I first heard about the Amazon Echo earlier this year. I knew it was not out in the UK (yet), so passed over it without too much curiosity. On September the 14th 2016, I saw that Amazon were now taking preorders here in the UK. I was enticed by discount being offered to Prime members (£99). This resulted in me checking out some YouTube reviews and reading more into home voice automation. Ever watched Ironman or Avengers? Then you may know who JARVIS is; Tony Stark’s automated personal assistant. This is pretty much the beginning of that technology. The Echo unit can control a whole host of things that you already use your smart phone for (and more!). I was actually very excited and am glad that I didn’t pay too much attention to these units (which have been available in the US for well over a year now), as I would have been a little disappointed not to have one here. It really didn’t take long, and I was convinced. I promptly took advantage of this offer and preordered my own Echo. Here are my thoughts.
WHO IS THIS FOR?
Before going into specifics about what the Echo is capable of, it is worth highlighting who could potentially benefit from having such a device. I already use Siri and my XBOX one’s Kinect to control my XBOX. But the Echo is something different. First and foremost, if you are fully imbedded in the Amazon echo-system and have Prime membership, that would be a huge bonus and incentive to get on-board. Secondly, if you are interested in controlling your home enabled smart devices (such as lights, thermostats, locks, etc) using your voice, that would be another solid reason to buy one. Finally, if you like the idea of a personal assistant who can answer a number of questions you may have, set your alarm, edit your calendar, tell you the weather, and a number of other queries, the Echo could be a very worthwhile and satisfying purchase.
The Amazon Echo was delivered on launch day (September 28th) in an Amazon (outer) box. I was a little concerned it may ship in it’s own packaging (like the Kindle), but it did not, and was well packaged. The Echo box itself is quite small. Inside the box is the Echo unit itself (more on that later), a wall plug/AC adapter cable (6 feet long) and instructions. As is the trend with most gadgets, very minimalistic and simple.
Holding the Echo for the first time, I was very impressed with the build quality. Although it is made mostly from plastic, it has a nice weight to it (according to specs, 1064 grams), at just over 1kg. The heigh of the Echo is 23.5cm, which makes it very compact. As a result it can easily be positioned, as long as you have a wall plug nearby. The unit is fairly minimalistic. I got the black version, and it fits in well in my home study. There is a circular blue LED light on the top which activates when you interact with Echo, so you know it is ‘listening’. There are only two buttons located on the top which can be pressed; mute and activate (if you are nearby and don’t want to say the command word). The volume can also be controlled from the top by turning/rotating the LED light.
Setting up the device was very quick and easy. From unboxing, I was giving the Echo commands in less than 3 minutes. You simply plug the unit into a wall mains, download the Alexa app from the app store (supports both iOS and Android). Shortly after plugging it in, the Echo spoke! It said something like, “Hello. Your Alexa is ready for set-up. Please follow the instructions in the Alexa app”. Follow the instructions in the app. The Echo’s light will then turn orange, and prompt you to connect it to your wifi network (through your phone’s settings). Go back to the Alexa app, enter you wifi password and you are done. It was very simple and straight forward. You then hear the magical words, “Your Echo is ready!”.
I really like the alexa app. You can customise how you interact with your Echo in a number of ways, and I am still exploring this. There is even a history of all the commands y ou have said to Each, and at what time!
TECHNOLOGY / FUNCTIONALITY
The Echo packs a wallop of technological capabilities into such a small unit. It connects to your home wifi network and has a dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi, features a built-in speaker (2.5” woofer and 2” tweeter) and has 7 microphones on the top to pick-up your voice from almost anywhere. On the paper this all sounds very impressive, but how does it perform? in a word, magnificently! One of the reasons I was fairly keen to get the Echo was due to the overwhelmingly positive reviews. Having also tested the Echo myself, I can vouch and confirm that it performs just as well.
You can activate the Echo unit by using one of three wake-words; “Alexa”, “Amazon” or “Echo”. I have got mine set to “Echo”. So I simply say “Echo”, followed by whatever question or query I have. As a result, I will be using the word “Echo” in this review, but note that you can use any of the other two wake-words to communicate with the unit. In a nutshell, the Echo can respond to a wide range of commands. A few include the following:
“Echo, set my alarm for tomorrow morning at 7am”.
“Echo, play Captain America Civil War soundtrack”.
“Echo, turn my study lights on to 50%”.
“Echo, how many bones are there in the human body?”.
The Echo unit can also pick-up and relay local information to you, as it knows where you are based on your wifi settings. So you can ask things like the following:
“Echo, what is the weather like tomorrow?”.
“Echo, how many tea spoons in a table spoon?”. (great whilst cooking!)
Now for questions like movies, the Echo unit may go on and on, giving movie names, times, etc. You may have heard what you have wanted, and fortunately, do not have to wait for the Echo unit to say everything. At anytime, you can simply say, “Echo, stop”, and it will go quiet. This short list and examples of questions/queries is by no means exhaustive, and the limits are probably endless. The Echo unit response very quickly, and there is absolute minimal delay. I have used other voice controlled gadgets in the past, with a mix of success and failure. The Echo is the best I have used. It can detect my voice and respond even with considerable background noise such as people talking or music playing. I have also got the Echo to listen to me from up to 10 metres away, so the mic is very sensitive, but in a positive way.
