be the one. Alexa says whether the choice is right or wrong.

Super fun. For about 10 minutes.

Limited launch lineup

Unfortunately, that’s one of only four games available for the Echo Buttons at launch. Despite trying multiple times on two Echo devices, we couldn’t get one of the other games, “Party Foul,” to work properly. It kept freezing up or not proceeding to the next step in the game — so much that I can’t really describe what the game is supposed to do. Maybe we were doing it wrong. But for our purposes, it felt like there were really only three games.

We did enjoy the other two. “Trivial Pursuit Tap” from Hasbro works just like you’d expect, letting players buzz in to answer questions. “Hanagram” is an audio word puzzle, providing one letter at a time (out of order) along with a category, clues and the number of letters in the word, letting players buzz in when they think they know the answer.

The questions in Trivial Pursuit Tap were too advanced for younger players, but we did enjoy Hanagram. One impressive moment came when one member of our family was able to sit across the room with an Echo Button on the arm of a chair while knitting, and still buzz in and have the Echo Show hear her voice from some 20 feet away.

Amazon’s product page for the Echo Buttons names two other games, “Beat the Intro” from Musicplode, and “Sounds Fun with Mike Epps” from Ground Control. They aren’t available yet as far as I can tell.

Glitchy setup and launch

Simply launching games was a struggle. Hanagram is obviously a play on the word “anagram,” and the game pronounces the name as such when it launches. But the Echo only recognizes the name when you pronounce it “Hah-na-gram,” and it won’t launch when you say the name like you’d image it should be pronounced.

Hanagram (or is that “Hah-na-gram”?) on the Echo Buttons.

You also need to use very precise language to launch the audio menu of available Echo Button games. For example, “Alexa, what games can I play with Echo Buttons?” works, but “Alexa, which games can I play with my Echo Buttons?” does not. (I had to refer to the instructions to make sure I got the phrasing right.)

Hey, Amazon: How about letting us press an Echo Button to launch the menu?

In addition, you need to tell Alexa to “launch” a game. If you say, “Alexa, play Hah-na-gram,” it plays the song “Hologram” by the group Crown the Empire. When you say, “Alexa, play Hanagram,” it offers to add a station for the musician Lukas Graham to your Pandora account. If you say, “Alexa launch Hah-na-gram,” it works.

In the realm of consumer electronics, Echo Buttons are not a huge investment of money. But the cost in time and frustration has been immense in our short time trying to use them.

It started with the setup, which literally requires getting out a screwdriver to open the battery panel to install the included AAA batteries. From there, we tried to set up Echo Buttons on multiple Echo devices on different wireless networks, all of which struggled to pair with the buttons.

I first tried at work, on the original Echo tower, then its second-generation successor, attempting for about 45 minutes total to follow the simple instructions for setting up four Echo Buttons. I followed the instructions precisely — “Alexa, set up my Echo Buttons,” pressing the button when prompted until it glowed orange, then waiting for up to 40 seconds as noted in the instructions, with mixed results. In many cases, the buttons simply didn’t pair.

Ultimately, I had the best luck on the touch-screen Echo Show at home, which paired all four of my Echo Buttons, but only after multiple tries for each.

I am keeping my Echo Buttons, and really hope that the experience becomes smoother and more robust over time. For example, connecting these to the Jeopardy! game for Alexa, enabling competitive gameplay just like on TV, would be fantastic, at least in theory, if everything worked smoothly.

Overall, our initial experience with Echo Buttons has provided some fleeting moments of fun that are extremely promising. There just aren’t enough of those fun moments yet, and almost everything in between is the opposite.