Meet your new friend Echo, er, Alexa
When Amazon announced the Echo recently, many didn't know what to make of it. The cylindrical tower is an audio system that is always connected to the web. It can stream music from Amazon's Prime Music library, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and play local music collections. With the integrated Bluetooth, the Echo can play music streamed from local devices. The Amazon Echo is a decent audio system at its base level, and so much more.
CNET Review: Amazon Echo talks the talk, but still needs a little work on walking the walk
When I first tried to describe the Echo to my non-techie friends, they ended up confused. I changed tactics and began simply describing the Amazon Echo as a "tower of Siri", and everyone got it.
Those who feel strange constantly calling "Alexa" to get the Echo's attention can change the trigger to "Amazon." That might be necessary for buyers with another Alexa in the family. Having tried both names, I found constantly calling out "Amazon" to the room to be somewhat creepy, so Alexa is what I am using.
The Amazon Echo ships in a black box with absolutely no markings on it. It sets the tone of what this mysterious device can do, right from the start.
Setting up the Echo is very easy. Once it's plugged in, the setup takes place in the web browser, or even better, using the Amazon Echo app on a device running either Fire OS 4.5.1 or Android.
Amazon Echo app
I installed the app on my Kindle Fire HDX 7, and on the first run it guided me through the short setup process. This got the Echo onto my home Wi-Fi network, and associated with my Amazon account. The latter is what makes music streaming from the cloud services work.
Once connected to Wi-Fi, the app showed how to insert the batteries and get the remote connected to the Echo. That concluded the setup, and the app then presented a video to show what could be done with the Amazon Echo.
The app can be used (in lieu of voice input) to interact with the Echo. It can access the Echo's to-do lists created by users, the timer, alarm functions, and handle all linked online music services. The app can suggest things to try with Echo, and serve as a media player with controls for the tower.
The Home page in the app shows a flowing river of every voice command issued to the Echo and its response. This comes in handy when first using the Echo to get a feel for how it determines what you mean.
The Amazon Echo is a metal cylinder, half of which is perforated to let the audio out. It sounds pretty good for such a small device given the 2-inch tweeter, 2.5-inch woofer, and the reflex port designed to play deep sounds. The cylinder doesn't take up much room on a desk or table given its 3.27-inch footprint. It is 9.25 inches tall.
The top of the cylinder is a volume ring for physically turning it up and down. Of course, you can also tell Alexa to do that for you. The Echo uses far-field technology for listening to requests, aided by an impressive seven-microphone array in the top. There is a blue light ring on the top to signal when the Echo is waiting for spoken commands. The light briefly flashes to indicate the Echo understood the spoken command and is executing it.
There are two buttons on top of the Echo, one to manually activate the microphone for input and the other an "action" button. The latter can be used to turn off an alarm or timer, and to wake the device. I haven't used either button since voice commands work fine for these functions.
For those who prefer physical audio controls over spoken commands, the Echo ships with a small remote with media player controls. There is a magnetic holder designed to store the remote on a flat surface. The remote attaches magnetically to the holder and you can use an adhesive strip (included) to put the holder on an appropriate surface.
Audio playback sounds pretty good on the Echo. It doesn't rival high-end systems but is good for the price.
The volume goes up pretty high for such a small system, with very little distortion at high volume. It handles bass pretty well, although not as well as systems with a subwoofer. I use it with the volume toward the middle of the range and it fills my large apartment.
Streaming music is what sets the Echo apart from standard audio systems, as its ability to tap into major online systems gives you access to millions of songs. Just tell Alexa to play a certain artist, genre, album, or song and sit back and listen to your request. After doing this a few times, it proves how great it is to have a device that is always listening for you to tell it what you want.
Streaming audio over Bluetooth from a Kindle Fire HDX or Android tablet works well, too. This is like using a dedicated Bluetooth speaker but better, as the sound system in the Echo is better than those little speakers. Plus the Echo is always sitting there ready to go.
I tested streaming music from my iPhone 6 Plus and it worked very well. The Bluetooth pairing process was done by voice, telling Alexa to "pair a device." She talked me through the simple steps and my iPhone was connected. Disconnecting was as simple as telling the Echo to "disconnect my phone."
You can speak to Echo from wherever you are in a room. There's no need to walk to the tower, as it does a good job hearing commands from any direction in even a large room. Amazon recommends setting it up in the center of a big room.
I set the Echo on my desk which is toward the middle of my loft apartment. This room is big (approximately 40 x 30 feet) and has poor acoustics due to the concrete celings, hardwood floors, and exposed ventwork.
Having long worked with speech recognition and voice input, I am extremely impressed with how accurately it works on the Echo. The Echo can hear voice commands from over 30 feet away and it does so even with music playing. The microphone array is very, very good.
Alexa handles multiple speakers well. I invited some friends over to see what they thought of the Amazon Echo and had them all give Alexa commands or ask questions from all over the apartment. My friends were as impressed as I was, as Alexa heard each one without fail, and did the bidding of each. I suspect most, if not all, of them will buy an Echo when they are readily available.
Natural language commands can cover just about anything you can think of. Amazon has used a very broad language base to start, and the Echo learns through use. Amazon can also extend its language and features anytime, since it is always connected to the web.
The programming behind Alexa is designed to do what you want it to do if at all possible. If it's not, the Echo will offer to do something else that usually is a good alternative. As an example, I asked Alexa to "Play the Beatles on Prime Music," not realizing that the service doesn't have any Beatles music. Alexa's immediate response was perfect -- "There is no Beatles music on Prime Music, shall I play a Beatles station on iHeartRadio instead?" A simple yes and I was listening to the Beatles.
Music is just one topic to speak to Alexa about. Want to know about alligators? Just ask her. Want to know what Wikipedia says about any topic? Just say "Alexa, Wikipedia [topic of interest]. The information that can be accessed through the Echo is virtually endless. If there's is too much information from Wikipedia or a weather forecast to get via spoken word, just tell Alexa to send it to your tablet or phone where you've got the Amazon Echo app installed. The information that Alexa has uncovered is shot directly to the screen.
Should you buy one?
That's usually the first question I get asked about a new gadget, and I rarely make recommendations of this nature. I am making an exception about the Amazon Echo because I think it can bring great value to most folks. I think most people will like the Amazon Echo even at full price.
It's a reasonably good audio system at its base level, and the interaction with Alexa adds a lot of value. It is very useful when you need information to just ask Alexa to get it. After only a few hours of using the Echo you will likely find, as I did, that you are already coming to rely on Alexa.
After just a day with the Echo, it's already become a routine for me to walk in the front door and tell Alexa to play some genre of music or artist. That's impressive, as my front door is over thirty feet from the Echo. I already do it without thinking about it, which shows the beauty of the Amazon Echo. It becomes part of the environment.
There's something about the Amazon Echo that takes me back to my childhood and having an invisible friend in the room. I believe that's part of the magic of the Amazon Echo and Alexa.
The MSRP of $199is not bad, but if you're an Amazon Prime member as I am, the $99 price is a no-brainer.
Reviewer's rating: 10 out of 10