(Pocket-lint) - Amazon's move into your car was an inevitable step, while third parties embraced the idea of Alexa in the car before Amazon arrived at the same destination with the Echo Auto.
Launched in the US in 2018, it's taken a couple of years to head overseas, but this neat little in-car device is now available in a wider range of regions, bringing Alexa's flavour of voice control to those on the road.
So what sort of driving buddy does Alexa make?
- 85 x 47 x 13.28mm, 45g
- Comes with vent mount and cables
- Two physical buttons on the top
The Echo Auto is a slim slice of tech, the top featuring two familiar buttons - action and mute - while eight ominous holes in the top remind you that this thing is littered with microphones.
There's an LED bar across the front to provide a visual response, blue when listening, orange during setup, red when muted, a familiar experience. It's the same colour scheme used by Amazon's other Echo devices and if all else fails it lets you know what's going on.
On the left side of the Echo Auto there's a small speaker, which will give you commands during setup before you're connected to your car's audio, while the right-hand side has a 3.5mm socket and a Micro-USB. Yes, Amazon is still using the old standard for power on this device, which it will no doubt say is a money-saving measure.
Cables for both those connections come in the box, as well as a vent mount. This has rubber arms that push through into many types of vent with a magnetic pad on the top to hold your Echo Auto flat. Amazon suggests using it flat so that you can see the LED response and the mics have the best chance of picking up your voice when in your car. You can also push the cables into the grips to tidy them up a bit.
If that's not going to work as a mounting option there's a number of third-party accessories for mounting the Echo Auto, but this is a device that really needs to be visible and accessible to work its magic. We suspect that some would rather hide the cables, but note that the supplied cables aren't very long, they are designed for dashboard mounting, rather than routing through your headlining.
Ultimately, the mount isn't the most flexible and some will find that it won't work on their vents or they simply think that it's a little too messy once installed - but you don't have to use it and there are other routes to getting it mounted in your car.
Echo Auto installation and setup
- Uses Alexa app
- Needs a smartphone for connection
- Can link to car or via 3.5mm audio or Bluetooth
- Always needs a power supply
Setting up the Echo Auto is as simple as setting up any other Alexa device. We've drilled into more detail on how to setup your Echo Auto in a separate feature here, but needless to say, it's straightforward.
Amazon supplies a double 12V USB adapter so you can power it via that or connect it to an existing USB socket in your car. Setup then needs you to connect to it via the Alexa app on your phone and those are the two elements that you'll need to have it working - power (there's no internal battery) and your phone.
The app will guide you through the process, including whether to connect to your car's entertainment system directly via Bluetooth (on more modern cars that support Bluetooth audio streaming) or via 3.5mm for slightly older cars. It will support many cars, with some exceptions listed on Amazon's website, but in general there's probably a work around for many of those listed.
We installed it in a 2009 BMW, which is probably the sort of car that benefits from this type of device the most, having no access to digital music services and an integrated head unit that's not easy to change. We connected to the 3.5mm auxiliary input and were setup and using Echo Auto in under 5 minutes.
As a secondary test, we connected the Echo Auto to a Pure Highway system already installed in the car, which allowed the Echo Auto to connect directly to Bluetooth rather than using a wired audio connection. Again, in under 5 minutes we were up and running.
We also connected the Echo Auto to several different phones which doesn't pose a problem, although multiple connections will need you to trigger manual pairing by pressing the action button until the orange light comes on again. The only thing you need to remember is to ensure that the Echo Auto is connected to the correct device if you have multiple phones in the car.
This becomes important because Echo Auto draws all its functionality from your phone's data connection. When you talk to Alexa it's using data, when you're streaming music it's using data, so you need to ensure that you have a data package on your phone that's going to accommodate those demands.
Once setup there's little else to do: as the Echo Auto is then connected to the aux input or Bluetooth, you'll need to ensure that your car stereo/system stays on that input, otherwise you won't hear anything from the Echo Auto.
What will the Echo Auto do?
- Voice control
- Music streaming
- Supports Alexa functions
- Alexa Calling
- Triggers navigation
Alexa has a wide range of skills; when you sign into a new Echo device, it has access to all those skills you've previously setup and connected, meaning that it has access to the same sorts of skills that you would with an Echo at home.
There are some slight differences. For example, if you're using a premium music service like Spotify, it will trigger Spotify playback on your phone, so you'll need to be signed into the app on your phone, it won't just start streaming it from the cloud like it might at home.
