One-part 360-degree Bluetooth speaker, one-part voice assistant, Amazon’s Echo brings voice control into your home
Amazon Echo review
Digital voice assistants aren’t actually very useful. There is something faintly magical about being able to converse with your phone, but the banal reality is that it’s rarely any quicker than reaching for Google search or tapping on an app icon. However, Amazon is hoping to change everyone’s mind. The Echo is Siri for your living room, or Cortana for your kitchen, and this time she’s called Alexa.
What is Amazon Echo?
Despite appearances, the Amazon Echo is much more than just a fancy Bluetooth speaker. Seven internal microphones are constantly listening, lying in wait for a voice command to ripple across the room. It doesn’t matter where you’re sitting, either. Six of those microphones are dotted around the top of the speaker, and one is placed slap-bang in the centre so that the Echo can hear voice commands from any direction.
In tandem with those microphones, the Echo uses Amazon’s far-field voice-recognition technology to sieve through the hum and buzz of everyday life. Call out a command, and you can tell when it’s listening – the Echo’s glowing upper edge changes to a lighter shade of blue and pinpoints which of the six microphones is hearing you loudest.
Try to use the Echo in a noisy household, and the blather of housemates, TVs and ringing telephones means that you’ll often need to raise your voice, but by and large, the Echo is impressively responsive. The multiple microphones do a fine job of filtering through household chatter to deliver news, calendar updates, music, traffic information, sports results and answers to any inane question you can think of.
Getting up and running couldn’t be easier. The Alexa app acts as Echo’s main control centre, and this allows you to connect Echo to your Wi-Fi network and set your wake word. The default wake word is “Alexa”, but you can also switch it to Amazon or Echo if you prefer.
The app records everything you’ve ever asked the Echo, and provides a stack of menus with which to manage its various functions. You can connect your Prime Music, Spotify Premium, TuneIn Radio and Audible accounts, and further menu items allow you to adjust your timer and alarm settings, peruse the music in your Now Playing list, and also check out your Echo’s Skills list (more on that shortly). And if you’ve forgotten what you’ve added to your Shopping and To-Do lists, you can view these in the app too.
If you’ve packed your home with smart gadgetry, then the Echo may become your new best friend. The app’s Smart Home menu can take control of all manner of home-automation tech, and there’s support for Honeywell, Hive, Nest, Netatmo, Samsung SmartThings, Tado, TP-Link’s Kasa and LIFX lightbulbs. I’m waiting on some compatible smart-home devices to arrive, and will update this review with my impressions once Echo’s been put through its paces.
Amazon’s “skills” make it possible to expand the Echo’s abilities. These are essentially basic little apps. For instance, you can get quick headline summaries from The Guardian, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Sky News as skills, while the National Rail skill means you can check for train delays without even picking up your phone. There are other skills, including Skyscanner Flight Search for checking flights, and recipes from Jamie Oliver, but by far my favourite is the Just Eat support – this allows you to reorder your last meal without even moving from the sofa. There’s no support for some popular services such as Evernote or Google Keep, though, which may be a deal-breaker for some.
The key to getting the most out of the Echo is learning how to talk to it. It’s remarkably good at understanding natural rhythms of speech for many enquiries, such as “Alexa, how’s my commute looking?” or “Alexa, what’s the news this morning?”, but that’s not the case with certain skills. Reach outside of the Echo’s baked-in abilities, and skills such as the Guardian require you to actively command the Echo to open the relevant app and choose options from an available selection.
Like any voice assistant, though, the key to getting the most out of Echo is learning its quirks. Well, that and getting used to not having a visual interface to shape your requests. Trying to think of which song to play from a music collection of thousands can be a dizzying prospect, for instance.
Impressively enough, Echo is a very capable Bluetooth speaker. The 2in tweeter and 2.5in woofer team up to fill a room with clean, detailed-sounding audio, and while it’s not the most exciting speaker you’ve ever heard, it’s great for the money. Ramp up the pressure with demanding dance music or classical works and you’ll find the Echo’s limits soon enough, but then you can say the same of any Bluetooth speaker below the £150 mark.
Amazon has got many of things right with the Echo. Personally, I find it far more convenient and useful than other digital voice assistants. With the Echo in my bedroom, I can wake up and check the weather, enquire about train delays, and start music playing without moving a muscle. I can simply ask a question and Echo will give me an answer. The fact that it’s a competent speaker certainly doesn’t hurt either.
Once the smaller, £50 second-generation Echo Dot devices arrive on 20 October, you’ll no longer be tied to being in earshot of a single Echo. These miniature, cut-down versions only have a very basic speaker, but as you can still connect to other speakers via Bluetooth, or an auxiliary cable, you can still get the benefits of music streaming throughout the house. Keep an eye out for Alphr’s full review.
One big question mark concerns the Echo’s abilities as a smart home controller, and this could potentially transform its appeal. If it can draw together a morass of smart home gadgetry with simple voice commands, then Amazon may have a roaring success on its hands.
So, should you buy an Amazon Echo now? That depends. You’ll want both a Prime account and a Spotify Premium account to get the best out of it, but if you fit that criteria I suspect you’ll come away quietly impressed. If you like the idea of being able to dictate your shopping list without reaching for a pen and paper, listen to audio books and music without lifting a finger, and fancy a decent Bluetooth speaker into the bargain, then £150 is something of a steal.