March 8, 2016

Written by

Drew Coffman


Drew Coffman


If Amazon has their way, this name will be just as oft-invoked as Siri’s — though if you would have asked me their chances of making that happen upon the Echo’s release, I would have said the odds were extremely slim. After other products from Amazon in the tech sector fell flat on their face, I was prepared to watch the Echo do the same. One year later, I’ve changed my mind — and for good reason. Amazon has created a product unlike anything their competitors have yet to bring to market, turning the most adamant Siri, Google Now, and Cortana haters into potential users. With the Echo, Amazon has created a best-in-class voice interface that gives us a taste of the future, today.

The Echo is a simple device; a solid, cylindrical slab of handsome black plastic. Setting it up involves plugging it into a wall and connecting it to your wifi network via the companion app. That’s pretty much it. It’s about as simple as it gets, which is great because Amazon wants the device to be in as many homes as possible. The Echo is not a case of ‘tech-nerds only need apply’.

Amazon Echo

The Echo’s simple design seems made to look good in any spot in any home. It manages to blend into the background while at the same time remaining a striking piece of technology.

Interestingly enough, you can choose what you call the Echo—given the option to call it ‘Alexa’, ‘Echo’, or ‘Amazon’. This seems like a concession to the possibility that you might have other Alexas in your life, but it seems clear that Amazon hopes you choose the natural sounding name. When you say the ‘wake word’ of your choice, the Echo begins to listen in. The omnidirectional microphones hidden inside are incredibly powerful. Amazon uses what they call ‘far-field voice recognition’ to cut through noise, and even when the Echo itself is playing audio through it’s own speakers, the microphones are more than capable of parsing your commands.

Once activated, a light on top of the device spins round and round in a playful fashion to let you know it’s ready for what’s next. Ask a question or issue a control, and she’ll respond and make it happen. Play some music, and the song begins almost instantly. To get the Echo to pause audio or cancel what it’s doing, Amazon asks you to say “Alexa, stop.” Though this phrase is simple and short, it can feel a bit forceful and awkward to say repeatedly throughout the day.

Amazon Echo

When in use, the ring around the top of the Echo lights up, at different times pulsing and spinning to indicate that Alexa is thinking or an action is being processed. This simple addition gives the device a bit of life, and helps the experience as a whole feel faster.

In use, every Echo owner will experience a slightly different device, because its abilities and features depend on what you connect it to. A personal favorite and oft-used feature of my own Echo is controlling ‘smart home’ devices. Alexa can be integrated with existing technology, and with a press of a button the Echo was tied to the Wink hub in my house along with its various light bulbs, dimmers, and switches. This feels like the perfect fit. The Wink system itself has an iOS app allowing you to control all your connected devices, but smart home technology can be a frustrating experience. The typical interaction requires you to unlock your iPhone, open an app, navigate your way to the light or device in question, and tap a button. That process can certainly feel a bit clunky in comparison to simply flipping a light switch. In contrast, the hands-free and voice-powered interface of the Echo feels like magic.

I can say “Alexa, turn on the desk lamp,” and the lamp is on almost instantly. With the Echo, for the first time, my ‘smart home’ feels both faster and more convenient than the switches which preceded them, and much more convenient than fumbling with home automation apps on my iPhone. Thankfully, smart-home technology is one area where the Echo is platform-agnostic. Though I’ve used this functionality exclusively with the Wink, it works for many other platforms including the popular WeMo and Philips Hue systems.

Amazon Echo

The Echo only features two buttons: one to disable the microphones, and another to start them without using a ‘wake word’. The second button also works as a physical way to stop timers or music. Though I think it was the right decision to add these buttons, I’ve never used either.

For those interested, the Echo is able to look through Amazon’s storehouses and act as your personal shopper. Saying “Alexa, re-order dish detergent” or ”Alexa, buy some dog food” will have her looking through the proper departments (as well as your order history) to find and purchase items quickly. For those uninterested in giving their family instant access to their credit card and all of Amazon, the feature is easily turned off in the Alexa app. If the Echo can’t find a specific item, or you simply want to purchase it yourself at a later time, Alexa will add the need to a shopping list which you can view at any time.

