Amazon launched the Echo - its cylindrical, internet-connected Bluetooth-capable speaker - in the US back in 2015. Just over a year later and the Echo has finally made its way to the UK. Hurrah.
But we're not most excited about the actual speaker part. The biggest take-away from Echo is Alexa, your personal, voice-controlled, cloud-based assistant. Because you've always wanted to talk to a home speaker, right?
Impressed by the idea? After spending many weeks playing with Echo - or, should we say, talking to Alexa - we've found ourselves liking the assistant feature heaps. The speaker's not too bad either - or you can buy a smaller, cheaper Echo Dot and sync your own speaker instead for better quality.
Here's why Amazon is at the helm of the smart home with Echo. Sure, it's cleverly locking you into its wider Prime ecosystem, but Alexa adds additional value to that prospect.
Amazon Echo review: Setup
Amazon Echo is as easy to setup as it gets. The product took us 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 to go from blue to orange. Once that was done, Alexa greeted us.
The Echo app exists for iOS, Android and Amazon Fire devices and you'll need to download that before you can use Echo. Like setting up the speaker itself, this process is a breeze too - you just need to sync with a Wi-Fi network.
When using the Echo app for the first time, sign into your Amazon Prime account and other available services, such as Spotify, so that Echo can work with these various accounts. Plenty of other Amazon services are available, as are those form third parties (we go into more detail via the link below).
Amazon Echo review: Design
Simply put: Amazon Echo is a Pringles-can-sized speaker. It's just 235mm tall and just over 76mm around. We were fairly surprised by the compact size of Echo given how the press images somehow 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 Echo has access to a mains power outlet. Unlike most Bluetooth speakers at this price point, Echo isn't portable because 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 always ready to provide quick answers and information. Echo isn't a conventional speaker like the portable Bluetooth competition.
Control wise, 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. You can ditch the Alexa name and use a variety of others if you prefer, but you can't programme your own specific (we can see it now: all the swear word choices).
As cylindrical speakers go, Alexa is simple and elegant looking.
Amazon Echo review: Alexa voice control
As with all Amazon products, there's a tie-in with the company's shopping and pay-for services - aka £79/year Amazon Prime. And with Echo you'll want a subscription to get the most out of the product. Although you don't have to sign up. Alexa can still control your heating (if you have Hive) and play music from your phone or laptop without the added subscription.
You can use the Echo app to manage your settings, to-do list, shopping list, connected services, music, and provide 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 almost creepy.
You can ask Alexa to play Audible audiobooks, check your schedule in Google calendar, re-order Prime products in your Amazon history, fetch traffic reports, news, sports scores, weather, get information from Wikipedia, set alarms and timers, and organise shopping lists and to-do lists. Indeed there are heaps of apps beyond that, from Uber to Skyscanner and more.
One 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 things, though she will send a Bing link to your phone or device if unsuccessful at finding what you want.
What we especially like is that you can ask Alexa almost any question in conversation. And it's oh so easy to get side-tracked
"Alexa, who is the mayor of London?"
"The mayor of London is Sadiq Khan."
Cool. What next? Oh, "Alexa, add bin bags to my shopping list."
"I've added bin bags to your shopping list."
One more thing: "Alexa, play some Bob Marley."
The Echo 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 with Bob blaring out loudly, Alexa could pick up whatever we had to say.
We've also used Alexa for shopping a lot - influenced by all that reggae - which is probably the key reason why Amazon developed Echo in the first instance. Ask Alexa to add anything to your shopping list and she'll do it. If you want to re-order something you've already purchased via Prime, you can do so with just your voice. It's all so futuristic, albeit in the here and now.
Amazon Echo review: Music and speaker quality
Other than that, Alexa is your personal DJ. We love asking her to play any random song, album, genre, station, or artist on demand. If she can't automatically pull it from a connected service, then she will either play a sample, and then allow us buy said music (via Amazon, of course), or she apologises 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. So if you have a specific song, mix, or something that you can't source from streaming services then it can function that way.
By default the Alexa voice-controlled feature only works for Amazon Music/Prime. You can also set, say, Spotify or Tunein within the app if this is your preference. In the US Pandora and iHeartRadio are also available.
If you want the music to stop, pause, or the volume to change you simply have to ask Alexa - although the physical buttons can be used instead.
Thing is, the quality of the Echo speaker itself isn't class-leading. Alexa sounds great, but music doesn't have as much pop as you might have heard elsewhere. It's good enough, but it's just not going to give you the warbling bass that you might find from some other Bluetooth speakers on the market.
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's blown our minds - whether for listening to music, adding to our shopping list, adjusting the heating or asking other apps to do their thing.
It's just a shame that, as a Bluetooth speaker, Echo doesn't quite blow our minds. It's not a class-leading Bluetooth speaker, despite its so-called "immersive, 360-degree sound". There's no on-board battery either, so it always needs to be wired to a wall socket. However, if you want to use your own speakers then you'll want to buy the Echo Dot, which is smaller and cheaper at £49 - effectively acting an Alexa module, if you will.
Overall we can see where Amazon is going with Echo. It's all about motivating Amazon Prime and working as the hub of the home. It'll get more advanced over time as more services become available too. But there will also be more competition: Google Home is incoming (but sounds a lot less human), while surely Apple is only around the corner with a similar such setup.
As it stands, though, Amazon rules the roost. We love Alexa. And we think she loves us back.
From £149, Amazon