I should add that there are some questions that the Echo cannot answer, and it will simply respond by saying “I’m sorry, I don’t know the answer to that question”. It would have been interesting if this could have been powered by USB (as my Canary is), but I suspect that the speaker may require the extra power of a wall plug.
**MAIN FEATURES I WILL USE THE AMAZON ECHO FOR**
Music playback is also a big part of the Echo. The unit features sound outlet holes all around the bottom half, so emits true 360 degree sound. The volume goes loud enough without any distortion. I am no audiophile, but do appreciate good quality sound. I have the Bower and Wilkins MM-1s connected to my mac, and in comparison, the Echo is lacking. But for a standalone unit and your secondary speaker, it works well and at this price-point, packs a good punch. I am sure that most people will appreciate and be more than content with the sound quality. You can control the volume of the unit using either your voice, or the built-in dial on the top of the unit.
I have got Amazon Prime and know that Prime customers can download/stream from a vast music catalogue. I never gave this much thought until now. In anticipation of my Echo, I went on the Prime music store and added a number of my favourite albums to my library, and made quite a few playlists. The Echo played most of my music collection on demand. However, despite using a clear voice, it still failed to recognise some music titles, which was disappointing.
PHILIPS HUE (CONTROL HOME LIGHTING)
I know that a lot of people will probably consider investing in an Echo for the ability to control their home lighting system (among other things). This was a big selling point for me. I have been using Philips Hue lights in my home for around 3 years now. They are excellent, and controlling my lights in different rooms using my iPhone is incredibly convenient. The Echo takes this one step further. I can now walk into my home and say, “Echo, turn the living room light on”, and they will just turn on! I have tested this quite a few times today, and have not had any dropouts. However, the Echo fails to currently recognise the lights in an entire room, and only controls individual lights in my tests.
This is one of the features I know many people may be dubious about. You can now order things from Amazon through the Echo, and add things to your shopping cart (which I prefer). I have not yet used this feature myself yet (as it is still early days) but it is good to know that the option is there. I will be updating my review in due course once I have had more hands-on time with feature like this. But the idea is that you can ask Echo to checkout things from your Amazon account. There are safeguards with this, and you can easily turn this feature off from settings to prevent unauthorised purchases. The Echo does give you the price before you buy, and asks if you are sure that you want to make the purchase, which is both welcome and necessary. I have already added things to my shopping cart, and this works wonderfully.
You can set an alarm on the echo, simply by saying, “Echo, set an alarm for tomorrow morning at 7am”. It will awaken you with some vey gentle sounds (which can be customised using the app). The unit can also be configured for shorter durations, such as setting a timer whilst cooking. I have often forgot about things, particularly whilst cooking, where I am terrible at remembering times. I can now simply ask the Echo to set a timer for whatever duration, and am notified promptly when the time is up. Brilliant! Great for when cooking on the stove.
As an avid movie watcher, I was incredibly impressed with how Echo can provide detailed information about which movies are playing at a cinema near you, as well as show-times. You can simply say, “Echo, what movies are playing near me?”. It will respond with a list. You can then say”, “Echo, what times is playing tomorrow?”. It will then list the cinemas near you, followed by show times. Once you have heard what you need to hear, you can just say, “Echo, stop”. On paper this may not sound to be a big deal, but when you are at home, it is so easy to get information without having to use your phone, tablet or computer.
A big incentive to the Echo unit is having it able to read, edit and create calendar entries. I was admittedly left a little disappointed here, as it can (currently) only use Google Calendar for this. As I am fully integrated in Apple software, I extensively use iCal. At this stage I can only hope that an update is on the way, but it is a point worth mentioning.
I have already covered some of the issues which could require improvement, such as the Echo unit not being able to answer certain questions, no iCal support, no USB power, etc. I am really nitpicking here, and these are not really criticisms, but functions and features that I think would only make an already excellent product even greater. The Echo unit is constantly learning (according to Amazon) and will only improve over time.
The Echo is the first of it’s kind in the UK home market. This is the first stab at voice controlled home automation, and it works very well for a first generation product. As a result, I am immensely excited about where this technology will head next. Other companies are bringing out voice controlled devices in the near future, too. I use Siri extensively on my iPhone, but having a fully automated voice controlled unit on my home has been a very different experience. Can you use another device to do all the things that the Echo will do for you? Yes. But the Echo does them a lot quicker, and the biggest plus point about it, is that it just works! A lot of gadgets come out that are a very good idea, but simply don’t work, resulting in me going back to traditional methods. An example is voice control on my XBOX ONE, which is a little hit and miss. For this reason, I seldom use it now, as having to repeat myself becomes repetitive and more of another. Amazon seem to have nailed it with the Echo. Very early days, but very impressed so far. Hopefully the home automation eco-system will continue to grow and expand from here.