Amazon’s recent product introductions have been a mixed bag. While the Kindle Voyage e-reader and Fire Stick TV device were met with mostly positive reviews, the gimmicky, first-generation Fire Phone was a sales disaster.
In November, Amazon quietly introduced the Echo, a 9-inch tall cylinder speaker that comes with a Siri-like voice assistant named “Alexa.”
I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on an Echo, which is currently available by invitation only. The following is my initial take on one of the more interesting new tech products to launch in the past year.
Product: Amazon Echo
Price: $99 for Amazon Prime members; $199 for non-members
Compatibility: Works with iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire devices
Date of review: Feb. 3, 2015
What is it?
The Echo is a cloud-connected smart speaker that is controlled by your voice or through a mobile app for iOS, Android, or Kindle Fire. It also comes with a mic-enabled remote control similar to the one that ships with the Fire TV.
At launch, the device can perform a number of tasks, including playing music, reading the news and weather, and answering simple questions. The Echo also serves as a Bluetooth-enabled speaker, allowing it to be taken completely out of Amazon’s walled ecosystem.
Look and feel
Amazon’s new device looks a lot like an unmarked can of beer that has been stretched. On the top is a button for setting up a new location and a mute button. The top half-inch of the Echo rotates to change the speaker volume.
Though it connects to a home network through Wi-Fi, the Echo must remain stationary and plugged into an electrical outlet. It contains no batteries.
Unlike other wireless speakers on the market like the newly released Mega Boom from Ultimate Ears, the black Echo has been designed to be understated. The only time light is emitted from the device is during periods of interaction; a multi-colored light ring comes alive at the top of the device, only to fade away soon after.
On the bottom of the device is a power LED, which is solid white when the Echo is connected to Wi-Fi, or solid orange when it is not.
The Echo features seven microphone sensors that are embedded under its light ring. These sensors use what Amazon calls “beam-forming technology,” allowing it to hear from any direction. Throw in some noise canceling properties, and the Echo is an amazing listener.
During my tests, the Echo always heard what was being asked, no matter the background noise. It reacted to everything, as long as the questions began with “Alexa,” which is the device’s default wake word.
You can also call the Echo “Amazon,” by changing the wake word within the app.
What Echo can do right now
For now, the Echo can offer news and weather from a number of sources including NPR, the BBC, and ESPN. You can tell Echo the type of news you’re most interested in hearing about via the app.
You can ask Alexa to find music from your Amazon Music Library, Prime Music, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio. When linked to your iOS device through Bluetooth, you can also control music from other sources including iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora.
To link a device, simply say “Alexa, pair my device” and following the directions.
The Echo also does a nice job of organizing alarms, timers, and lists. Just ask Alexa to add something to a grocery list, for example, and it is added to your app. It really is as simple as that.
What it can’t do right now
Many have compared Alexa to Apple’s Siri. To a degree, this is correct. However, in its current state, Alexa can’t answer many of the questions that Siri can, which in my humble opinion, still isn’t a lot.
Alexa does a great job at answering what I would consider “everyday” questions, including “Alexa, how tall is Mount Everest?” or “Alexa, what is the capital of Canada?”
Alexa cannot answer current event questions, however, such as “Alexa, what’s playing at the movies tonight”” or “Alexa, who does Duke play next?”
The Echo features a 2.5-inch woofer and 2.0-inch tweeter. In doing so, it provides fairly good sound for what it is. However, there are better wireless speakers out there, such as the Mega Boom.
I’ve come away very impressed with the Amazon Echo — not so much because of what it can do, but rather by what it could mean for home entertainment down the road. The technology behind Alexa is impressive and I can’t wait to see it utilized in future devices, such as televisions or DVRs.
At the minimum, Alexa should help convince Apple to make Siri a better communicator on current and future devices, such as a next-generation Apple TV.
- Shows where Internet of Things could be going.
- We wish Siri listened this well.
- Understated design.
- Being that the Echo is cloud-based, new features can be added with ease.
- Limited appeal in its current form
- Do we really want to be in Amazon’s walled garden?
- Could only be a test.
- Very expensive if you aren’t a Prime member.
Scores for the Amazon Echo
Aesthetic Appeal: ★★★★☆
Wow Factor: ★★★★☆
Build Quality: ★★★★☆