Amazon Echo is a smart speaker that can control your whole house with Alexa. Alexa (named after the ancient library of Alexandria) is Amazon’s voice control system. Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and more. It lets you speak your wishes and see them fulfilled—at least simple ones like dimming your lights or playing music tracks. It turns the Echo into de facto smart home hubs and Internet assistants.
With Echo’s far-field microphones, Alexa can respond to voice commands from almost anywhere within earshot. And there’s no activation button to press. Simply say the trigger/wake word (either “Alexa,” “Echo,” “Amazon,” or “Computer.”) followed by what you want to be happen, and it will be done—as long as you’ve set up everything properly and are using the correct command (it’s still very much a work in progress and you should set your expectations accordingly). Once you get used to it, using Alexa feels much more natural and responsive than speaking to a phone-based voice assistant like Apple’s Siri. As a result, you’ll likely find yourself using your phone less frequently when you’re at home. There are still a lot it can’t do. But, we think there’s already enough to make the Echo a compelling product today, especially if you’re into smart-home stuff.
It may seem quite imposing when you lift it out of the box, but the matte black or white Echo is quite inconspicuous. It won't look out of place in most living environments.
Like many Bluetooth speakers, the cylindrical Amazon Echo offers a comparable 360-degree audio experience. The speaker grille housed on the lower half of the device offers a neat design contrast.
Atop the device are seven multi-directional microphones, which enable users to command Alexa from wherever they are in the room, and the light-up rim identifies (in cyan) that the microphone is picking up the sound. This is strangely humanizing, making you aware that you have her attention.
Those lights change color depending on the state of the Echo or the request made. For example, if it goes offline, an orange light will circulate around the rim of the unit; while processing a request, it cycles between two different blues.
You’ll be using voice commands most of the time, but there are manual controls too. The top of the device rotates to adjust the volume. If you’re worried about Alexa eavesdropping, buttons on top deactivate or enable the microphones. Unlike most Bluetooth speakers, it must remain connected to the mains at all times.
This makes sense: a flat battery isn’t much to a device that lives and dies by constant connection to the internet. There’s no 3.5 mm jack either, so external audio devices must connect via Bluetooth. NFC is missing too.
In the case of Amazon’s hardware, there’s an encouragement towards using Amazon’s services. The company wants you to make shopping lists, repeat favorite orders and track packages. It would insist that you play audio books through Audible and music through Prime, but you can change the default music provider to Spotify. You're not locked in.
Unfortunately, if you stream from Apple Music, Tidal, Google Play or elsewhere, Alexa is not your friend. You’ll need to connect through Bluetooth and use it as a speaker. You can import music to Amazon if you want, and the first 250 songs are free.
The Echo is already compatible with many of the top smart home products. Hue, Nest, Lyric, Honeywell, WeMo, iHome, to name a few. Plenty of other products will work through a Hub. It’s perfect if you’ve already invested in smart home tech.
There are now thousands of skills, although a great number of those are silly “daily facts”, “pickup lines” or “random quotes”. There are some useful ones, however.
Ordering an Uber via Alexa feels like a miracle and the National Rail skill is great for regular commuters. If you tell the app your commute, Alexa will provide a traffic update before you set off.
It’s possible to cut out many of your common daily searches, and instead just ask Alexa. She can connect to a Google calendar and handle your schedule too – which she does superbly.
You can talk to her as if you were talking to a human and she works it out. She can hold multiple profiles, so an entire family can use Alexa to set events. Switching between profiles is simply a matter of speaking to Alexa about it.
She will control most smart devices directly – all you need to do is tell Alexa where things are. Simply being able to say, “Turn on the lights in the kitchen” is brilliant fun, and with IFTTT (If This Then That) you can make her do almost anything. It makes any smart home device in your house far more user-friendly.
You can request music through Spotify, or Amazon Prime Music. Alexa can struggle sometimes when you request something vague, but if you set Spotify as the main player then she will deal with loose requests such as “upbeat music” happily, so long as there is a playlist somewhere on Spotify with that name. You’ll need a Spotify Premium subscription to do this, however.
When a song is playing you can ask what it is, or just tell her to skip it. Also, if you request Alexa to play some music, she’ll try to find something you’ll like based on what you’ve listened to before. She can also play radio stations.
If you ask Alexa “what’s up?” you’ll receive a “Flash Briefing”, which is a personalized news update from your favorite sources. You can have the CNN, ABC News and The New York Times. She will even give you the latest sports news about your favorite team.
And the best part is, 98% of the time, it just works. All it takes is a little finagling and account linking to get everything set up.
Alexa can look things up as well: the command “Alexa, who plays [character name] in the show [show name]” is great for when you can’t quite place a character while watching something on Netflix.
The Amazon Echo can replace the radio in your kitchen and is a great way of controlling a number of different systems. If you like gadgets and have a Spotify account then it’s the best device ever. And it’s improving all the time as stuff is added to it. Alexa isn’t quite Jarvis from Iron Man yet, but no doubt that she’s on the way there. The original iPhone changed how we interact with technology, allowing us to control devices with apps via a screen and clean UI, and now Alexa promises to do the same for devices with Wi-Fi – but this time using voice.