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Amazon Echo/Echo Dot UK hands-on review: Alexa gets a British identity

Amazon Echo/Echo Dot UK hands-on review: More than a year after Amazon formally launched the original Echo in the US, the company has finally decided to bring its intelligent connected speaker across the pond, complete with Alexa.

Amazon Echo was the company’s most aggressive bid to get its products and services into people’s homes to date, when it introduced the connected speaker in the US back in June 2015. Over the last year, it’s expanded the Echo’s functionality and the product portfolio on which its virtual assistant, Alexa, can be found, including the more compact Echo Dot and the fully portable Amazon Tap Bluetooth speaker.

Amazon Echo/Echo Dot hands-on review: Black and white

Alexa is Amazon’s answer to the likes of Siri, Google Now and Cortana, capable of offering a range of information from sporting scores and the weather to letting you play music, create to-do lists, set alarms, get traffic information and even interface with your smart home devices. As well as providing information, Alexa’s second key function is letting you place orders such as disposable items like batteries, to Amazon, which is undoubtedly a key reason why the company would spend time creating technology like this in the first place.

There’s a chance you’ve come across Alexa already, as unlike its biggest rivals, Amazon’s digital voice assistant is also available for integration via third parties, such as Pebble’s Core, by way of the Alexa Voice Service (AVS). Amazon even seeds an Alexa SDK letting developers expand its skill set and indeed, the Echo’s abilities have grown from 13 distinct functions to over 3000 over the course of its life so far.

As demonstrated at today’s launch Amazon’s given Alexa a British accent, educated her on relevant sports and news topics, as well as sourcing relevant content from the likes of The Telegraph, The Guardian, Jamie Oliver, Sky News, Sky Sports and talkSPORT radio to name but a few. She can even understand and make jokes relating to Monty Python and Blackadder – which alone justifies the need for an Echo in every British household.

The Echo itself is a 235mm high cylinder with a grille permeating its base, an LED ring around the top edge and two buttons. Originally launched in a smart black finish, to tie in with its UK/German launch a white colourway is now on offer too – an option which also extends to the Echo Dot.

It’s deceptively simple to use for what Amazon considers a screenless computer. Its main method of interaction is voice, which it detects by way of six microphones around the edge of that LED ring and a seventh right in the centre of the Echo’s top face.

It uses beamforming to isolate voice commands, whilst filtering out background din originating from people, objects or indeed music already playing from its own speakers. In our initial testing with the pre-release hardware it had no issue with detecting the ‘Alexa’ wake command amidst the din of the launch event, however once we added music playback to the combined mumblings of people in the background it didn’t appear quite so reliable, having us fall back on the top-facing button, which forces the Echo to stop what it’s doing and listen for a query or command.

The other button on the Echo’s top is a mute key, which when pressed changes the blue LED ring for a red one whilst also disabling the microphones completely. On the subject of privacy Amazon explained that when muted, there’s no physical current going to the microphones, so they are incapable of capturing sound until you unmute it again.

Amazon Echo/Echo Dot UK hands-on review

The inside of the Echo contains a 2-inch tweeter for high frequencies along with a 2.5-inch woofer paired to a resonance chamber for bass response, and collectively they create a clear, crisp audio, especially when it comes to speech. We’d still opt for something a little more focused as our main method of music playback, but as one of many different skills under the Echo’s belt, it’s not a bad option for listening to tunes from your Amazon Music Library, Prime Music, Spotify or radio powered by TuneIn.

Like the standard Echo, it’s smaller sibling, an improved version of the Echo Dot already available in the US, packs the same LED ring design and offers the same functionality via Alexa, letting you interact with IoT devices as well as letting you ask it questions. The big difference is that it integrates a line out connection so you can plug in your own speaker(s), making it markedly smaller.

As it’s more or less the brains of a standard Echo sans speaker system, it’s also more affordable at just £49 when it launches along with the standard Echo this season. Amazon is even going to sell Echo Dots in six and 12 packs, offering one or two for free respectively so you can drop Alexa receivers all over your house.

The standard Echo and Echo Dot launch in the UK this autumn in black or white, with the full-fat Amazon Echo selling for £149 albeit with a £50 discount for the first two days of pre-order, right now.

Watch our Amazon Echo hands on below:

 

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