Amazon Echo at a glance
- What is the Amazon Echo?Amazon Echo was one of the very first smart speakers, using the power of cloud computing to deliver real-time information.
- When did the Amazon Echo come out?The Amazon Echo originally launched in the US in 2014, with the second-generation model out in early February 2018.
- How much does the Amazon Echo cost?The second-gen Amazon Echo currently sells for $99 in the US.
Amazon Echo is a voice-controlled smart speaker created by the online retailer Amazon. Like other smart speakers, Amazon Echo serves as a hands-free hub for a variety of household functions, from playing music to checking the weather to controlling other smart devices like Wi-Fi-enabled air conditioners and lights.
Using Amazon Echo involves speaking commands to Alexa, Amazon’s virtual personal assistant. Alexa processes these commands through a cloud-based voice service, which means Amazon Echo requires a constant wireless Internet connection in order to function. On the upside, this also means Alexa’s accuracy in voice recognition is constantly improving and new features are regularly being added to Alexa’s repertoire.
To further enhance its speech detection, Amazon Echo sports a seven-microphone array capable of far-field voice recognition that can hear you ask a question even while music is playing. And for those late-night movie marathons where you don’t want to wake up your housemates, you can control Amazon Echo via a traditional remote.
Designed to be the center of your smart home, Amazon Echo can perform a variety of different functions ranging from the informative to the entertaining. First and foremost, Alexa can answer a wide range of fact-based questions, pulling information from sources like Wikipedia and Amazon’s own databases. Alexa can also read you the latest news, sports scores and weather forecasts and report on current traffic conditions.
Music is another of Amazon Echo’s key features. By linking your Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and, of course, Amazon Music accounts to Amazon Echo, it can play music from these services through both its own speaker and through other connected audio devices.
It can also stream tunes from Apple Music and Google Play Music, as well as from a phone or tablet. Amazon Echo can also read audiobooks from your Audible library. And thanks to its omnidirectional speaker setup, Amazon Echo can ensure your music reaches all four corners of a room.
Amazon Echo also supports hands-free voice calling to anyone with their own Amazon Echo, Echo Dot or the Amazon Alexa app. Best of all, this service is entirely free.
As the world’s biggest online retailer, it’s no surprise that Amazon built shopping functionality into Amazon Echo. Not only can you tell Alexa to order you the coffee you forgot to pick up last time you went grocery shopping, you can also have Alexa instantly add it to your shopping list so you remember next time.
The only catch is that you have to be an Amazon Prime member to have Alexa place an order for you. Regular Amazon members can only add items to their shopping carts for later checkout through the Amazon website or mobile app. However, the shopping list functionality is available to both Prime and non-Prime members.
Finally, Amazon Echo’s capabilities are constantly growing thanks to the Alexa Skills Kit. This open development platform allows anyone to build tools to expand Alexa’s functionality and share them with other owners of Alexa-enabled devices.
These tools grant Alexa a range of new abilities, from answering more questions to ordering pizza to organizing an Uber. New skills are always being added, too, giving Amazon Echo the means to evolve faster than competing devices.
Amazon Echo works with a large library of smart home devices, from lights and ceiling fans to thermostats and security cameras. The number of compatible devices is constantly growing, but the following are some of the most popular product lines:
- Philips Hue lights
- LIFX LED lights
- Nest Thermostat
- Ring Video doorbell
- PNest Cam IQ
- Wink Smart Hub
- Samsung SmartThings Hub
- Arlo Pro security system
- TP-Link smart plugs
Other Alexa-powered Amazon devices will also work in conjunction with Amazon Echo to provide voice-recognition and audio playback throughout multiple rooms of a house. These devices include Amazon Tap, a portable version of Amazon Echo; Amazon Echo Dot, a smaller version of Amazon Echo with a lower-quality speaker; Amazon Echo Look, a camera that adds outfit recommendations to Echo’s capabilities; and Amazon Echo Show, a version of Echo that includes an LCD screen.
This is a personal review of the Amazon Echo by Nick Broughall
Amazon can take a lot of the credit when it comes to the smart speaker market. The original Echo leveraged the power of the cloud to deliver real-time information using natural language, a move that technology behemoths Google and Apple jumped to copy. And the Amazon Echo is at the core of Amazon’s smart speaker family.
The Echo has seen some minor design upgrades since it first launched in the US in 2014, and the version that’s now available is the sleekest to date. Available in a choice of three fabric finishes (charcoal, heather grey and sandstone), the Echo is cylindrical, standing 5.8 inches high with a diameter of 3.5 inches.
That makes it a bit taller than the Google Home — albeit narrower. With a similarly customizable design to Google’s Home speaker, Echo has its own style and is neutral enough to fit in with many different styles.
The top of the Echo is where the action happens. Four buttons intersect across the surface, offering volume control on the top and bottom and an activation button to use instead of saying “Alexa.” Then there’s there “Privacy” button that mutes the integrated microphones.
