Amazon has launched a cylindrical, internet-connected Bluetooth-capable speaker called Echo, which doubles as your personal cloud-based assistant, addressed as Alexa. Because you've always wanted to talk to a home speaker, right?
"Alexa, who is the mayor of Los Angeles?"
"The mayor of Los Angeles is Eric Garcetti."
Cool. Now, "Alexa, what's the weather like?"
"Today, in Sherman Oaks, it's 92 degrees (Fahrenheit) with cloudy skies. Tonight, you can look for just a few clouds in the sky and a low of 68 degrees."
Hmm. What next? Oh, "Alexa, add fish oil supplements to my shopping list."
"I've added fish oil supplements to your shopping list."
Perfect. And one more thing: "Alexa, play some Bob Marley."
"Shuffling songs by Bob Marley."
The sweet Jamaican sounds of Redemption Song then promptly start streaming from Echo. Impressed? After spending a week playing with Echo, we've found ourselves liking the assistant feature more than Echo itself. Allow us to explain.
Amazon Echo is as easy to setup as it gets. The US-only product (for now, anyway) arrived in a neat black box and took less than a minute to fire up.
We plugged it into a wall outlet using the included power adapter, then waited for the spinning light ring on top of the speaker to go from blue to orange. Once that was done, Echo greeted us.
We also downloaded the free Echo app to our iPhone (versions of the Echo app also exist for Android and Amazon Fire devices), because before we could begin using Echo, the app required us to connect the Amazon speaker to our Wi-Fi network. Like setting up the speaker itself, this was a breeze.
When using the Echo app for the first time, sign into your Amazon Prime account and other available services, such as Pandora, so that Echo can work with and pull from your account, other Amazon services like Audible, and third parties. You'll only have to do it once, and it takes hardly any time at all.
Simply put: Amazon Echo is a Pringles-can-sized speaker. It's just 23.5cm tall and just over 7.6cm around. We were fairly surprised by the compact size of Echo given how the press images made it appear like a large tower of sorts.
Which is great, as this is a speaker you can fit anywhere in your home. And because it weighs around 700g, you don't have to worry about it being easily knocked over by small children or animals. It's a solid, weighty thing that squeezes into a range of spaces - whether that be a table top, kitchen counter or nestled by your living room's entertainment centre.
You only need to make sure it has access to a mains power outlet. Unlike most Bluetooth speakers at this price point, Echo isn't portable as there's no battery on board. It must be plugged in at all times, but that's kind of a good thing, because then you know for sure that it's always on, always listening, and ready to provide quick answers and information. It's not a conventional speaker like the portable Bluetooth competition.
Echo has three buttons. Well, two, plus a control ring around the top to control volume. Above this ring is a separate light circle that glows a dull white when you dial the volume ring, or it'll shine a brilliant blue when you say "Alexa", which is the personal assistant's "name" and wake-up word. Kind of like Siri, Cortana or Google Now.
The other two buttons we mentioned – found at the very top of Echo – turn the speaker on/off or put the on-board microphones into a mute mode (if in mute mode, Alexa won't be able to hear you). Apart from all that, the only other noticeable design element is the speaker grille that surrounds the bottom half of the speaker. It's simple and elegant looking.
As with all Amazon products, there's a tie-in with the company's shopping and pay-for services. And with Echo you'll want it because of this; because of Alexa.
You can ask her to play Audible audiobooks, check your schedule in Google calendar, re-order Prime products in your Amazon history, fetch traffic reports, news, sports scores, and weather, get information from Wikipedia, set alarms and timers, and organise shopping lists and to-do lists.
We especially like that we could ask Alexa to do random conversions (like one cup into 16 tablespoons), because let's be real, it's easier to ask her to do the maths for us while we're cooking rather than grab our iPad and get raw food all over the display. We actually used Alexa as a chef assistant for more times than we care to admit.
We also used Alexa for shopping a lot, which is probably the key reason why Amazon developed Echo in the first place. Ask her to add anything to your shopping list in the Echo app, and she'll do it. If you want to re-order something you've already purchased with Prime, you can do so with just your voice. It's all so futuristic.
Other than that, Alexa is basically a personal DJ. We love asking her to play any random song, album, genre, station, or artist on demand. If she couldn't automatically pull it from a connected service, she would either play a sample, and then let us buy said music (via Amazon, of course), or she'd apologise for not having it.
Echo is a typical Bluetooth speaker, in the sense you can connect your phone or smart device and play tunes wirelessly. Although the Alexa feature only enables voice control for Amazon Music, Prime Music, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn, you can still connect to and stream from other services, such as Spotify and iTunes, using their respective apps on your mobile device.
Another big limitation is that, apart from the weather and dictionary, Alexa strictly pulls informational data from Wikipedia and a few other data repositories. You cannot use Alexa to Google stuff, though she will send a Bing link to your tablet or phone if unsuccessful at finding what you want.
Echo supposedly has seven microphones and a "beam-forming" technology, meaning it's designed to hear you from across the room even while music is playing. That's not just words straight from an Amazon rep – it's the truth. Even when blaring out music loudly, Alexa could pick up whatever we had to say.
As a speaker
Whenever Echo sounded off, we could still tell Alexa to stop, pause, and turn up the volume (1-10). Although we were impressed with Alexa's ability to always understand us and respond to our commands, as well as her pleasing, natural-sounding voice, the quality of the Echo speaker itself is another story.
If you want a decent Bluetooth speaker – and there are plenty of them on the market – then do not opt for Amazon Echo. Although it shines as a personal assistant, it's simply not the best Bluetooth speaker around.
The volume isn't reliable, for one thing. Going from level 4 to 5 is more like a 30 per cent increase rather than 10 per cent. The sound seems both shallow and compressed too. For this price, we think you can get a better Bluetooth speaker. Which is such a shame, as that's what the product is supposed to be first and foremost.
You can use the Echo app to manage your settings, to-do list, shopping list, connected services, music, and an overview of all your requests. That's right: every query is stored on the History screen with a brief audio clip of what you said. It's kind of creepy.
We also think the Echo app's design choices are somewhat grotesque. It looks outdated. It doesn't feel fluid at all. It could probably have a better user interface and structure altogether. If you've ever used an Amazon Fire phone, you will see similarities, but that phone was hardly a beacon of brilliance. Amazon really needs to get better with UI design.
We think hands-free voice control is a godsend and that Alexa, Amazon Echo's personal assistant, truly distinguishes this Bluetooth speaker from the competition. It blew our minds. We won't ever get tired of walking into our living room and casually asking Alexa to stream some music.
Alexa converses well, feels natural to interact with, and is very useful. We just wish she worked with more services and pulled from more sources. That said, Amazon regularly auto-updates via the cloud with new features, so Echo will become more advanced over time. It will soon let you voice-control compatible smart home devices, for instance, such as Belkin WeMo and Philips Hue.
It's just a shame that, as a Bluetooth speaker, Echo fails to blow our minds. It's simply not the best sounding speaker out there, despite its "immersive, 360-degree sound". There's no on-board battery either, so it always needs to be wired to a wall socket.
Still, we can see where Amazon is going with Echo. And it's not entirely music-led: add chicken broth to our shopping list, check if it'll rain tomorrow, or look up Johnny Depp's birthday. Why not, eh?
In fact, forget the Echo. We love Alexa.