Is there an Echo in here?
Two years is a long time to wait for any new bit of technology, but Amazon’s sleek, minimal device
is worth it. Echo won’t look out of place in any home. The only buttons are on top of the unit. There’s a Mute button – press this when you don’t want Alexa to listen in on what you are doing – and Listen, which wakes the device from its slumber.
There is also a physical volume control that you use by moving the top ring of the Echo clockwise or anti-clockwise. Alongside the volume ring is the light ring. This glows blue when you summon Alexa, flashes when it is searching for an answer to your query, and glows red when you press the Mute button, so you really know that it isn’t listening in on your conversations.
It’s robust enough to pipe out music at a fair whack thanks to a 2.5-inch woofer and a 2-inch tweeter. The speaker produces 360-degree omnidirectional sound, so it doesn’t really matter where it sits, although the sound isn’t mindblowing.
Also contained within the chassis is an array of seven microphones (Alexa’s ears), all of which come with very effective noisecancelling technology. We found Alexa could pick up voice commands even while music was playing in the room.
Features and performance
Setting up is very easy and took us less than two minutes, and Amazon provides a helpful list of voice prompts to use with Alexa.
Once up and running, you can leave the app if you want and just start using your voice, but this will mean that you’re only using the default settings on the Echo and none of Alexa’s extra ‘Skills’. This isn’t an issue as there’s still some fun to be had.
Without adding any additional Skills, you can ask Alexa the time, set an alarm and get weather and news reports. The good thing is that you don’t have to be exact in your phrasing when asking for these things.
You can help Alexa learn a bit more about you by adding information about your music, calendars and more. We linked up our Google Calendar in seconds and could then ask what’s happening in the day. Linking up our music was a little harder, though.
Currently, Alexa recognises Amazon Music (obviously), Spotify and TuneIn, but not Apple Music, Google Play Music or Tidal. We’re hoping support for these will come in time, but don’t hold your breath.
Alexa really comes to life when you start adding third-party apps (the aforementioned Skills) to it. In the UK, there are around 2,800 Skills available, but many of them are fairly
useless. While there are great examples – turning on your lights or heating with your voice never gets old – the majority of Skills aren’t great (unless you want to learn facts about cats, snakes, coffee, chameleons…).
Inevitably, when Echo picks up your voice it’s recording what you’re saying, so the issue of privacy rears its head. Amazon gets around this – just press the Mute button and Echo will stop listening in to what you are doing. You can also delete the info it gives you, and view a history of questions you’ve asked.
As a straight speaker, the Echo doesn’t do enough to impress. Compared to others of its size and price range, it doesn’t quite match their sound fidelity. Set the volume to the higher levels, say 7 or 8, and things sound rather muddied and the lower levels are just that bit too quiet for a medium-sized living room. Leave the volume in the middle and it gets a lot better, but we wouldn’t go as far as using this as our main music speaker – the sound just isn’t polished enough.
If you already have a decent speaker setup and want Alexa integration, it might be worth looking at the Amazon Echo Dot. This is a puck-like device that links up to your existing setup and offers up Alexa voice controls but through your own speakers.
Skills to pay the bills
The Echo is smart and a fantastic conduit for Alexa. Amazon’s voice assistant bristles with intelligence, and speaking to the Echo is soon second nature – give it a day or two and using Alexa goes from being a little strange to the norm. There are niggles – the speaker is good but not great, and sometimes voice control draws a blank, but these issues were rare.
We really like the way Echo integrates with other smart home technology. Using it with the Hive thermostat’s Skill alone makes it a compelling purchase. Used to look up info or as an entertainment device, it works well.
The Echo is a fantastic addition to any home, a device that improves when it’s linked to other smart devices and services. Use it without any of these and you’ll soon find yourself bored with the sound of your own voice. Use the Echo to its fullest, though, and it may well become your favourite gadget.
The Echo comes with the Alexa voice assistant. It’s a great feature and surprisingly effective in noisy conditions.
If you just want Alexa with your existing speaker setup, the Echo Dot has you covered.
The Echo comes in two colours and has a very sleek design that will fit in well in almost any home.