Speaking of microphones, there are seven, spaced around the top allowing the speaker to pick up commands from every angle. Discreetly hidden inside the speaker, nothing but seven pin-sized holes on the top indicate their locations.
Surrounding the top rim of the speaker is a series of LED indicator lights. When you press the privacy button, the lights glow red, but when you say the activation keyword “Alexa,” they spin in blue to indicate that the speaker is listening.
Toward the base of the speaker, the AC power connection and a 3.5mm stereo audio jack can be found hidden under a small rubber flap, allowing you to connect to another set of speakers. The Echo also offers Bluetooth.
While the Echo’s major attraction is Alexa and the power of voice interaction, it’s still a speaker at its core.
Inside the smart speaker, Amazon’s packed a 2.5-inch subwoofer and a 0.6-inch tweeter. The end result is audio quality that feels about right for the price point. At low volumes, the audio quality is fine — a gentle partner to an early-morning wake up call or an easy-listening background music device.
But if you give the command to turn the volume up to 10, the speaker struggles to perform. It loses bass and gives a tinny reproduction of your tunes.
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On the upside, there isn’t much distortion and the volume can crank fairly loudly. Amazon gives users the option to push out audio to a more premium set of speakers. And the microphones have an excellent ability to pick up a quiet voice from across a fairly noisy room.
But as a speaker, the Echo plays second fiddle to the Google Home in a direct comparison. You can connect the Echo to Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio or TuneIn, but there’s no direct support for Apple Music, Google Play Music or Tidal from the speaker itself. You can set the default services as well, so you don’t need to dictate which service to play from with every command.
While the speaker in the Echo is serviceable but not spectacular, the real star of the show is more than the sound reproduction. That would be Alexa, the digital assistant designed to answer your questions, control your home and keep you organized.
Connected to the Internet 24/7 unless you mute the microphone, the Echo is a useful tool for everything from quick math problems to getting answers to trivia questions and even translating phrases to other languages. For cooks, you can set alarms — and name them to match the task you’re timing — or create a shopping list of ingredients for dinner.
Getting weather updates, creating to-do lists and listening to music are all super-easy to do by asking Alexa. The Echo’s microphone array does an incredible job of picking up your voice over ambient noise, even when it’s playing music.
But these functions are par for the course. What makes Amazon’s ecosystem stand out is the availability of third-party skills — apps that integrate with Alexa to give you even more functionality. Some of these skills are global — things like a Philips Hue integration to let you control your smart light globes from your speaker or being able to order an Uber with a simple verbal command. And as a massive coup over the likes of Google, you can make and receive phone calls and send text messages with the Echo speaker once you’ve set the service up in the Alexa mobile app.
But where the Echo — and Alexa as a whole — disappoints is in the features that haven’t launched yet. Amazon’s Routines — grouped instructions under a single activation command — are limited.
You can’t get the speaker to give you a rundown of your daily calendar when you say, “Alexa, good morning.” You can only control what Alexa says back to you from a preselected series of options, such as turning on the lights and getting updates on the weather, news or traffic.
Even music integration is missing from routines — who wouldn’t want their speaker to give them a quick update first thing in the morning before launching into a series of uplifting songs? So as impressive as the Echo is, it’s still got a long way to go before it truly acts like a real personal assistant in a digital body.
Given Amazon’s history as one of the pioneers of the smart home speaker, it’s no surprise that smart home functionality is a key component of the Echo.
To get started, you need to download the appropriate skill. I downloaded the Philips Hue skill to connect to the network of lights I already have installed in my house. From there, you can create custom names for the rooms they’re in, as well as specific commands to control each light or multiple lights at the same time. For example, I created a routine called Story Time that turned both my kids’ Hue globes on and to the “read” scene when I say the command, “Alexa, story time.”
But as with the general Alexa controls, you’re limited to the current skills that are available. For instance, I’m testing a heap of Elgato Eve products at the moment, but they only integrate with Apple’s HomeKit, so I can’t use them with Alexa.
I expect this list will grow with time as more companies invest in smart home technology, but for now, it feels like the actual marketplace for smart home skills is a little thin on the ground.
Overall, Alexa seems to be a much more developed platform for voice control than Google’s voice assistant. As a command, “Alexa” rolls off the tongue in a way that “Hey, Google” doesn’t. This might sound nit-picky, but the truth is that if you expect to start talking to a speaker in your home when there are other people around, you need the process to feel seamless.
Sound quality isn’t spectacular, but it’s also not the main selling point for a speaker like this. Alexa doesn’t yet do everything you might want it to, but it does an impressive job of understanding you.
From a privacy perspective, the mute button is easy to access and obvious when activated — thanks to the light ring.
Overall, the Echo is probably the best example of what Amazon has achieved in the smart speaker space so far. The Echo Dot has poor audio quality, and the Echo Plus doesn’t quite match the price for extra features or sound quality.
But the truth is that it’s only going to get better with time. And that makes it worth checking out.