Ama­zon Echo

Is there an Echo in here?

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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.

Au­dio qual­ity

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.

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