Amazon Echo talks the talk, but still needs a little work on walking the walk
The Good The Amazon Echo is an attractively designed speaker and its voice-control system, anchored by soothing and smooth-sounding “Alexa,” works well within its current limited scope. The speaker’s Wi-Fi setup is relatively straightforward and you can also directly connect to the speaker via Bluetooth. The speaker plays loud and Alexa’s voice sounds clear.
The Bad At present, it can’t be set up with an iOS device — only Android and Fire products need apply. The speaker doesn’t sound great with music (it distorts at higher volumes), nor does it doesn’t have a battery option, so it must be plugged in at all times. And — so far, anyway — Alexa is more a novelty than a useful productivity tool.
“Alexa, will you write the review of the Amazon Echo for me?”
Alas, Alexa couldn’t — or rather she couldn’t answer my question — but it didn’t hurt to ask, because I know that one day Alexa will be able to create her own review by swiftly combing through a dozen human-made reviews, and condensing them on the fly into a single paragraph, rating and all.
Alexa is the voice behind Echo, Amazon’s new voice-activated, cloud-connected wireless speaker, who talks back to you and acts as kind of a personal assistant. But for now she’s somewhat limited in her capabilities, though not without some nifty tricks up her sleeve.
But before we get into those tricks, a bit of bookkeeping: Echo carries a list price of $199 (there’s no word as to when or if it’ll be available internationally, but that price converts roughly to £125 in the UK, or a little over AU$230 in Australia). But if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you’ll be able to buy the speaker for $99 in its launch phase, which may go on for a few months.
Anybody who wants to buy one, however — Prime or otherwise – needs to request an invite from Amazon to have a chance to own one. Or you can just spend a lot of money and buy one on eBay, like we did (which I would advise against).
She understands me
How well does Echo work? While it has a few problems, it’s one of the better voice-controlled devices I’ve used and it overall seems to do a better job understanding what you’re saying than the improving voice-control systems built into today’s iOS (Siri), Android (Google Now) and Windows (Cortana) mobile devices. Notably, Amazon’s voice controls for its Fire TV also work well, so it clearly has some talented engineers working on its voice recognition projects.
There are seven microphones embedded in the top of this fairly sleek 9.25-inch (23.5 cm) tall canister-style speaker, which comes in only black for now (I would’ve liked to have seen a white model). The volume ring on the top of the speaker lights up when you say “Alexa,” letting you know she is ready to accept your command. Alexa understood most of mine — or at least the ones she was supposed to understand.
Also, her voice sounded fairly natural responding to me. I think I like her better than Siri, though I may be slightly biased because my middle name is Alexis. And yes, the voice is personable and “real” enough that it very much feels more natural to refer to Alexa as “she” rather than “it.”
You can also call her “Amazon,” but that just didn’t feel right. (So far as we can tell, you can’t change the wake word “name” to anything else, nor can you change the “gender” of the voice.)
The Bottom Line The Amazon Echo shows promise and is a bargain at its introductory price point of $99 for select Prime members — but it’s too much of a work in progress to enthusiastically recommend at its full list price.
To get started, you have to connect the speaker to your home Wi-Fi network through an app on an Android or Amazon Fire tablet or phone and desktop browsers. An iOS app isn’t available yet, and at launch there isn’t much you can do with an iPhone beyond connecting it to the speaker via Bluetooth and streaming audio to it. Strangely, although the Echo has seven microphones, I couldn’t get it to work as a Bluetooth speaker phone, but that functionality may arrive in the future.
In Amazon’s ads for the device, it shows various members of a family asking it questions. It works particularly well for getting a weather forecast, both the daily and weekly varieties. You can also ask Alexa the time, to set an alarm or timer for you, add items to your to-do or shopping lists on your tablet or smartphone, and learn fun from facts from her, including definitions of words. And she can even tell a joke.
was also impressed by the music playback features. If you’re a Prime member, you can quickly have Alexa generate a playlist for you or play a particular station based on an artist or an actual station. And she stops the music and raises and lowers the volume on command. At launch, Echo is compatible with Amazon Music, iHeartRadio and TuneIn, and not surprisingly, Alexa also makes it easy for you to buy songs from Amazon.
If you connect to the speaker in Bluetooth mode, you can use Spotify and other music services, but you can’t just tell Alexa to start playing a Spotify playlist at this point. It has to be done the old-fashioned way — manually through the Spotify app on your phone or tablet. In other words, when connecting via Bluetooth, Echo is just another “dumb” wireless speaker.
