It only took me a few hours to get cosy with my new assistant. "Alexa", I barked at the nine-inch black cylinder on my coffee table, "Shut up". The lights on top of the cylinder went dark; the embarrassing '90s music playing from its speaker cut out. "Alexa, what's the weather?" I paused with anticipation. "45 degrees [Fahrenheit] and cloudy," it said.
This is Amazon Echo, the command prompt for domestic life.
What Is It?
Amazon Echo is basically a voice-controlled Bluetooth speaker with smarts. Going in the US for $200 – or $100 for Prime subscribers – it puts a Siri-like assistant into a tube that lives on your coffee table. After connecting it to Wi-Fi, it can answer simple questions like How tall is Barack Obama and Who are the members of Run the Jewels. Additionally, Echo is a voice-controlled speaker for listening to tunes and talk from Amazon Prime, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio. If you prefer to listen to Pandora, Spotify, or your personal music collection, you can beam it over Bluetooth.
Why Does It Matter?
Voice assistants aren't new, but so far Siri, Google Now, and Cortana are limited to devices on Apple, Google, and Microsoft platforms respectively. Amazon doesn't have its own, and it's fair to see Echo as a first step towards building its own mobile assistant. Sure, Echo is a stationary device designed for a fixed spot in your house. But let's not forget that Amazon is in the mobile device business. Amazon's Fire Tablets are very reasonably priced for what they are. Though the original Fire Phone was a flop, a Fire Phone 2 is surely around the corner, and solid software could make it more appealing than the original.
Plus, building a gadget that listens to your commands inside your house might be key to conquering the increasingly connected home. Once all of the powered systems in your home are all linked together – heating, cooling, lighting and entertainment – you'll need to control them somehow. Voice is as natural an interface as anything else.
Echo is handsome and subtle enough to go unnoticed by a visitor. You know the tube a fancy whisky bottle comes in? The Echo looks like you painted one of those a smooth matte black. The bottom half of the tube is perforated with a raft of holes, which let sound from the speaker driver inside pour out from the otherwise solid enclosure. At the top of the tube there's a ring of lights that indicate what's going on. When you activate the speaker it flashes white and blue. When it's muted, the whole ring glows red.
You're mostly supposed to control Echo by yelling commands at it, but Echo also ships with a mic-enabled remote identical to the voice remote on the Amazon's Fire TV. Just in case you don't want to yell across a room.
Physical controls are few, but available. On the top there is an action button that you'll only ever use to set the device up in a new location. There's also a mute button so you can cut off the sound in a flash. The top half-inch of the tube is actually a nearly invisible ring which you can twist to turn the volume up and down.
Echo needs to be plugged into an outlet for power. There's no onboard battery, so porting it around your house is impractical. This is a single-room gadget, even with the help of the remote, because you need to be close enough to hear it talk back.
To use the Echo, you'll need to download the companion app on your iOS or Android device or a computer of some sort. The App guides you through a painless three-minute setup procedure for connecting Echo to your Wi-Fi, and then it's ready to respond to your commands. Say the activation word "Alexa" and Echo starts listening.
At launch, Alexa has two primary uses. It's an assistant and a media player. Everything can be controlled by voice.
As a voice assistant, Echo is relatively useful for finding basic information you would ordinarily look up on your phone or computer with a quick Google search: What's the weather? How Tall Is Carmelo Anthony? What is futurism? Your interactions are all logged in the Echo app, and If Echo doesn't know what to do with your query, it performs a Bing search, and displays the results in the app instead of reading them to you.
Besides basic information searches, Echo also has a built-in timer, alarm clock, to-do list, and shopping list. The latter are just tick box lists in the Echo app. The shopping list allows you to then perform a search on Amazon for a query, say "toothpaste", but doesn't add anything to your cart automatically. Because Amazon is, you know, a store, the shopping aspect could be potentially very useful. The Echo app settings hint at some voice purchasing functionality too, but buying stuff with a voice command could still be a thing of the future.
