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Plenty of useful features like timers, shopping lists, music apps
Lots of potential for new services
Voice response can sound unnatural and stilted
Hard to remember how to launch apps.
Some apps can be limited and frustrating
Describing the Amazon Echo as a speaker is a bit like describing an iPhone as a telephone.
Sure, that might have been the Echo's original function, but it has already grown far beyond that: really it's better to think of the Echo as a voice-activated digital home assistant, that also happens to play music.
The Echo has been a surprise hit in the US, where Amazon has sold over three million units. It is now on sale in the UK (and Germany), which has brought a new accent for the Alexa digital assistant and a new set of services.
There are two key elements to the Amazon Echo: the physical hardware and the cloud service that runs on top of it.
The hardware, which comes in black or white, is solid, if unmemorable. About the size of two tins of beans stacked up, Echo resembles an industrial-looking vase, or maybe a particularly high-end cutlery drainer. The glowing light ring around the top tells you that there's something else going on here, though.
Out of the box there's a short setup procedure: you'll need to download the Echo app onto your smartphone and connect it to your wi-fi, but none of this takes long.
The Echo works pretty well as a speaker, delivering crisp sound and decent distortion-free volume, making it a fine choice for listening to the radio or playlists. However, it's not going to replace an audiophile's main sound system. You can either set the volume (1 to 10) by simply asking, or manually by rotating the top of the device.
But that's only the beginning. One of the breakthroughs Amazon has touted with the Echo is far-field voice recognition. Getting a computer to understand a voice is much easier in a quiet room with a microphone close to the user's mouth: the Echo is designed for use in noisier environments and to understand requests coming from further afield.
It can do this because inside the body of the Echo is a seven-microphone array that uses beam forming to identify the microphone closest to the speaking voice and amplify that one -- and suppress others -- so that it can zero in on the person talking to it. It also features a machine-learning-driven 'Echo canceller' that helps it to discount the sound of music it's playing in order to concentrate on human voices.
The Echo is activated by the wake-word 'Alexa' (you can use 'Echo' or 'Amazon' if you already have an actual human Alexa around the place already). The Echo previously shipped with a remote control that you can now buy separately, although it seems like an unnecessary additional extra for most users.
Unlike other voice-activated systems, the Echo doesn't have to be trained to understand the quirks of your voice: it understood requests from everyone who tested it with few problems.
And in practice, in a quiet room the Echo picked up voice requests pretty much every time: in a busy kitchen with kettle boiling and music playing this proved a little harder, but probably no more so than trying to attract the attention of a human.
I've been keeping my Echo in the corner of the kitchen, and as my voice bounces off the window behind it sometimes gets confused about where I am -- I can tell this because the blue directional beam on the light ring at the top of the Echo points out of the window rather than towards me, as it should. This doesn't seem to affect its ability to respond to requests, though.
What really makes the Echo such a fascinating product is the Alexa cloud service to which it plays host. Alexa is like other digital assistants, but differs by being genuinely useful and not just a gimmick.
Some of this is because the service seems suited to the home -- and the kitchen in particular. Setting timers by voice is very useful when cooking ("Alexa, set a timer for 15 minutes") as is checking some of those everyday details ("Alexa, ask Tube Status about the Northern Line") or simply "Alexa, will it rain today?"
Asking these questions as you race around in the morning eating toast seems to me much more natural than asking the same questions of a smartphone.
The Alexa service, out of the box, can answer a certain set of questions, or tries to do a web search to find an answer. This can quickly highlight the gaps in her knowledge -- or rather, in her ability to understand the question being asked. Unambiguous questions with clear answers will work better; others will result in the system coming back with "Sorry I couldn't find the answer to your question."
Alexa's female voice -- Amazon said this was the overwhelming choice of users -- is smooth and (mostly) clear when responding to questions. It has a British accent of sorts, classless and region-independent.
What lets it down is that often the words run together awkwardly and robotically, at which point the illusion that you're talking to a person -- and that Alexa understands what she is saying -- breaks down. For the same reason, although she has plenty of jokes, they mostly fall flat because she has no comic timing: the punchline is blurted out straight after the setup without even the slightest pause.