News-junkies will no doubt find much to love by beginning every morning with the phrase “Alexa, what’s new?” The Echo can create a customized ‘flash briefing’ for you, pulling in content from various sources. I was surprised by the sheer amount of options available within this feature, with the ability to aggregate audio from not only NPR (the default) but BBC, CNN, Bloomberg, and many more. For the sports fans, you can also pick your favorite teams to get updates on, though as of writing the feature is lacking support for some major games and teams.

Of course, like any good virtual assistant, Alexa is more than capable of answering your questions about the world and your surroundings. Asking Alexa to find nearby coffee shops, store hours, phone numbers, and addresses almost always returns the right response. The Echo uses Yelp to help compile a good deal of this data, making the answers she gives much more relevant than one might initially expect. It can also reply to any simple question with an answer easily pulled from Wikipedia. “What is the capital of the Dominican Republic?”, “Who’s the president of Guatemala?”, and “How old is Kim Kardashian?” all gave Alexa a chance to spout out brief responses to each. Though for now the answers (and pool of questions asked) are fairly basic, it’s not hard to imagine them getting more and more complex as Amazon builds out the functionality. For example, a recent update brought greater support for questions regarding movies (“Tell me about the ‘The Revenant’” and “Give me showtimes for ‘Hail, Ceasar’” both worked flawlessly in my testing) and more.

Amazon has faithfully continued to update the Echo through software updates over the months, with one of the most intriguing recent additions being the ability to ask Alexa to read books from your Kindle library. “Alexa, read ‘The Artisan Soul’”, I would say, and the Echo would instantly start reading from the page I had last left off on. Mind you, this isn’t an Audible-level dramatic reading of your favorite epic fantasy tome1; her cadence could certainly use some work. That being said, as far as robots go, she sounds great and the feature works seamlessly.

Some of the features being added by Amazon (called ‘Skills’) seem more like gimmicks or one-off uses than everyday requests. How often I’ll find myself calling for an Uber, asking for movie information, or ordering a pizza with the Echo remains to be seen — but for Alexa to turn into the super-intelligent ‘Jarvis’ of Iron Man fame we so desire, it needs to be able to answer these questions and a million more. What we’re watching is Amazon slowly chipping away at these requests, one by one, to create such an assistant.

Amazon Echo

When the microphones have been muted, the Echo lets you know. The ring turns red and the button itself lights up until you enable them once more.

Streaming music on the Echo is one area that makes me wish Amazon wasn’t at war with its competitors. Though as a Prime user I’m allowed access to Prime Music, everything I own is on Apple’s competing service and it’s a safe bet to assume integration with the Echo won’t be coming anytime soon. The same is true for those using Google Play (though a recent software update has brought support for Spotify — a small victory in the name of platform peace).

You may have heard that the device’s speaker is lacking in quality, and this is without a doubt a major fault of the Echo. If you hoped the device would pull double duty as both a virtual assistant and your primary listening device, prepare to be underwhelmed. This seems to be an issue that Amazon is well aware of, with the recently revealed Dot taking the guts of the Echo, including a much less powerful speaker, and relying on audio-out to play music.

That being said, the Echo’s speaker might be more than enough for many users — not only for playing music through Alexa but as a Bluetooth speaker. The Echo has no problem pairing with an iPhone over Bluetooth, and I’ve happily played podcasts from Overcast and songs from Apple Music to the device time and time again. To consider the Amazon Echo ‘just’ a speaker is to entirely miss the point. Alexa isn’t meant to play your favorite songs all day as a glorified Bluetooth receiver — its meant to communicate, and for that purpose the speaker is more than fine. The Echo is ‘Alexa’, a machine that sits in the backgrounds waiting to answer your questions, deal with your problems, and respond to your needs. If your greatest need is to play music at full volume, you might want to look elsewhere (or purchase a Dot). But I’d wager it isn’t.

Amazon Echo

Prominently displayed at the bottom of the Echo is an Amazon logo. Though I’m not the biggest fan of giving a company advertising space in my home, its subdued color palette and relatively small size make it acceptable in my eyes.

The Echo’s app (confusingly named ‘Amazon Alexa’) is available for both Android and iOS devices, and features a home screen which presents you with cards representing past Echo activity. Each request you’ve made, song you’ve played, and item you’ve shopped for is displayed one after another, and the bottom of each card displays a text readout of what Alexa ‘heard’, giving the user an option to alert Amazon when what it thought you said and what you really said were one and the same. In what can be seen as a slightly creepy addition, you can actually play back the audio of yourself talking to Alexa for each and every query you’ve made. I’m not exactly sure why this feature is user-facing, and I’m less sure that people will love the reminder that their words are being recorded.

