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Amazon Echo Review

Recently I was sent an Amazon Echo for review and you may have seen the adverts on TV recently where people are talking to the Echo in order to get it to add items to a shopping list or play music. Well in basic terms this is sort of what the Echo can be used for, but in reality it's just the starting point really as the Echo is more like James Cameron's vision of the future (Skynet), only less sinister and dangerous! 

Joking aside, the principle of an artificial intelligence that resides in the cloud is sort of what the ECHO is. In layman’s terms the technology connects to your Router and accesses the cloud to deliver a host of information and services at the user’s request.

At first this information is limited to what you program into the Echo via the supporting App, however having used the product now for a few weeks it is slowly becoming a useful piece of tech to have around the house!

Design & Box Content

Echo 4

The Echo is pretty much boxed in the same style as Amazon's other products i.e. The Kindle Fire and Fire TV, so a sense of familiarly is evident from the start if you are used to the latter items.

Mind you the Echo itself is a lot larger than I expected it to be. It comprises of a tall cylindrical profile with a speaker grill wrapped around the bottom part and a circular rotatable disc at the top (alongside an action and microphone mute button.

I’ve yet to use the Action button (which offers a manual way of using the Echo), as everything is controlled via my voice. Additionally the unit has 7 microphones embedded within its structure which is why it is capable of hearing your commands from multiple angles.

Additionally in the box you will find a small quick start guide and a card that gives you a few more options to try with the Echo once it’s installed.

On the whole the unit is pretty substantial in terms of weight and its elongated design does actually look modern and futuristic when you place it on your desk near a power source.

You do get a propriety mains plug adaptor in the box, but the cable can fit at the base of the Echo in the designed groove. The base is slightly separated from where the power connects in, so no extra heat will interfere with the Echo’s operation.

Initial Setup

Echo 6

The first point of call with the Echo is you need to download the supporting Alexa App, in my case I did this from the Apple store, but it does support Android as well.

Your App is used initially for connecting to the Echo, but it also plays a key role in the visualisation and learning process of the device which is something I will talk about in moment.

The App will guide you in the connection process and from what I experienced the device uses WiFi direct for the early stage and then you key in your Routers SSID password so it can function on its own (i.e. as a single device on the network).

One thing to note is that the cylinder at the top will glow in Orange initially before it settles to Blue when it’s initialised. However the latter cylinder is actually a volume control as well and muggins here played about with this before I initiated the setup and I did not realise how high the volume was set at.  Thus when Alexa states she is ready to commence setup the volume was epic! This Echo can certainly pump out some output that’s for sure!

Anyway once the setup is nearly finished you get a few phrases to say to Alexa and its here that you get to experience some of the devices features....

In-use

For me the process of using the device was a journey of exploration because I spent most of the early mornings just talking to the Echo or I should say 'Alexa' as this is the trigger phrase you need to activate it and seeing what it can do. It was absolutely bizarre, but a fascinating process!

I found you needed to ask the correct question otherwise it would be a little confused as to what you wanted. Thus at first Alexa seems less effective than Siri or Google Now at just simple banter i.e. what do you think of Apples or can you tell me the latest scores for Cardiff Blues (Rugby team).

Most of the time it’s something the device simply can’t understand and this is where you realise that the App holds the key to its learning process.

For example any questions you ask will also appear in the App as cards which are similar to Google Now. You can then answer a simple yes or no question if Alexa actioned what you wanted. You can also add further feedback if you require and get the engineers to keep you informed as to a potential fix.

As you send off these reports (which do not take much time to do) Alexa theoretically is learning from your input. So eventually additional functions will start to work better, well this is my interpretation of how it works.

So it’s almost like Alexa is a baby and you are teaching it how to answer the questions you ask it!

I can’t explain how interesting this until you experience it. Of course having paid £150 for the device you shouldn’t expect to do this all the time but it’s obvious the more input you put in, the better it will become!

