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Amazon Echo Review

A review of the Amazon Echo which is powered by Alexa, a voice-activated assistant which answers questions, plays music and controls smart home gadgets such as your thermostat, lights and more.

The Echo is a hands-free voice-activated speaker which uses Alexa, Amazon's virtual assistant, to play music, check the weather, turn on the lights and much, much more. You can also make Alexa say funny things to you.


Alexa can answer your questions like Siri or the Google Assistant in Google Home, as well as giving you a news and weather briefing. If you have some smart home equipment such as a Nest thermostat or Philips Hue lights, Alexa can often control these too once you've enabled the appropriate Skills.

Note: The Echo has now been discontinued and replaced by a second-generation version: see our Echo 2 review for more.

Not only is the voice recognition excellent, but Alexa will still hear you even if your kids are having an argument or you’re already using your Echo to listen to music.

PRICE
There are two versions of the Echo available in the UK. The main one costs £149.99 from Amazon and comes in black or white.

There’s also the Echo Dot, which we've reviewed separately and which costs £49.99. This also comes in black and white and differs from the Echo only in that it doesn’t have the same high-quality speaker inside it, which also makes it considerably smaller.

Google Home is the Echo's biggest rival. For more, see Amazon Echo vs Google Home.

DESIGN
The Echo is 235mm tall (around 9in) and has two buttons on top. One mutes the microphone to prevent Alexa hearing you, and the other is an action button which has various uses including stopping timers or alarms and putting the Echo into Wi-Fi setup mode.

Around the top is a light ring which tells you when Alexa is working, the volume level and if there’s an issue with Wi-Fi or internet connectivity. There’s also a volume ring for turning it up or down, but you can do this by asking Alexa to “turn it up” or saying, “Alexa, volume 5”.

Also see: Amazon Echo Show

Inside the Echo are two speakers, a 2.5in woofer and a separate tweeter. Sound quality is decent, particularly when Alexa is speaking, but it’s far from the best-sounding speaker for music at higher volumes and there are better speakers at this price.

However, if you’re going to use it in the kitchen (my personal preference) or a bedroom, the volume and quality are fine. If you really want top-notch audio with plenty of bass, then buy an Echo Dot and hook it up to whichever speaker floats your boat.

If you buy the big Echo, you can also use it as a Bluetooth speaker and play music from your phone directly. This works really well, and you can use Alexa to control playback.

The Echo Dot can also work as a Bluetooth speaker, which can be a clever way to turn a wired speaker or Hi-Fi into a wireless system for playing music from your phone.

Does Alexa read out adverts now?
A report via BusinessInsider says that the company that Amazon works with to allow third-party 'skills' is going to introduce adverts soon.

This isn't as bad as it sounds. The ads will be six to 15 seconds long and will only be heard once every 15 times you use a skill, and not before you've used it at least four times.

It seems that Alexa's native capabilities won't be interrupted by ads just yet, only those extra skills you enable yourself via the Alexa app. The money generated by the ads will go to the developers of those skills, which could be a benefit for users if it means more skills are added and have more functions.

Ads could also be displayed on the new Echo Show's screen. This won't be too surprising to anyone that's ever used an Amazon Fire tablet and not paid the extra £10 when ordering to remove the lock screen 'offers'.

SETUP
Installation is easy enough, but we've written a step-by-step guide on how to set up an Amazon Echo to be extra helpful. What you do is download the free Alexa app on your iPhone, Android device or Amazon Fire tablet.

Pop in your Amazon account and password, since it uses this for various things, including keeping a history of what you’ve asked Alexa to do, as well as to make orders by voice and to get an update on those orders.

Like most Wi-Fi gadgets, it scans and asks which network to connect to and after you’ve selected your router and connected, you’re good to go. There’s no voice training: anyone can speak to Alexa.

At this point you can start using Alexa to do things such as setting alarms, timers and even telling jokes, but a little more configuration (such as setting your location in the app) will give you things like local weather forecasts and news briefings.

In fact, you can even customise which news outlets provide your updates.
Sky News updates, for example, are pre-recorded headlines such as those you’d hear on the radio. Try and listen to the Guardian app’s headlines, though and Alexa has to read the RSS feed which doesn’t work nearly as well.

Newspaper headlines tend to be nuanced and don’t work well with text-to-speech engines. As good as Alexa is, the lack of human intelligence means the intonation isn’t there, and headlines can often be hard to understand.

Similarly, if you say “Alexa, good morning” you’ll get a greeting and a fact of the day. Sometimes it’s quite wordy and difficult to understand.

Incidentally, if you or someone in your household is called Alexa, you can change the ‘wake word’ in the app to Amazon or Echo. Unfortunately, you can’t change it to any word you like.

SKILLS
The basic stuff is great, but where things get really exciting is when you add Skills to Alexa. Skills are essentially apps which you ‘enable’ in the Alexa app.

As with app stores you can browse what’s available in different categories, or search for what you’re after. They’re all free, at least those that are available now.

As I have a Nest thermostat and a couple of LIFX smart lights, I went for those first and was happy to see they were there and ready to add. Within two minutes, I’d linked my LIFX account and was able to say, “Alexa, turn on the lights in the lounge”. Sure enough, the bulbs lit up immediately.

