The closest we’ve come to a robot butler.
Remember the first time you saw Siri in Apple’s iPhone 4S? It was one of those transformative pieces of tech that you never knew you needed, but instantly knew you wanted. Siri, Google Now, Cortana, etc, all seem great in concept, but are quite a bit different in their actual usage… they misunderstand you; they can be slow to respond; they work awesome 90% of the time, but fail so hard the other 10% that you subconsciously avoid using them.
For all of those reasons, I largely ignored Amazon’s Echo in the year since its release. As it turns out, I’ve been missing out on one of the best gadgets of the decade.
What Does it Claim to Do?
The Amazon Echo is pretty unusual as far as devices go. Simply put, the Echo is a discrete, always-on microphone/speaker combo that is primarily an interface for their “Alexa” artificial-intelligence platform. Much like the competing platforms mentioned above, the Echo claims to answer simple questions and respond to a growing set of commands with the promise of some very cool functionality.
- 2.5″ woofer and 2″ tweeter
- “Far-field” voice recognition with 7 microphones
- Integration with the Amazon Prime Music Library
- Integration with a growing list of 3rd-party services
Is the Echo the brain your home has been looking for? Read on to find out.
Look and Feel
The Echo is much more handsome in person than you’ve seen in pictures. I was expecting a cheap black cylinder with some blinky lights, but upon unboxing, I was immediately impressed by the smoke black precision machined shell, not to mention the gloriously geeky light ring… Man, oh man. My heart skipped a beat the first time that ring activated, and I have an irrational affection for it that’s not easily explained; there’s something about that stupid ring that gives the Echo a great sense of personality.
Set up is extremely simple and about what you’d expect out of a device like this: Download the app, connect it to your WiFi network/Amazon account, and you’re good to go. You can change the volume by turning the ring on the top, or mute the device with a quick touch of a button, but most of the other functions are voice activated or a few taps away in the app.
On iOS (tested), the corresponding app is simple and straightforward, allowing you to manage your settings, view a full list of recent commands, and even add new skills to your Echo from a growing list of third-party vendors.
Amazon really nailed the design of the Echo on both the hardware side and the software side, but that’s not why you’re going to want one. Let’s get to the good stuff.
Performance and User Experience
I’ll get right to the point here… The Echo and the Alexa cloud intelligence that powers it is the best voice control interface I’ve ever used. By a mile. I’ve used Siri on every iPhone and iPad. I’ve used OK Google/Google Now. I’ve used Cortana on Windows 10. I use Kinect every day on my Xbox One. Surprisingly, none of them can hold a candle to the Echo. (I’m as surprised as you are!)
I’ve lived with the Echo for a month before writing this review, and I’ve been trying to think of the best way to qualify what makes its speech recognition so good. I’m sure it’s a combination of great microphones and Amazon’s rock-solid cloud services, but if I had to sum it up in one word, it would be speed. The Echo is fast… I mean really fast. So fast that I don’t have to change the way I talk to use it. Instead of changing the cadence of my voice like I’m talking to a child, I’ve learned to trust the Echo enough to talk quickly and confidently.
Much like Siri, the Echo answers a number of simple queries; simply get its attention by saying “Alexa…,” and ask it whatever you like. From math to spelling, weather to sports scores, the Echo can answer just about any question you throw at it. It’s nice to have this sort of functionality on your phone, but having it as an ambient feature of your kitchen or bedroom is transformative. The Echo’s built-in tweeter/woofer help Alexa’s voice sound surprisingly natural, and music/news/other content is loud and clear (better even than my Mini Jambox sitting nearby).
It gets better! Amazon has shrewdly opened the Alexa API to a number of partners, meaning your Echo gets smarter on almost a weekly basis. For instance, I was able to add a new skill to our Echo this week allowing my five-year-old to inquire about Santa’s whereabouts, find out whether she’s on the naughty or nice list, and enjoy-some Christmas-themed jokes. Sure, it’s cheesy, but little enhancements like this have made the Echo feel like the fifth member of our family.
We like it so much, in fact, that each of us use it on a daily basis.. Here are some of our favorite uses:
- Checking the weather
- Getting the morning news from NPR
- Controlling on smart home (more on that in a second)
- Checking spelling
- Getting family-friendly jokes (the kids LOVE this)
- Setting kitchen timers (pro-tip: use IFTTT to get notifications on your phone when timers complete!)
- Adding items to our shared to-do lists and shopping lists (again, try using an IFTTT recipe to have Alexa update your iCloud Reminders lists instead of the default ones in the Alexa app)
- Getting celebrity ages and other random facts
I know most of those uses don’t necessarily break new ground, but the Echo’s omnipresence, accuracy, and speed push it over the edge from being a gee-whiz novelty into one of the most useful items in our home. It’s just fantastic.
Integration with Other Platforms
In addition to their existing API, another awesome feature of the Alexa platform is its recent integration with Wink and IFTTT, adding some seriously awesome smart home integration into an already useful gadget. Want to turn on the lights? Ask Alexa. Want to trigger a complex Wink shortcut? Ask Alexa. Want to trigger a hilariously nerdy recipe you’ve set up in IFTTT? You guessed it… just ask. These integrations are a brilliant move by Amazon, positioning the Echo as a drop in voice-control system for just about anything you can think of.
Platforms don’t get more open than this; in fact, the experience with Alexa is so much better that I wish I could replace Siri on my beloved iOS devices. Maybe one day.
Build Quality and Reliability
You’ll rarely touch the unit itself except to change the volume, but its still a well-made piece of kit. I’m actually surprised by the high-end feel of the materials used, especially since it’s something you’ll likely hide in a corner somewhere.
As far as reliability is concerned, I just can’t seem to mess this thing up. Whereas Siri is reliably unreliable, Alexa has yet to misunderstand a single word from our family, including our resident Kindergartener. I don’t know if that is thanks to Amazon’s robust cloud services, or the Echo’s higher-end microphone array, but it’s the glue that holds the whole experience together.
With a retail price of only $179 (and occasionally $149 or less to Prime customers), I think the Echo is a great deal, especially considering the rapid pace at which they’re adding features to it. Whether you’re a geeky tinkerer or even a technophobe, you’re going to find the Echo surprisingly useful.
I have to be honest here… The Amazon Echo is the most surprising product I’ve reviewed for this blog. I picked it up on a Black Friday whim and had no intention of becoming so enamored with it.
If you have even a passing interest in voice control, artificial intelligence, or home automation, the Echo is a required purchase. It’s a phenomenal little product that every family will enjoy, and our first five-star review. Go get one!