Read the tech news and the chances are that in the last year and two of the big theme’s you’ll have picked up are AI and the Internet of Things. This seems to be manifesting in chat-bots and in connected lighbulbs but Amazon stole the march a couple of years ago and released the Amazon Echo in the US – and it’s just come to the UK.
Read the reviews of the Echo when it first came out and there’s a fair amount of confusion. The Echo was being treated as a powered bluetooth speaker – which it is – with a not particularly well written or capable voice controller built on top. As bluetooth speakers go it was fine and competent. There are better choices for the money but if you had one you probably wouldn’t be disappointed with the sound quality or volume.
Then something started happening. Amazon iterated and iterated pushing out software updates on an almost weekly basis. The Echo started getting working better and better and was able to do more things. Amazon didn’t do much marketing but it became something of a cult hit, especially in the tech community. Update to now and the Echo is the clear leader in the US smart home and PA controller space and as of last week is also available in the UK.
So what can the Echo do? Out of the box she’ll give you personalised news reports, play music on her speaker, give you the weather, act as a to-do list and shopping list manager, set timers and alarms, look things up for you on Bing and control any smart home devices you’ve got. After the initial setup this is all controllable by voice and it’s here that it really shines. Being plugged into the wall and having seven microphones means that it can be always listening for it’s trigger phase “Alexa” and it’s surprisingly good at picking up your voice and translating that to what you wanted – even over background music.
That’s not to say every interaction with Alexa goes well. Amazon’s own Prime Music for example has some baffling design choices. Lets’ say I want to play a Sheryl Crow song. I’ve never played this before and if I ask Alexa for it she’ll say that she can’t access it. If I go to my PC and go to the Amazon site and click to add a song into my library – for free – individual song by song then Alexa can see them and happily play them. It’s only a one time per song add but I don’t see why it needs to be there at all.
There’s also the fact that the UK version of the Echo seems very cut down and still almost in beta. The actual hardware is identical but the services attached are not. To judge by the Echo’s US history this might change with time – for example IFTTT integration is promised but some such as reading Kindle books will not come to the UK because of copyright issues.
Price: ± £149.99
Amazon probably needs little introduction to any internet user. The company started setting books online in the late 1990’s and expanded to fill the market and began reselling almost everything else you can possibly think of. They started their own electronics arm making the Kindle which iterated to become the dominant e-reader and then expanded to a small range of other electronic devices based on Android including tablets, a phone and media streamers.
Physically the Echo is a small black or white metal cylinder that looks like a like a dehumidifier with a grill around the bottom half. The top plastic lid has two buttons – an action button that is the equivalent of saying “Alexa” and a mute button that stops it listening. The whole top lid rotates to change volume and has a colored LED that light’s up and points at you if you talk to it. The Alexa is mains powered and needs a decent wifi connection.
I’m sure there will be some confusion so to clarify the physical product is the Amazon Echo. Alexa is the name of the software service behind it which is also available on the Amazon Dot, Fire TV, via an app and is rumored to be available in other places in the future.
- Music, integration with Spotify (Premium), Amazon Prime Music and TuneinRadio
- Bluetooth speaker mode
- Audiobook reading with Audible
- Shopping and simple to-do listing
- Calendar integration – reading you your schedule and letting you add items
- Timers and alarms
- Small apps known as skills that extend functionality. There are a couple of hundred at the moment that make Alexa do anything from give you recipe instructions to meow like a cat.
- Controlling smart home products – this includes, Samsung SmartThings, Wink, Vivint, Philips Hue, Belkin WeMo, Nest, Honeywell, Keen, Automatic
At £150 the from one perspective the Echo isn’t a cheap piece of equipment. Compare it to the similarly priced Sonos Play:1 and it’s audio deficiencies become apparent. Consider it as a smart home hub and personal assistant and the price becomes a lot more reasonable. Google’s Home device was launched this week as a direct competitor and while it’s not in the UK it probably will be a little cheaper when it launches here. For context the Echo is $179 in the US and Google Home is $129.
If you’re interested in the voice control but have your own higher quality speaker it the Amazon Dot at £50 gives you the voice control and let you plug into your own speaker system.
Going on past form Amazon is also likely to make Echos available at a discount on regular occasions. They were available for £100 for their first 48 hours in the UK and I’d expect another drop in price around Black Friday.
Product dimensions: 235 x 83.5 x 83.5 mm (9.25″ x 3.27″ x 3.27″)
Item Weight: 1064 grams
Colour: Black or white
Decibels: (Idle/off, in use)
Audio 2.5 inch woofer and 2.0 inch tweeter
Wifi: Dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi (MIMO), 802.11a/b/g/n
Bluetooth: A2DP and AVRCP supported
Materials: metal casing with plastic cap
Warranty and Service Amazon Echo is sold with a worldwide limited warranty of one year provided by the manufacturer.
Included in the Box Amazon Echo, power adaptor/cable (1.8 m) and Quick Start Guide
System Requirements: The Alexa needs a decent wifi connection to operate. It needs a separate device to setup which could be FireOS, Android, iOS or via a desktop browser. There is extra functionality which can be unlocked using those second platforms but after the initial setup they’re never actually needed again. It also needs a mains connection.
Some third party integrations need separate paid subscriptions – the best example of this is playing music via Spotify which requires a Premium account at £10 a month. There are usually alternatives available.
I’m very torn by the Echo. On one hand the hardware is very well designed and solid blending into the background very effectively with a good if not great speaker system. The software is so nearly good. When an interaction goes well it goes very well – using it to check your schedule or look something up on Wikipedia feels very natural as does controlling music but there are holes that seem jarring. Most of these seem related to localization and hopefully when skill makers get a chance to update and add UK as well as US English they’ll start working. The lack of IFTTT is more serious and although I do draw some hope from Amazon’s past development of Alexa although Amazon’s response to my query is that “I can confirm that, unfortunately, the IFTTT recipes is not currently available in the UK Marketplace. I’m sorry for any disappointment. We haven’t announced plans to add IFTTT recipes to our catalogue, however, I’ll share the idea to add this app with our Alexa development team.”
So ignoring any possible or probably future changes what do you get if you buy an Echo today? A decently made bluetooth speaker with a voice assistant that works reasonably well. If you’ve invested in IoT devices or love the idea of talking to your computer the Echo will make you very happy.
The review is based on the Black UK Amazon Echo. Review first published on the 6th of October 2016.