App has more secrets

Echo 8

Getting the device to play your music is the Echo's core strength at the moment. By default the App will connect to your Amazon account and its key services such as Amazon Music/Prime for music playback, Audible for reading audio-books and it utilises TuneIn Radio to gain access to Internet Radio stations.

You then discover some of the options require additional setup in terms of linking your Spotify Premium account, if you have one, so it can then access this streaming service.

If you do configure Spotify the App does have a few niggles at the time of writing in that the text and interface is truncated slightly, so certain menu options appear squished. It’s not a main problem as it sorts itself out after a while but the App is certainly not 100% fool proof just yet.

Once you have connected Spotify you then have the option to open the Spotify App directly so it will be accessible within the Alexa App or alternatively you do have playback controls built-in that are just as effective at controlling music if you don’t want to use your voice.

The Echo can also link to your Calendar so you can use your voice to add events. The only problem here is the App only provides Google Calendar support and it did not integrate with my iCloud calendar which is a pain. This may be down to Apple more than Amazon as we all know how fussy Apple can get when 3rd parties attempt to connect to their core services.

In terms of Google Calendar once initialised I found speaking to Alexa to add events consisted of a three step process. First it asks when you want to add the event, then it asks the time and finally it will prompt you for a name for the event. This part was less effective depending on what name you provide for the event itself. For example it seemed to struggle with the word Review when used in a sentence.

So if I said add an event for 9.00am called iPhone 6s Plus Review, it could not cope with this. At this point I could use the App to send feedback, but I simply learned that certain words that are used together offered more success over others.

It’s all part of the learning process!

Bluetooth Setup

You can also link up your device to a Bluetooth Smartphone i.e. an iPhone and get Alexa to play the music on the phone. I have to admit the setup process was intuitive in that you actually ask Alexa to pair the device and it talks you through the process! Thus once connected it may be pretty useful for listening to music outside the confines of Amazon's music services.

The only downside I could see is that I could not get the device to work a hands-free speakerphone for conference style calls. If the feature is not working it should be added as with the 7 microphones it would be ideal for meetings as you should be able to hear all around and vice versa the other parties would also be able to hear your clearly!

Wikipedia Knowledge!

You can also get the Echo to set alarms, which again Alexa uses a series of prompts to ask when you want the alarm set for. Once an alarm activates this will then play through the speaker, so you could use the Echo as an alarm system for waking you up if needs be. Additionally you can use the Echo to add items to a shopping list and once they are embedded you can take the app with you, so this does work effectively.

However another feature that I discovered during testing was the device's ability to connect to Wikipedia. This way I could say ‘Alexa Wikipedia' and it will then prompt you for which topic you wanted to know info about. Alternatively I could say 'Alexa Wikipedia what is an Xbox One’ it will then access Wikipedia and real-off the opening sections before prompting you if you want to discover more.

I could see this feature being useful as an education tool.

Skills

Yet the core strength of the Echo could actually lay with the Skills mode. I was not really sure what this was at first but having experienced what it provides it’s an exciting option for the device’s future appeal.

Basically Skills are small apps that can be integrated with the Echo to add more features.

One example is the ability to control your lighting system, such as Philips Hue or control your heating system (currently it is limited to a handful of electrical suppliers). Alternatively you can download additional News apps or even Quiz style game apps.

I installed a Pub Quiz Skill and Alexa will ask you 5 random multiple choice questions. I’d admit the questions were short and on the odd occasion Alexa’s pronunciations was out slightly, but it only uses what’s it’s been programmed to do, so part blame will be on the Skill.

Granted not all Skills are good as they could and there are a few turkeys on the store, but either way it just shows the capabilities of the Amazon Echo are limitless if the Skills mode is fully exploited!

Speaker Quality & Performance

Echo 1

One things for sure the speaker quality and Alexa’s voice in general are great! The speaker can certainly kick some ass in terms of power output and while Spotify was less impressive compared to a dedicated system, this and Amazon's Music service provided a great listening experience.

