I didn’t know I wanted to talk to my house until I talked to my house. Now, after living with Amazon Echo for a year, I talk to it every day.
I ask it for the morning headlines as I brew my 8:00 AM pot of coffee. I ask it to play the most recent episode of my favorite podcast while I get a workout in. I ask it to set a timer when I throw a frozen pizza in the oven for dinner. I ask it to turn my lights out when I’m hitting the sack. It’s always listening, and it always just works.
That’s the true success of Amazon’s likable smart speaker — it fits in seamlessly with your daily routine. It doesn’t ask you to change any of your habits, it just makes a surprising number of those habits better. It’s the most futuristic product that I own, yet it’s also right at place in my present.
After initially debuting as an invite-only beta-gadget for $99 (I was one of the lucky ones who bought in at that price), Amazon Echo now retails for about twice that: $180 (Echo isn’t shipping in Australia or the UK yet, but that price coverts roughly to about AU$255, or £125). For most, I still think it’s worth the cost. Echo is more than a souped-up speaker with Siri-like smarts — it’s the connected home experience you didn’t know you wanted.
How do I use it?
Take Amazon Echo out of the box and plug it in, and you’ll hear the sound of Alexa waking up. She’ll tell you hello, then help talk you through the setup process. You’ll connect to the speaker’s Wi-Fi network on your phone or tablet, then sync things back up with your home network in the Alexa app. Within a minute, you’ll be up and running.
The speaker will light up whenever it hears you say its wake word, “Alexa” (or “Amazon,” or “Echo,” in case you don’t want to anthropomorphize the thing. Or in case your name happens to be Alexa.) From there, you’ll tell Echo what you want. Whether that’s some light jazz, the latest headlines from NPR, a twenty-minute kitchen timer, an especially dumb joke, or any one of the countless other things you might think to ask for is entirely up to you.
Echo is a good listener. Hidden within are seven noise-cancelling microphones that use “far-field” voice recognition technology. All that really means is that it’s good at hearing you even when you aren’t next to it, and even when there’s other chatter going on. In my home, Echo can understand me just fine from several feet away, even when I’ve got the TV on.
What all can it do?
More and more each month, it seems. Most recently, Echo unveiled new tricks that let you hail a ride from Uber, order a pizza from Domino’s, or stream music straight from Spotify — provided you’re a paid, premium subscriber of the service.
In our original Amazon Echo review, David Carnoy rightly pointed to Spotify as a notable omission from the list of music streaming services from which Alexa can pull. At the time, Echo would play tracks from the Amazon Prime Music library (about 1 million songs), but if you wanted to stream from Spotify’s library of more than 30 million songs, you needed to control things on your phone or tablet, then use Echo as a plain, old Bluetooth speaker.
The new integration finally adds in the voice-powered Alexa smarts for Spotify’s premium subscriber base — you’ll just need to be sure to end your request for a song, album, or artist with “on Spotify,” as in, “Alexa, play Adele on Spotify.” It’s a good get for Amazon, and the biggest feather in its music-streaming cap yet, joining Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn as services you can ask Alexa to stream from.
As for audio quality, Echo features dual downward-firing speakers that promise 360 degrees of “immersive sound.” Some of us at CNET, myself included, have noted that Echo’s bass tends to weaken or distort at maximum volume, but I haven’t had a problem with that personally, since I rarely find myself needing to dial things up much higher than 60 percent or so. To my ear, Echo does a fine job of filling a room with sound, especially with crisp speech playback, something you’ll notice when you listen to a podcast or stream an audiobook.
Still, if it’s audio quality you’re concerned with, you can find better-sounding speakers at this price. The option to sync Echo up with an external sound system and use it more strictly as a point of control would be a good fix, and a nice touch for the audiophiles out there. Unfortunately, you can’t do that — at least not yet. Amazon seems pretty committed to the idea of Echo as an all-in-one device.
All of that said, Echo is more than a music streamer, just as an iPhone is more than a phone. The key is Alexa. She’s helpful, she’s capable, and she’s mostly good at understanding what I’m asking of her, enough so to put her right on par with Siri as far as virtual assistants go.
But unlike Siri, which still serves second to touch as a means of interfacing with iOS devices, Alexa is essentially all Echo has. It was critical for Amazon to get her right — thankfully, she delivers (and yes, calling Alexa a “she” feels more correct than calling Alexa an “it,” a testament to how personable she is).
Echo is more than a music streamer, just as an iPhone is more than a phone.
At Echo’s launch, Alexa’s native capabilities included reading off weather forecasts, setting timers and alarms, and managing your to-do list and shopping list (and, of course, crossing items off of that shopping list by making purchases on Amazon whenever you ask her to.) One trick that I use almost every day is to ask her for the news. In response, she’ll offer a curated list of the day’s headlines and news blurbs from popular sources like NPR, CNN, BBC News, and Fox Sports Radio. You pick what sources you want to hear from and what categories you want to hear about in the Alexa app.
Since launching, Echo has only gotten smarter. Most of what’s new comes by way of Alexa’s “Skills,” which are essentially the apps of Amazon Echo. There are over a hundred of them at this point, and whenever you enable one, you’re basically teaching Alexa a new trick. And, thanks to the fact that Amazon released a software development kit that third-parties can use to craft those Alexa Skills, the list of options is growing rapidly.
How smart are those Skills?
The Skills section of the Alexa app reminds me of the early days of the iPhone’s App Store. There are some from big names like Yelp, and the Skills for Domino’s and Uber that I mentioned earlier. Most, however, come from smaller developers. Some offer genuine niche utility, while others, like a Skill that teaches Alexa to recite “Cat Facts” on demand, veer towards banal gimmickry. And as of now, there isn’t a great way to sort through all of them — no categories, collections, or top picks. With the list growing, a refresh of the Skills section (and of the entire Alexa app, frankly) ought to be high on Amazon’s to-do list.
Still, the point is that there’s something for everyone. If you’re a gamer, there are Skills for games like Minecraft and Destiny that’ll turn Alexa into a helpful sidekick. If you’re a budding mixologist, there’s a Skill that’ll teach Alexa to talk you through complicated cocktail recipes. If you’re a musician, there are Skills that let you use Echo as a metronome or guitar tuner.