Amazon Echo and Echo Dot review: Speaking to technology (and expecting a response) has become an increasingly frequent occurrence since the introduction of digital assistants like Apple’s Siri and Google Now, but Amazon, keen to throw its hat into the ring, thinks such experiences make more sense when they take place in your home, rather than on your phone.
Cue the Amazon Echo, a connected speaker designed to add a touch of smart to your home by offering access to the company’s digital assistant, Alexa, with an interesting gamut of functions in tow.
Amazon Echo and Echo Dot Review: Design
The Echo sits on a table top, a shelf or any flat surface in your home with the intention of being an unobtrusive but identifiable piece of technology. Measuring about the same dimensions as a tennis ball canister, the Echo is a clean metal cylinder finished in black or white with a grille surrounding its lower half. The non-stick rubber base ensures that it won’t immediately fall over if knocked and a small channel at the back accommodates the single power cable needed to get it up and running, whilst also keeping things tidy.
As the grille hints at, the majority of the Echo’s body is dedicated to the internal speaker arrangement. There’s a 2-inch tweeter at the bottom, a 2.5-inch woofer and above that a reflex chamber to enhance the bass output, collectively giving the Echo its excellent 360-degree sound output.
The top of the Echo features an LED ring, mute and action buttons and a microphone hole in the centre. A collar around the top edge of the Echo rotates with a buttery smooth action, serving as a physical volume control dial that helps sell the build quality and finish of this speaker as a whole.
The Echo Dot doesn’t have quite the same level of polish but is still a well put together piece of kit. It stores all of the same smarts as the Echo, but features a comparatively tiny single speaker, however, there’s also a 3.5mm audio out that lets you plug in any external speaker you like, whilst power is delivered via a microUSB connection. In some ways it makes for a more flexible offering than the standard Echo, assuming you’re comfortable with the additional wiring that may be required.
Amazon also saw fit to shift from that premium rotating collar to simple top-facing buttons for the Dot’s volume controls, but at a third of the price, losing such elements is a small sacrifice if it retains pretty much the same functionality.
Amazon Echo and Echo Dot Review: Functionality
The capabilities of the Echo and the Echo Dot are many and varied, with the option of appending new talents to the system by way of downloadable apps, dubbed ‘skills’. Once the Echo is up and running the principle means of interaction with either system is your voice.
Like the aforementioned virtual assistants, to control the Echo you need to call upon Alexa, Amazon’s equivalent digital personality, who’ll make herself available at the mention of her name. The LED ring surrounding the top of the Echo and Echo Dot glows blue to indicate that Alexa is waiting for a command, so you know when the speaker is listening and ready.
Out the box the Echo/Echo Dot can deliver news, sports, weather and traffic information, present facts, answer questions on persons of interest, set timers or alarms, connect to a range of smart home devices, make lists, add items to your Amazon shopping basket (or even purchase them if you have Amazon Prime) and play music, all by way of simple, intuitive voice requests.
Most of the vanilla services work for free, with the exception of music playback, which relies on an Amazon Prime account (to stream directly from Amazon Music) or a Spotify Premium account if that’s your preferred service. You have the option to pair your smartphone or tablet as you would any other Bluetooth speaker if you’d rather too, but this breaks the otherwise seamless self-contained experience the Echo is capable of natively.
Unlike learning to interact with a new visual operating system (as iPhone users jumping to Android would, or vice versa), using your voice to control a device like the Echo is inherently more intuitive. Chances are the system is smart enough to understand your query whether it’s “what are the latest news headlines” or “update me on today’s top stories,” so the learning curve is relatively small when it comes to locking down the basics. Amazon even covers the retail packaging with suggested questions you can pose to Alexa to get the ball rolling and the ‘Things to Try’ section of the app offers even more example phrases.
Things start to get a little more complicated when you take into account the plethora of downloadable skills available. The Alexa app, which you install as part of the setup process, also serves as the gateway to some 3000+ skills from an increasingly vibrant developer community. You’ll find them broken down into categories like ‘business and finance’ or ‘games, trivia & accessories’ but looking for something specific can be tricky, as can figuring out the various phrases unique to each app/skill.
Each skill cites an invocation name so you know how best to access that specific application, but with most listing their feature sets as ‘dynamic content’ it’s more often than not a case of trial and error when trying to figure out exactly how to effectively interact with each new skills.
Amazon Echo and Echo Dot Review: Performance
Thankfully, setting up an Echo or Echo Dot is incredibly simple. Plug it in, download the Alexa app (available on iOS, Android and Fire OS), sign in with your Amazon account and connect it to the system using the in-app directions. Once you’ve punched in your WiFi password, the app breaks its direct connection to the Echo and both phone and speaker then automatically connect to the internet again via your home’s WiFi network. From then on the Alexa app doesn’t only let you add new skills, but it lets you keep tabs on everything the Echo hears, as well as letting you quickly get at any lists you may have made or services you want to connect to (Spotify, Google Calendar, etc).
As well as using the ‘Alexa’ wake command, you can also tap the action button on the top face of either the Echo or the Echo Dot to issue a command. The LED ring glows blue when the Echo/Echo Dot is listening, with a lighter segment highlighting which direction it’s picking up your voice from. As we learnt in our hands-on with the Echo, Amazon has employed ESP (Echo Spatial Perception), by way of a seven-microphone array, to intelligently filter out background noise and pick up voice commands with impressive accuracy.
We’ve been testing the Echo since the week prior to its launch and it understood a range of voice commands issued from a mix of men and women 90 per cent of the time. It’s ability to understand speech through heavy background noise and loud music was most impressive, with slip-ups only really occurring over specific terms (asking it to play Muse without specifying Amazon Music or Spotify always resulted in it interpreting what was said as ‘news’, spitting out the latest headlines instead).
There is also the challenge of convincing those who aren’t so accustomed to talking to technology to feel comfortable issuing commands at an inanimate object like the Echo in the first place, not to mention feeling uneasy about having a device with seven microphones placed in the centre of their home. The mute button does go some way to alleviating that second issue, cutting the electrical connection to the microphones altogether and causing the LED ring to glow red as it does so as a clear indicator, however, people are only going to become more comfortable with the notion of talking to their technology as its adoption increases in the mainstream and right now, we’re still in the early days of such a significant social behavioural shift.
Amazon Echo and Echo Dot Review: Verdict
Out the box, the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot are both amazing examples of consumer technology. What is essentially a talking speaker possesses hardware and software designed to streamline your daily routine, educate you, entertain you and control the connected devices in your home. It’s the closest realisation yet of futurist ideals seen in the likes of Star Trek and right now there’s little else out there (Google Home being the only notable rival worth talking about) with the versatility and vision of the Amazon Echo.
If you already have decent speakers, opting for the £49.99 Amazon Echo Dot is a smart move, especially as an Amazon Prime membership is really needed to get the most out of the experience, otherwise, an extra £100 bags you the full-fat Echo, offering an exceptionally clear and crisp audio experience tailored towards rendering Alexa’s voice with top notch clarity and depth.