I also loved listening to the news at lunch time, as I simply come in and ask Alexa to play the news. It then in turn plays all of the news channels that you can configure in the settings option. Each one is like listing to a dedicated Radio quality broadcast.

Likewise audio books and podcasts can also be played through the speaker and I’ve even used the speaker while sitting down to meals, so I can either listen to News or generate some background noise to add atmosphere.

I can also see the Echo being used to great effect in parties, especially as you can get Alexa to access all of your Playlists and the output will easily be loud enough to fill the entire room.

Interaction with Alexa in some cases is still a start stop process in that when you speak you need to wait for it to process your request before it actions it. Yet the opening part of speaking to Alexa i.e. when saying ‘Alexa’, does kicks in quickly and effectively from close range all the way up to the top of my landing. The 7 microphones embedded within the chassis can certainly hear a lot more than say Siri would from the same distance.

Likewise asking it to play music and responding to input via the Skills Quiz apps shows that it can provide a valid source of entertainment.

Mind you it still has problems with certain words you speak and how they are pronounced. Likewise it can’t pronounce certain words itself either without sounding completely artificial. A prime example of this is with the Traffic service the Echo offers.

After setting a Start and Stop route you can get the device to read Traffic updates, it will then real-off the time your journey will take and list some of the main roads along the journey. Some of the roads are hard to understand and it seems to read off a pre-set script exactly word for word and this does not sound good. Take a look at the Part 2 In-use video for a listen to the Traffic update and you will understand what I am referring to!

Additionally it can’t respond to certain questions, such as where is the nearest chip shop or do you recommend a place to eat nearby.

Again this is where you can send off reports to Amazon for it to improve the standard coming from the device. It’s not terrible, but it’s still early days and for the most part its core services deliver.

Also Alexa responds to multiple voices, but you can setup a separate Amazon Profile if you want to customise your experience further. This is more important if you try to tap into the Amazon Prime service for ordering products.

Update: I forgot to mention in the review that when Alexa is asked questions, in the middle of say a song playing for example, it does have a lovely fade function. In that the music will fade in and out correctly.

Sports Updates

Using the App you can setup your favourite sports team to get updates for example if I set 'Arsenal' as my favourite team I could then ask Alexa for my Sports Update. It would then tell me the latest results, followed by when the next game will take place.

My biggest problem with the Sports Update is that it's limited to the most popular sports. So when I programmed in a Rugby Team it would not allow me to use this as a favourite sport! 

Amazon Prime Ordering!

Yep you can actually order products from Amazon and while I have not had the chance to test this, from what I can gather you need to have an Instant Payment card setup and an Amazon Prime account, so its use will be limited.

Of course ordering this way is somewhat worrying unless you configure the profile option above and even then I'm not sure how secure this method is. Thus anyone can speak and order using Amazon, so you may need to setup additional security on your Amazon account before use.

As with most of the content you request on Alexa it will at least duplicate your choice on the App. This way you can at least visualise see what is going on as well as audibly hear it. I think compared to some products the App and device do work pretty well together for the most part.

Summary

Using the Amazon Echo has certainly been a satisfying experience, the speaker quality is excellent and I love spending breakfast asking it questions to see what sort of responses I get or I sit down to listen to news, ask it what the traffic is like and then do the odd Quiz.

For sure all of this can be done on a Smartphone, but I forgot to mention that once you have used the App i.e. added Skills and so forth, the Echo can then work independently if needs be, so you don’t even need the App.

At the end of the day £150 is not cheap, but I believe that once the Skills store evolves and more people start to use the Echo it will get better and better (ergo the more you put into it, the more you will get out of it).

Hopefully it won’t become to advance though as I don’t want a Skynet scenario, but joking aside the Echo offers a fascinating glimpse of the future where most homes will have automation as standard and a computer with advanced AI that you can interact with!

Editor's rating

8Overall9Design7Features9Ease of use8Performance7Price

Product Sourced from Amazon for £149.99

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