The Amazon Echo speaker is just over a year old now and it's fair to say it's been a bit of a hit for the online retail giant. So much so that it has decided to spread the Alexa voice assistant love to the Echo Dot and the Amazon Tap speakers.
But the Echo is the original and the first to benefit from the steady stream of software updates that makes this smart speaker all the more useful. The voice-powered personal assistant housed within a Wi-Fi speaker can now stream music, act as a smart home hub, help you in the kitchen and even order an Uber.
Essential reading: Google Home review
Until now, personal assistants like Siri, Google Now and Cortana have been additional features on existing devices. Amazon's surprise entry into the market, through its Alexa assistant, represents the first standalone product built to serve.
We've been spending more time with the cylindrical speaker, talking to Alexa, to see whether Amazon has delivered an even smarter virtual assistant.
Amazon Echo: Design and specs
The Amazon Echo's cylindrical design is smart enough to fit into most modern homes without spoiling the décor. It's 9-inches high and a deep black, but it's not without its splashes of colour. When you activate the speaker, a blue light will circle around the top ring, with a greenish segment identifying which of the Echo's 7 directional microphones is picking up the sound. That's an especially nice touch.
The only buttons are on top. One activates the microphone, while the other powers it off, which may placate those concerned about Amazon eavesdropping on every utterance.
You can also twist the top to adjust volume if you happen to be walking by and don't feel like yelling at Alexa to turn up or down the sound.
The Echo Speaker is powered by Wi-Fi, meaning you can place it anywhere, so long as it's within reach of a power outlet. Set-up is very easy with the Amazon Alexa app for iOS, Android or via Alexa.Amazon.com on the web. We've noticed that sometimes the app will randomly disconnect from Alexa stating there's no connection. Usually it will sync up again within a few minutes, but it's good to be wary of this.
It can also be easily paired with a smartphone's Bluetooth connection, but the required proximity to a power source is limiting, as you can't really take it to the park or camping. Again, now you have the option to purchase an Amazon Tap which should alleviate this issue. However, it's understandable if you don't want to have two Echo's living in the house.
The plastic material Echo is made from can get pretty dusty and smudgy if you find yourself grabbing at. Luckily it's not difficult to clean and dry towel wipe should get rid of anything on the surface.
Amazon Echo: Music player
So far, Alexa is the only personal assistant to have its own, standalone gadget, meaning playing music is one of the areas where she comes into her own. Thinking about it, it's probably the easiest (only?) way to play music through a speaker without touching anything or connecting additional devices wirelessly or otherwise.
Indeed, there's a certain satisfaction that comes with walking into a room and saying "Alexa play Foo Fighters" to hear My Hero blasting out within a couple of seconds. It feels new and it feels cool. I was able to ask for BBC News and immediately got a bulletin via TuneIn too. As an ex-pat, this pleased me.
Alexa grabs its music from Prime (where the library was once limited, is now growing), but it'll also plug into services like Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn or read your audio books from Audible. If there's a song you hear you can like it, add it, buy it, or give it a thumbs down through voice commands.
Music services like Spotify or Rdio now have integration and work seamlessly. You can start up either service on your phone or laptop then shut it down to have the Echo continue playing it. You can also request music through Alexa though she may not be able to play every single song. Artists and playlists make more sense to her and she can easily pick those out. For example, saying, 'Alexa, play Discover Weekly from Spotify,' will merit the right action.
Telling Alexa to play music (as in "Alexa, play") usually defaults to Prime Music. However as you continue listening to music through Prime, she develops an understanding of your taste and for the most part, will play tunes that fit your musical tastes. If you prefer Spotify or Pandora, a new update lets you set your own default to either station.
Another area of relative weakness is the quality of the speaker itself. At relatively modest levels, it's decent enough, but kick it unto the upper gears ("Alexa, turn it up!") and you'll be dealing with loads of distortion. Then you have to shout at Alexa to 'turn that racket down' (I'm paraphrasing).
Anyway, bottom line; this isn't going to replace your top notch Bose or Beats speaker, but neither should that be expected at this price point.
Amazon Echo: Speech recognition
My American wife enjoyed a much better time with Alexa in terms of understanding her actual requests (although Mrs Smith never really adjusted to not having shout). She could speak naturally to Alexa (albeit loudly) and the request would generally be interpreted correctly.
Oftentimes, this Englishman needed several goes, each time speaking more slowly and deliberately, only to be told "Sorry, I didn't understand the question."
It was frustrating and a couple of times I resorted to picking up my phone. It seems certain this will improve over time as Amazon improves speech recognition for different regions. A voice training app, of the kind employed by Cortana, could really help.
Help is already at hand through the Alexa app. Within the app is a list of cards listing your recent commands, allowing you to provide Voice Feedback on what you said and what she heard.
