Amazon Echo Review
How does Amazon's assistant stack up to the competition?
Ibought the Amazon Echo (starting at $49.99) when it was first introduced in 2014. Although I was skeptical at first, Amazon offered a special discount for Amazon Prime members, so I took a chance. Now I can't live without it. In fact, while I have one of the higher-end models, I bought a couple of the Echo Dot models when they were around $40 during Black Friday. At that price, it made sense to put one in every room. And since the Echo and Echo Dot are sold in either black or white, I figured they would blend in with any of my home's furnishings.
HOW IT WORKS
So what does the Amazon Echo do, exactly? Similar to Siri, Amazon Echo uses speech recognition to perform a range of tasks, listening for a wake word or trigger command in order to kick into action. By default, the Amazon Echo's wake word is “Alexa” but that can be changed to “Amazon” or “Echo” if you so choose. You can even use the word “computer” in place of Alexa, which should appeal to Star Trek fans. That's important because many times my Echo will wake up to a TV show if someone says something that sounds like Alexa, such as “I'll ask a question,” so it's nice to have this option.
Sample commands include “Alexa, tell me the news,” or “Alexa, what's the weather report?” The Alexa service connects with your Amazon Prime account if you have one, so it can play Amazon Prime Music. If you don't have an Amazon Prime account, you can subscribe to Amazon's Echo Music service for $3.99/month, but Prime is a better deal because it includes movies, original TV shows, free two-day shipping, and more. And, to the company's credit, Amazon also works with Spotify, Pandora, and iHeartRadio, so you don't have to use Amazon products exclusively. In fact, Amazon has opened up its Alexa service to other manufacturers, so companies are adding Alexa capabilities to speakers and other devices. This is a smart move, as it gets the Amazon Alexa platform into more price points and form factors than Amazon might be able to do on its own. Given the competition is Google and Apple, Amazon needs all the help it can get.
Google Home is an impressive alternative to the Amazon Echo, but it starts at more than $100. Apple is also rumored to have a similar product in the works based on Siri, perhaps as part of a future Apple TV box, but who knows when that rumored device will ship. Given Apple's pricing tendencies, it is unlikely that its device would cost as little as the Echo Dot. Still, HomeKit integration from an Apple-branded product would be a compelling advantage.
However, Alexa has a head start over Google and Apple, and its software continues to get better every single day as new Alexa skills are added. Amazon sends out email newsletters with new trivia games, news reports, and other voice-activated apps that users can add by voice command or by using the free Alexa app for iOS or Android. For example, Alexa can order a pizza from Dominos or a driver from Uber.
ECHO DOT & AMAZON TAP
Of the two Echo devices, I highly recommend the Echo Dot, as it is an affordable way to get started with the Alexa experience. One of the ways Amazon cut costs with the Dot was by using a lower-quality speaker. That's fine for talking back and forth with Alexa, but if you want to listen to music, you might want to connect an external speaker, either using an audio cable or Bluetooth. Still, at $50, there is plenty of room to add a nice speaker and still pay less than the higherend Amazon Echo.
There is one more model that supports Alexa, namely the Amazon Tap ($129.99.) Unlike the Echo models, the Tap requires that users tap a button to activate Alexa. However, the Amazon Tap offers a battery option so users can take it on the go. Of course, the Alexa service requires a Wi-Fi connection, so it's not as mobile as it could be if a cellular SIM were an option.
The best part, to me, is its home-automation capabilities. I can control lights and other appliances that integrate with Wink, WeMo, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Insteon, Nest, and other smart devices. I can even tell Alexa to control the TV, as it links to my Logitech Harmony Remote system. This really impresses my friends and family, and is great when you can't find the remote.
Amazon Echo is the perfect tool for helping you get started on your smart home. If the Amazon Echo is too pricy for you, the Echo Dot is a great, more affordable alternative.
Todd Bernhard is founder of No Tie Software, an app development company specializing in ringtones and sound effects including AutoRingtone. Bernhard has owned an Apple Newton, a Motorola Marco, an HP 95LX, a Compaq iPaq, a Palm Treo, and a Nokia e62. In addition to writing for iPhone Life, Mr. Bernhard has written for its legacy publications, PocketPC Magazine and The HP Palmtop Paper.