Amazon launched the Echo - its cylindrical, internet-connected Bluetooth-capable speaker - in the US in 2015. Just over a year later and the Echo finally made its way to the UK and other territories.
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. It's taken the smart home world by storm, emerging into one of the most significant products to launch in recent years, giving birth to a whole new category of devices.
Alexa is an AI of many skills and the Amazon Echo was the first real manifestation of that. Many have fallen for its charms, it's an entertainer of children, your kitchen assistant, smart home controller deluxe and the voice control for your music.
Amazon Echo review: Setup
- Alexa app for Android, iOS
- Needs a Wi-Fi network
Amazon Echo is as easy to setup as it gets, taking about 5 minutes to get started. Once plugged into a wall outlet using the included power adapter, you wait for the spinning light ring on top to go from blue to orange. Once that was done, Alexa will greet and walk you through the rest of the process.
The Alexa app exists for iOS, Android and Amazon Fire devices and you'll need to download that before you can use the 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 Alexa app for the first time, all you have to do is sign into your Amazon Prime account and other available services, such as Spotify, so that Echo can work with these various accounts.
It's here that the Echo's potential really lies. Because Alexa can access so many different sources of information and loads of different accounts you might have, you can get to everything in the one place. There are too many to list here - we cover a lot via the link below - but you can do things like connect with other smart home devices (Philips Hue lights, smart plugs, connected heating) as well as linking up with things like Fitbit so you can ask Alexa your current weight. All this runs through that Alexa app.
Amazon Echo review: Design
- Cylindrical design
- Black or white colours
- 235 x 76mm, 1064g
Simply put: Amazon Echo is a Pringles-can-sized speaker. It's 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 the 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.
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 wake-up word, kind of like Siri, Cortana or Google Assistant.
You can ditch the Alexa name and use a variety of others if you prefer, but you can't programme your own specific, so you're limited to Amazon or Computer as alternative options.
As cylindrical speakers go, Alexa is simple and elegant looking. Since the Echo was launched in 2015 there's been a wide range of competitors launch with some similar styling, or looking to ape the experience. Google Home followed soon after, Apple has the HomePod and there's rumours of the Samsung Bixby speaker incoming too. Then there's an emerging range of devices that offer Google Assistant or Alexa, but from other manufacturers, from Panasonic through to Onkyo.
They each offer some variation on this sort of design - some targeting to push sound quality - which is something we'll come to shortly.
Amazon Echo review: Alexa voice control and AI
- 7 beam-forming mics
- Lots of Alexa skills
- Understands conversational language
As with all Amazon products, there's a tie-in with the company's shopping and pay-for services - aka £79/year Amazon Prime. 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 do a whole world of things without the added subscription and as Alexa has matured and support has expanded, the original feeling that this was closely ties to Amazon's other services has slightly diminished. Still, the slickest and smartest music experience is with Amazon Music.
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.
Shopping can be controlled through the Alexa app and it's well worth doing, because if you have 1-click ordering on your account, then anyone could order anything through your Echo.
As we said, those microphones work well, but if there was one time that it doesn't work so well, it's when the timer alarm is going off. You can set multiple timers using your voice (great for cooking), and when they go off they are loud: all too often we've been left shouting at Alexa to turn off the alarm.
Alexa is learning new things all the time, but the level of understanding is really impressive. Sometimes you might have to mention a particular skill to get the response you want - so if you want to play a particular playlist from Spotify, you'll need to tell Alexa that's what you want. But for general requests Alexa is fine with conversational language - including accents and it also understands children.
Amazon Echo review: Smart home supreme
- Has evolved into a natural smart home controller
- Huge support for lots of services
When the Echo first launched, it was very much a device that was designed to entertain you with its AI skills from Alexa, while giving you a speaker that was connected into a range of different services. That's something that has remained true, but the bigger impact that the Amazon Echo has had is emerging as the smart home controller.
Much of this comes from huge number of third-party organisations that have embraced the opportunity that Alexa offers. Thanks to Alexa's skills, it now supports pretty all the major smart home companies. Those not supported quickly find a way to make their devices and services compatible with Alexa, expanding the skillset available to Echo owners.
Those those with smart heating - Hive, Nest, Netatmo, Tado, Honeywell - or those with connected lighting - Philips Hue, Osram Lightify, Hive Active Light - or those with ... you get the idea. Essentially, Alexa has become the centre point to all these disconnected smart systems. Yes, you can control each of these things through their own app, but you can group them using Alexa's smart home controls and then you can just use Alexa to manage a wide range of devices.
Basically, Amazon has stolen a march on everyone else: it beat Google Home into homes, while Apple's HomeKit still wondering how it's all going to work. With the Amazon Echo, it's working now and has been for the past year. Importantly, it's still growing, with that feeling that Amazon has critical mass in smart home connectivity.
Amazon Echo review: Music and speaker quality
- 2.5-inch woofer with bass reflex port; 2-inch tweeter
- Works with Amazon Music, Spotify and other music services
- Supports Spotify Connect
- Can be connected to Bluetooth speakers
Other than all those other skills, 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.
The result is rather fun. Because it's always listening, anyone in your home can change the music or suggest another radio station, meaning it can become something of a party piece, avoiding the need to pass over a tablet or phone with a controlling app. It's more communal and having lived with the Echo for more than a year, it never fails to entertain when friends come over.
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. However, you can also connect your Echo to other Bluetooth speakers, so you can spread the music across the room, or improve the sound quality if that's what you want to do.
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. For those interested in Spotify support, the Echo is also Spotify Connect compatible, meaning you can just tell it to play music from within the Spotify app.
If you want the music to stop, pause, or the volume to change you simply have to ask Alexa - although to change the volume you can rotate the dial, which sometimes feels like the better way to do things. If you're on the phone, for example, you really don't want to be shouting at Alexa at the same time.
The thing to bear in mind about the Amazon Echo is that it was designed as a "smart" speaker first. The sound quality is ok, but it's the sort of thing you might replace the kitchen radio with rather than as the sole source of your music. There are plenty of speakers that are more impressive when it comes to sound delivery. At the same time, audio quality is an easy target for criticism of the Echo. It's this line that many recent rivals have taken, with the likes of Apple claiming that its HomePod is audiophile grade.
For those people who put sound quality at the top of the list then the Echo Dot makes more sense. This basically gives you all the Alexa skills in a smaller package, as there's no speaker. That's something you have to supply yourself.
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.
But as time goes by, Alexa has evolved and delivered more than we'd have ever imagined. The rise of the smart speaker owes itself to this, the original and in many people's view, the best. Don't judge the Amazon Echo as a speaker on its own, approach it as a smart gateway to the rest of the connected world. We love Alexa and we think she loves us too.
From £149, Amazon