Voice control is obviously the thing that Alexa is best known for and that flows through to the Echo Auto too. For most people, that's going to allow the flexibility to play what you want, when you want, with minimal fuss. You can play music from Spotify one minute, switch to your favourite digital radio service, ask for particular songs etc. It's a familiar feature set, because it's the same as other Echo devices.
Beyond that you have Alexa's other skills and games - you can ask questions, you can check the weather, you can control paired smartphone devices, but more importantly, you can use the Echo Auto to trigger navigation.
This is where things get a little more complicated, because it will depend on a number of factors. If you're using Echo Auto then it will fire up navigation on your phone, using the preferred app you selected under Settings > Traffic > Default Navigation app. On an Android phone that will be Google Maps, but we switched this to Waze.
When you ask Alexa to navigate you somewhere, it will fire up this nominated app on your phone, and send the destination to that app, having confirmed the destination is correct. For example, if you ask to go to Nandos, it will suggest the location of that restaurant before firing the address over to the app. This all works pretty well, but if you do get stuck, you can always resort to searching for the destination in your navigation app - and then you'll still get the audio over your car's speakers.
You can also ask Alexa to find locations for you but that system isn't so advanced. Asking for the nearest pharmacy will see Alexa suggesting the closest pharmacy it knows rather than the actual closest - something that Google is better at. This could be a database problem, it could be that the Echo Auto doesn't really know where you are.
The audio you get works just as if you were doing everything on your phone. Music will dip for notifications, like navigation directions and will cut out when calls are incoming. Calls are interesting, because you can trigger calls via Alexa if you've synced your contacts with the Alexa app. We prefer just to let the car handle that, because you then have control over calls via the car's controls, without needing to touch your phone, if that's an option for you.
But in addition, you can use the Echo Auto for Alexa Calling. This will let you call an Echo device in your house or a friend's Echo, but the sound quality - we found - wasn't very good. In our experience, it's better to leave the calling to your phone and your car and leave Alexa out of it.
In-car functions normally break down into several basic areas - music, navigation and calling - and those are areas that the Echo Auto covers. You can disappear down a rabbit hole attempting to use other functions, but many of those really aren't essential when driving - but you may feel differently.
Performance and experience
- Great voice response
- Relies on data connection
For those with older cars that have previously only offered basic radio, there's a lot that the Echo Auto can bring. It's a gateway to a wide range of digital services, mostly circulating around music. Alexa is a great system and having that parity between how you ask for your music to be delivered at home and how you asked for it to be delivered in your car has obvious appeal.
For some, there's really no added benefit, other than Alexa itself. If you have a car that offered Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, then there's little real benefit as all those services are easy enough to access via those systems. That said, Alexa is more sophisticated than Siri and in some situations is better than Google Assistant too - so the ease of accessing voice control can't be ignored.
The voice detection on the Echo Auto is superior to some other systems and having attempted voice control via Google Assistant on a phone, this is leagues better. Having all those mics makes a real difference and makes sure you can be heard over the engine noise or air conditioning.
For the full benefit of Echo Auto, you really need to be using it with a smartphone you can also see, so you can take advantage of voice-controlled navigation too.
As such, what you'll actually get from the Echo Auto will depend very much on what car you have and what sort of setup you want. Of course, if you're a fan of Alexa, there's nothing to stop you connecting it up on the most modern of cars and streaming all your music. In many cases, that will be easier than signing into apps in your car or having to pay for additional in-cart features.
The performance is also dependent on your connection. If you're prone to driving though areas where you have no mobile data connection then you'll find that the Echo Auto will cut out in those areas and you'll lose your music. That's something that you'll just have to accept - and in those situations, it's only really having offline music or FM radio that might save you.
The Amazon Echo Auto is a fun addition to cars, bringing the convenience and familiarity of Alexa to a wider range of drivers. If you're a fan of Alexa at home, then you'll likely be a fan of the Echo Auto in your car too and it's very easy to get yourself setup and running.
But the benefits of installing the Echo Auto will vary widely depending on how you set your car up and what you're using for navigation and so on. For the slightly older car there's a huge advantage, for the slightly newer car, not so much.
At its heart, the Echo Auto delivers that Alexa experience - easy of communication, a skill for delivering your music, and easy access to any other services you've hooked up via Alexa. Arguably there could be more car-specific apps and the location services could be improved to make this system smarter, but as it is, Echo Auto is a definite win for those wanting to make their car smarter.