Getting answers to questions without pushing a single button or holding a device in your hand is impressive and satisfying, but Echo falls short where other assistants are quite good: It doesn't have access to my email or text messaging so I can't simply ask it to send a message. It doesn't have my calendar, so it can't warn me about upcoming appointments. It's got a rough idea where I am in the world, and it can tell me the distance to a nearby city or landmark, but it won't get me directions or other relevant information about the trip. How long will it take me to get to the Bowery Ballroom? Echo doesn't know.
Moving on to the media player side of things, Echo takes commands to let you play music from Amazon's Prime Music service. It works but not quite as intuitively as I wanted it to. I asked Echo to play "indie rock" and it faltered. Then I asked for "Indie" and it played "India". So I looked up the name of a popular indie rock playlist on my computer so that I could issue a more precise voice command, and sure enough, it found the playlist, but that's more trouble than this should be. Mercifully, simply asking Echo to "play Nirvana" shuffled songs from the band's catalogue.
Once a song is playing, you can ask Echo what it is or add it to your Prime Music library. Want Echo to turn it up? Just ask. At first I thought this might be a bad idea for the continued health of my eardrums, but the volume adjustments are slight. Like giving a volume rocker two clicks.
Right now, Echo also offers integration with TuneIn's radio app and iHeartRadio. If you're a regular radio listener, this is a nice touch. Radio also comes into play for Echo's "flash briefings". I asked What's going on, and Echo played back the hourly NPR headlines we're all familiar with. In the settings you can also add BBC headlines and a weather forecast. Presumably more options will be available down the line.
Using Echo feels natural almost immediately. You don't need to learn a set of clunky commands. If you speak to Echo in natural language, most of the time you're going to get the desired result – assuming Echo knows how to do what you're asking. The voice recognition felt very good, even from across the room. I was particularly impressed at how well the microphones could register my words even when music was blaring.
As for the remote, it really only works for a range of about 10 yards. It's more of a solution for a loud room than for turning on music from another one.
Echo makes sense in the part of your house where you spend the most time actively doing stuff. I live in New York in an apartment where there's a big open space that contains both the living room and the kitchen, and it makes more sense for me there. In a living room it's useful for listening to music and asking general queries. I could make a case for my bedroom, though, where I can use it as an alarm clock and ask for the weather when I'm getting dressed.
As a piece of hardware, Echo reminds me of the Bluetooth speakers I just spent months testing. The upright cylindrical design is similar if not identical to the fantastic UE Boom, which is my current favourite. The Echo doesn't quite sound as good as the UE Boom, but it's a decent speaker compared to others I've tested. It's fine. It doesn't have the low-end thump or the overall clarity and detail you can get from better speakers. But it's passable, and to its credit, the sound isn't distorted even at louder volumes.
The Echo voice recognition is excellent and more broadly, the voice-driven interface is really well designed. It's fun! We don't say that often enough about gadgets. Echo works well enough to raise an eyebrow each time it magically responds to your commands.
Probably the saddest thing about Echo is that it's made by Amazon, and I don't mean that smugly. Amazon makes great products, but the company doesn't have access to my calendar and my Google account built right in. Everything Echo does is amazing, but it just doesn't do quite enough to be indispensable. Many of its foibles would be fixed if Echo simply knew a little more about me.
That's true of lots of gadgets, but unlike other gadgets Echo doesn't have access to the data it would need to really learn more about my needs.
Should I Buy It?
It's not a fabulous speaker, and as a voice-controlled assistant, your phone's more powerful. To be sure, Echo is an unpolished novelty, and I can't be sure that the novelty won't wear thin, especially if Amazon doesn't improve the platform with software updates and additional services.
On this note, the Echo seems like something of a missed opportunity for some ambient sound recognition. What am I watching? What am I playing on my sound system? Although, in fairness, this is also likely to make people squirm uncomfortably about their privacy.
As a consumer, you're probably better off waiting for future products that are more refined.