The Echo is the first device that’s able to bring together different types of IoT gadgets from different manufacturers using different standards, and that’s what makes it so great. Apple’s HomeKit is a good idea, but it forces you to buy HomeKit-compatible devices.

But manufacturers can easily make their existing products work with Alexa, so we hope that Alexa’s Skills will expand rapidly now that the Echo has launched.

If you happen to own kit which works with the Echo then you’ll be far happier than if you’ve bought a thermostat, smart lights or other gadgets which aren’t yet supported. For example, I also have some Chinese smart light bulbs – there’s no support for these. Nor are Sengled bulbs, or the Heat Genius smart thermostat.

Generally, if you have the most popular kit, such as Philips Hue bulbs, you’ll find support. More obscure products tend to be missing. There are a few exceptions, of course.

Tile is one of the most popular Bluetooth trackers, but the Echo doesn’t work with it. But it does support TrackR, so you can link your account and ask Alexa to find your wallet, keys or whatever you’ve attached the tracker to.

There are other Skills, such as National Rail, which can give you train times and whether there are any delays. Once the Skill is enabled, you can set up your usual commute by voice with Alexa and then ask, “Alexa, is my train delayed this morning?” or “Alexa, when is the next train to Charing Cross?”.

The ability to use natural language means you generally won’t have to learn set phrases to make things work. However, some skills do require this, or at least mention the ‘app’ when making the request.

I installed Cat Facts – one of the Skills I found while browsing – and this forces you to say “Alexa, ask Cat Facts to give me a fact”. You can’t just say “Alexa, give me a cat fact”.

Music
Music is one of Alexa’s specialities. As well as playing tracks you’ve uploaded to your Amazon account, she can also play from Prime Music or Spotify (assuming you have a subscription to such services). If you request a track and it isn’t in your personal library, she will try Prime Music.

Amazon has now launched its new Music Unlimited subscription in the UK which is a standalone service to rival Spotify.) You get a discount if you own an Echo, though, so for a few pounds per month on top of your Prime subscription you get a whole lot more music. 

You can say all the things you’d expect to be able to, such as “Alexa, shuffle my music”, or “Alexa, play some jazz” as well as asking for particular songs, albums or artists. If you’ve set up playlists, you can also ask Alexa to play (or shuffle) those too.

Obviously, if you happen to subscribe to another music streaming service, such as Deezer, Rdio, Blinkbox or Google Play Music, then you'll be annoyed that none are supported by the Echo (yet).

TuneIn is one the built-in skills, and allows you to listen to most popular UK radio stations. All you need to do is ask Alexa to “play Radio 2 in TuneIn”. You can do the same with podcasts, but you always have to add “in TuneIn” otherwise it gets confused and does nothing.

There are other apps which have similar functions, so you can enable Radio Player and say “Alexa, launch Radio Player” and then “play LBC” or whichever is your favourite station.

In August 2017, Amazon added the ability to play music across multiple Echos, so it's effectively now a multi-room system.

LIMITATIONS
Alexa is a surprisingly capable assistant – mainly thanks to the skills – but she does have her limitations. Although you can link your calendar (such as your Amazon or Google one), you can’t hook up your email or a phone for text messages. Therefore, Alexa cannot read out incoming emails or messages.

Another slight issue is that Alexa doesn't generally recognise children's voices. They tend to speak to quickly and without clarity. However, if you coax them to speak slowly and clearly, Alexa becomes a lot better at understanding, and this is great when they want to make Alexa play their favourite song.

Unlike the Google Home there are no profiles so Alexa treats all commands equally, no matter who is issuing them. So she will obey whatever she hears. If a visitor arrives, they can say "Alexa, play Roar by Katy Perry" or "Alexa, add chocolate cake to my shopping list" and she will oblige.

Fortunately, you can set up a PIN to prevent people buying music or physical goods using Alexa. 

If you have multiple Echos, the nearest one will respond. At first you might find that more than one responds, and you have to go and tell it to stop if you can hear two going in different rooms, out of sync. It does improve over time though.

Alexa can’t take multiple commands, so you have to make each request individually. This slows things down, and doesn’t feel natural. It would be nice to be able to say “Alexa, turn the lights on in the lounge, set the heating to 20 degrees and give me my flash briefing” but you have to do each in turn, waiting for the previous request to complete and then saying Alexa again.

Notifications were non-existent when the Echo launched, but reminders have just been added. If you ask Alexa to remind you to buy a birthday card at 1pm on Thursday, she will pipe up at 1pm on Thursday whether you're there or not. You can also check reminders via the Alexa app.

One other previous gripe has been resolved: support has been added in the UK for IFTTT (If this then that). So you can control devices which are IFTTT compatible but don’t yet work with Alexa directly. Plus, of course, you can use all your other IFTTT recipes to do things which aren’t hardware based, such as sending yourself an email of the list when you ask 'Alexa, what's on my shopping list?'.

SPECS
  • Dimensions: 235 x 83.5 x 83.5 mm
  • Weight: 1064g
  • Wireless: 802.11n dual-band with MIMO, Bluetooth A2DP and AVRCP
  • Audio: 2.5 inch woofer and 2.0 inch tweeter
  • Warranty: 1 year



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