So Alexa can be a bit wooden, and sometimes misses the point -- but she's not without charm, because Amazon has added plenty of little Easter Eggs to make Alexa a little more fun to hang out with.
Here's a small illustration of all of the above, using Star Trek -- if only because Amazon execs have name-checked the show as the inspiration behind the Echo. Alexa can easily tell me how old William Shatner is, but she couldn't correctly tell me what the Kobayashi Maru was, insisting it was a book. Still, when I tried asking "Alexa, Tea, Earl Grey, Hot," and "Alexa, beam me up," I got a much more fun response.
One way of making Alexa smarter is by adding more 'skills' -- the Echo equivalent of apps. But it's a cumbersome process. First you have to look though the list of skills on your smartphone and enable the ones you want to use. Then later you have to remember the phrase that will launch the particular ability. This is fine when you have just a few, but as the number of skills increases, remembering the particular phrase to invoke each one becomes harder. As the list of available skills continues to grow, this will become more of a headache.
The Echo is well integrated with services like Amazon Music, Audible and Amazon Prime: Prime members can buy products directly from Alexa and check the status of existing orders by saying "Alexa, where's my stuff?"
But it's not so locked into the world of Amazon as some of the company's other devices, and the ability to swap in other services is welcome: Alexa comes with Amazon Music as a default setting, but I found its catalogue far too limited for my mildly-obscure 1990s indie sensibilities. Switching to Spotify solved this problem quickly enough.
Also, some of these skills seem like a missed opportunity. I tested out the Jamie Oliver app, which allows you to choose an recipe based on ingredients -- vegetables, chicken, fish and so on. But once you've chosen, it simply emails the recipe to you: what would have been far more handy would be a real-time walk though of the recipe, which would do away with the need to consult cookbooks (which inevitably get covered in gunk if you're as messy a cook as I am).
And as is the case with other new platforms (like early iOS and Android), too many of Alexa's skills are trivial, not very well designed, or lacking in depth. That may change as the number of Echos in use increases (and if developers can work out how to make money from them, too).
Still, because Alexa is a cloud-based service there's plenty of opportunity to fix that: building a shopping list is a common use of Alexa, but the ability to then buy the food on the list automatically from Amazon Prime wasn't an option until an update this week.
Smart home and privacy
The Echo can also be used to control other smart home devices. I wasn't able to test this, but how well these different devices play together will be key: while some will be flawless, others won't -- witness the 12-hour saga of the man who tried to get his wi-fi kettle to make him some tea. Still, despite such (epic) teething troubles, having one central controller for all those smart devices makes sense, and again the Echo is a better candidate than a smartphone.
The Echo is an always-on device: I don't think I've powered it down since setting it up. That means you can always throw it a quick question at any time. That also means it's always listening for the wake-word. Once it hears that word it starts streaming audio to the cloud where the heavy duty speech-to-text is done. Some may worry about the privacy implications of having a sophisticated microphone array in their home (or bedroom) listening all the time (even if it only streams when it hears the wake-word). There is a mute button that stops the device from listening (the light on top goes red when this button is pressed), but after the first day or two I stopped bothering to use this. Others may be more cautious.
I was extremely sceptical about the need for anything like the Echo when it was first launched, but hands-on experience has rapidly won me over.
The hardware is robust and works well. Even if you only ever use it as a voice-activated speaker, it's a solid choice. But the intriguing element is the Alexa digital assistant service: it has plenty of rough edges but offers huge potential, and continues to improve at a good pace. Already, Alexa delivers pretty much the best voice control I've seen in a device, and the best AI (although the new Google Assistant may give Alexa a run for her money). For a long time the PC in the study was the digital hub of the home, but that was never totally satisfactory: voice control is a much more natural interface, especially when you're moving around in the home.
In fact, one of the most interesting things about the Alexa is that sense of potential. This is really a first-generation product, but because it's cloud-powered I expect it to continue to mature rapidly. The Echo is the first of what will surely be a vast range of devices that we'll use our voices rather than keyboards or screens to communicate with.
Amazon Echo technical specifications
Dimensions 235mm x 83.5mm x 83.5mm (9.25" x 3.27" x 3.27")