Amazon says the "far-field voice recognition" microphones are able to pick up your voice from anywhere, even when music is playing. That's true, but only if you make yourself heard. For example, in a mid-sized apartment where the bedroom is near the living room, speaking loudly to Alexa will garner a response - like turning off a smart lightbulb or checking the smart locks on the front door.
Amazon Echo: Features
There's a vast list of things she can do, but there are times when using Alexa seems more natural than not. For example, asking "Alexa, is it going to rain today?" upon leaving the house is handy. "Alexa, read the news," gives you a 'morning briefing' from the likes of NPR while you're getting ready. You can even check on the traffic for your regular commute.
We've covered music and that'll be a primary use for some. Another useful tool was the ability to add something to a shopping list. If you're cooking and use the last of the olive oil, it's much easier to use a voice command rather than wash your hands, go look for a pen, or forget completely. From there you can also buy the olive oil that you've run out of directly from Amazon.
Again with cooking there's easy measurement conversions. "Alexa, how many teaspoons are in a quarter of a cup" has already saved me time and effort.
Read next: Amazon Echo tips and tricks
You can ask how your sports team is doing, and she'll bring back a great update to the effect of "the New York Yankees are leading the Washington Nationals 3-0 at the top of the third inning."
When it comes to presenting facts, she's usually spot on, but she's utterly unwilling to offer an opinion or advice on anything. "I don't have preferences or desires," she says. Though sometimes she will give a snarky or sneaky answer to jokes and funny questions.
Ask her for the best way to do something and she's clueless, only offering up a Bing search through the app or spouting snippets of information from Wikipedia. Thanks, but no thanks.
You can link in your Google calendar, ask about and add events while you can pop things onto to-do-lists as soon as you think about them, check them via the app or have Alexa read them to you.
There are some things that have been improved as Amazon has continued to attract more developers to work with Alexa. Movie times are now available though you still can't ask about events in your area. Rather, the Echo defaults to TuneIn and turns on NPR or whatever news station is selected.
Apple succeeded in building Siri a fun character, spending who-knows-how-long programming witty responses to users' most outlandish requests. It was more of a bonus than something really assisting functionality, but it helped to foster that false perception you were having a real interaction with something sentient.
Alexa has been updated to become quite a charismatic conversationalist though she didn't always start out that way. Previously, when asked "Where are you from?" Alexa would reply: "The company that made me is…" She still gives a dry answer ("I'm from Amazon headquarters in Seattle, Washington") but provides humorous replies for many other questions.
The list of Skills has been steadily growing as well and you can do just about anything with Alexa as a guide. Examples include exercise like pilates or push ups where she will ask if you're ready to start the routine. From there, she will provide timers, or take you through various movements depending on the skill you've downloaded.
Some Skills have a progression that Alexa will pick up on to ensure you're at the right level and day. If you've asked her to start a skill with music on, it will even continue to play quietly in the background which is pretty handy. However if the Skill crashes, which it's done several times randomly, Alexa will simply stop and resort back to playing only music (or nothing if that's what she was doing before).
A recent update also lets you enable Skills without needing to download it first through the app. Simply say "Alexa, enable Lyft," or "Alexa, enable a 7-minute workout," and the skills will automatically be added.
Amazon Echo: Smart home
If you have smart home tech from WeMo and SmartThings, you can control it with Alexa. You can dim lights, turn on the bedroom fan without getting up or, in a similar spirit, turn on your smart coffee maker.
Aside from music control, using Alexa as a smart home hub of sorts has been the most useful application of the smart speaker. The only slightly annoying factor is that not everything you'd want to use is capable of syncing up with her. Rather you'll have to make-do with the more popular IoT brands like Philips Hue or LifX. Basically, it's best to check and make sure of the compatible brands on Amazon's website. But once you have another device connected to Alexa, you'll never want to turn on a light switch or lock the front door manually again.
The latter is referring to a recent update for August Smart Lock owners where you can ask your Echo to check the front door and see if it's locked. If unlocked, you can ask Alexa to lock. Neat. One caveat, as is the caveat with several other smart home functions, is that you'll still need August Connect (or some other hub). Echo isn't built with the radios that can communicate directly with other devices.
Still, it's a fun concept and it seems more support is rolling out letting you use Alexa with a larger amount of devices than ever before.
Amazon Echo seems like a fun little novelty but it's clear from the constant updates and growing list of compatible devices, it's definitely not a passing fad. That's clear from new competitor Google who will be releasing its own smart speaker, Google Home. With the power of the search engine at its beck and call, Home may be a heavy contender for Echo. Still, the fact that Google decided on creating its own smart device to compete with Amazon is a testament to just how successful Echo, and Alexa, has been.
It's apparent Echo is a vision of the future – one that's a lot nearer than many might think.
- Superb music player
- Great with factual requests
- News and weather updates
- Alexa SDK means its improving all the time
- Speaker quality isn't great
- Must be connected to mains
- Voice works better with US accents
- Needs more smart home connections