No battery option but portable nevertheless
After the initial setup, you don’t have to use the Echo app to use Echo, but you can “voicecast” Alexa’s answers to your tablet or smartphone (it happened automatically for me).
It’s also worth noting that the speaker has to be plugged in and doesn’t have a battery option. You can move it from room to room easily enough, so long as you remain within range of your Wi-Fi network. If you take the speaker to another location outside your network, you’ll have to find another working wireless point to tap into and go through the setup routine again. To shoot the video of the product, I had to move the Echo from one Wi-Fi network in our office to another, and was able to set it up on the new network in about 5 minutes. It was rather painless, so that was good.
As part of the Echo bundle, you get a remote with a built-in microphone so you can talk to Alexa if you’re too far away from the Echo’s built-in microphones or it’s just noisy in the room. That said, I was able to ask Alexa to turn down the volume even when the music was playing pretty loudly, so the speaker’s internal microphones, which are enhanced with noise cancellation circuitry, seem quite capable.
Glitches and limitations
The big limitation right now is that beyond the weather and dictionary, Echo only seems to interface with Wikipedia and a few other data repositories (for jokes, for instance), but not Google or another search engine such as Bing. However, it will send a Bing link to your tablet or phone if it can’t find what you’re asking about. Perhaps in the future Amazon will work out a deal with its Seattle neighbor Microsoft to bring additional Bing capabilities to the device.
I also encountered some glitches with the music playback: it wouldn’t play an Amazon Prime playlist for me and then put on iHeart Radio’s Z100 station, which came on previously when I asked for a Jazz station. As with all wireless speakers, your listening experience can be impacted by the quality of your wireless connection. And, in this case, you’re also dealing with a voice-control system that has to retrieve information from the cloud.
It’s easy to imagine Alexa locking doors, turning off lights, and raising the temperature on the thermostat at your request, and that all might be possible with the right software update and perhaps a few key partnerships. Given that we’ve already seen smart home plays from voice-activated systems like Siri and Cortana, along with a handful of dedicated voice-control smart home devices, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Alexa follow suit. Still, if Echo does hold smart home ambitions, Amazon isn’t tipping its hand yet.
Alexa is supposed to get smarter with time. She’s supposed to learn your voice better as you talk to her and there’s also a speech-training tool in the app, although how it works if you have multiple people talking to the device is unclear.
As I said, she did a decent job recognizing my verbal commands. But you will run into some snafus. For instance, I asked her “What is CNET?” She interpreted that to mean, “What is See Net?” She had no idea what that was and neither did I, but she did provide me with a Bing link to search for it.
The other issue with Echo is that while it makes Alexa’s speech sound very good, it’s not a great speaker for music playback. It produces a fair amount of bass and projects so-called 360-degree sound, but it tends to distort at higher volumes (sometimes badly). For generating background music, it’s fine, but it’s not on par with a speaker like the $200 UE Boom, a smaller cylindrical speaker that sounds great for its size and is portable.
I sometimes got a little better sound out of the Echo when I streamed music over Bluetooth and it helps to experiment with the placement of the speaker to optimize its performance. But distortion is distortion and it was hard to listen to the speaker at anything above 60 percent volume.
Amazon’s engineers can probably play around with the EQ settings and hopefully improve the sound over time with an update. But I would say that it needs to be tuned a little better and tested with a variety of music to make sure that it doesn’t fall down on certain frequencies, particularly at the low-end.
To be sure, the Echo is a work in progress, a beta product if there ever was one, and that’s why Amazon is offering it up at launch to select customers for only $99 (you might say this is Amazon’s version of a Kickstarter project). It’s using early adopters as beta testers and will gradually make improvements and add features.
The bigger problem, though, is that the Echo is delivering on two basic missions — it’s a wireless music speaker and a virtual assistant — but it’s not differentiating itself on either one. You can buy better wireless speakers at this price, and the virtual assistant on your Apple, Google or Microsoft phone or tablet can probably “do” just as much as Alexa can — for now, anyway.
Compounding the issue is the fact that the Echo has two prices: The introductory $99 Prime member price and the $199 “list” price. That makes it especially hard to rate it from a value standpoint. I think people who get it for $99 will be more forgiving and enjoy what features it does offer, and the novelty of using your voice to access those features. In other words, it’s a very good deal at $99 and a 3.5-star product.
However, at $199, in its current state, it isn’t such a bargain. So for now, I’m going to go with a slightly lower rating. As the Echo evolves, so will this review. And perhaps the rating will, too.