The app allows for fine-grain control of the Echo where voice commands come up short. When listening to audio of any kind (music, books, or podcasts) a persistent play button rests at the bottom alongside the volume control. Pulling up the ‘Now Playing’ menu gives you additional options as well as tabs revealing both your upcoming queue and your play history. Here you can also manually select any songs, books, or radio stations for playback, and the Alexa app gives you full access to your supported music libraries, Pandora, iHeartRadio, the aforementioned Audible and Kindle platforms, and more.

It’s inside of this app that you can also add ‘Skills’, modify (but not set) alarms and timers, link up your connected devices, and fine-tune your news preferences. The app’s interface feels a bit clunky, but it works. There’s some obvious problems: for example, the inability to sort skills in a meaningful way led ‘Powerball Number Generator’ to appear front and center in my testing. But for all intents and purposes, it’s more than capable.

The Echo isn’t a perfect machine, by any means. I’ve had one horrible experience with the device: One night, at three in the morning, Alexa started speaking at full volume ten feet away on my bedroom desk. It woke me up (if that wasn’t obvious enough) in something of a fright; and I can now wholeheartedly attest to the fact that we are not yet mentally prepared to hear robotic voices talking to us when we’re half asleep. So why did this happen? As it turns out, when the power goes out and the Echo comes back online, it tells you. Loudly. There is no setting to turn this feature off. It’s moments like this when the experience still feels broken. When you ask the Echo a question she stumbles on, or forget to use the specific words to trigger an action (say, “Alexa, turn off the desk light” instead of “Alexa, turn off the desk lamp“), it feels Iike the curtain is pulled back and the illusion is shattered.

It’s also easy to see how the Echo could be enhanced in future versions, something we’re already seeing with the Amazon Dot and Amazon Tap. The device must always be plugged into the wall, and the lack of any sort of battery life means that as soon as it’s unplugged (or the power goes out), it’s lights out. This means that in my house, the Echo is stationary. It’d be nice to pick it up and take it to the kitchen while cooking, or out onto the patio with company. The fact that doing so requires the device to power off and then back on means the inconvenience feels too great. Adding any amount of battery life seems like an easy fix to this problem.

Amazon Echo

The back of the Echo features a space for the cable to pass through unhindered, as well as a tiny LED light indicating that the power is on.

Enhancing the quality of the speaker is another area which I can’t imagine the Echo not benefiting from in iteration. Like the Dot, it’d also be great to allow for audio-out, giving the user the ability to plug the Alexa in to a more powerful system.

Taking all this into consideration, as it stands, the current version is more than enough. This is an incredibly powerful first attempt, and the amount of feature updates that Amazon has given the device in the last year stands as a testament to its worthiness a year after its release.

There’s a lot of talk about how all other tech companies with voice assistants missed the boat by failing to bring a product like the Echo to market. In seriousness, that’s a point worth making. The fact that Alexa is always-on and ready to help is key, causing me to rely on the Echo in a way I’ve never leaned on Siri. Even more, talking to Alexa in your home feels far less awkward than talking to Siri in public. Isolating the experience inside of the home has made my overall feelings towards Alexa much more positive than my muddied experience with its competition.

Amazon Echo

The bottom of the device uses a rubberized material to stick to a table’s surface without leaving behind a residue. It’s also here that Amazon has hidden a ‘reset’ switch which, thankfully, I’ve never had to use.

What makes the Amazon Echo so special is its ability to integrate with others systems. When the device is isolated and given limited functionality, the experience is lacklustre — but when it’s connected, the Echo makes your whole home better. Truly, the best experience you can have with this device comes out of connecting it to as many things as possible, including Amazon itself. When utilized in this way, Alexa becomes the glimpse of Tony Stark’s Jarvis you’ve always hoped an artificial intelligence system would be. Notice that I say “a glimpse”, because even at it’s best, the Amazon Echo is a reminder of how far we still have to go before reaching such levels of AI. But, even in this rudimentary state, the product is a compelling and worthy addition to your home.

  1. Alexa does like to spout of a quick commercial for Audible before she starts her reading, a feature I greatly wish I could turn off—but it’s short and the hands-free nature of the Echo somehow makes ‘ads’ like this less annoying. Your experience (and feelings) may vary.