A few months ago, Amazon announced a product called "Echo," a cylinder with built-in speakers, an array of microphones, and a Wi-Fi connection to the Internet. Priced at $199 (or $99 for Amazon Prime members), Echo claims to be a personal assistant able to answer questions, provide information, and play music, controlled completely by voice. Reaction to the announcement was mixed, with some people saying it sounded cool, while others saying they'd rather use their phone. I ordered one from Amazon the day it was announced and received it a couple of weeks ago.

What's Included?

The first thing that surprised me was the size and weight of the device. On the day Echo was supposed to be delivered, I came home and was disappointed that the package wasn't on my front porch. When I went to my mailbox, I was shocked to see the small Amazon box that fit inside. I was even more surprised when I went to pick it up: Did Amazon put a huge rock in the box? It was heavy!

The Amazon Echo is packaged in a nondescript black box. When you open the packaging, the inside of the box is bright orange and you're greeted by a sleek black cylinder, along with a remote control and a power adapter. There's also a quick start guide and a list of voice commands to get you started, both shaped like bookmarks, as well as a pair of Amazon Basics AA batteries, and a magnet to hold the remote.

The device itself is small: At only 9.25" (23.5cm) tall and 3.3" (8.4cm) in diameter, Echo can live pretty much anywhere, as long as there's an electrical outlet nearby. It weighs a little over two pounds, and inside the cylinder lives two speakers: A 2" tweeter and a 2.5" woofer.

There are two physical buttons on top of Echo, one to turn off the microphone and one to tell the device you want to use it. The top of the device has a ring of light that turns on to let you know when it's listening to you, and the top twists if you want to adjust the volume.

The included remote control can be used to adjust the volume, as well as pause/skip/rewind any music you're listening to. In addition, it has a microphone "I've never used the physical controls"built in so if the room is noisy or you're far away, you can use it to send the voice commands. If Echo can't hear you, I'm not sure how you would hear Echo's response, but the functionality is there at least. That said, in the two weeks of using Echo, I've never once used any of these physical controls, nor have I used the remote control except for testing.

Initial Setup

Configuration of Echo is straight forward. You simply plug the device in, wait for the light on top to turn orange, and then launch the Echo app on your mobile device. This is how you enter the Wi-Fi password so the device can communicate with the Internet. You also have to press a button on the remote control so that it can team up with the Echo, but that's literally all there is to it: Amazon obviously wanted to make a device that even non-technical folks could easily use, and they really succeeded.

Unfortunately, the Echo mobile app is available on all major platforms except for Windows Phone. There's also no desktop client, so if you don't have a mobile device of some sort, you won't be able to use Echo.

Voice Control

Since Echo has no screen, all of the interactions are done via voice. You activate it by using one of two words (configurable in the Echo app): Alexa or Amazon. It defaults to Alexa, and both my wife and I thought it would be weird saying the name "What's the point of the name Echo?"of a company all the time, so like most people, we left the default. It's a little confusing why the device is called Amazon Echo, but the name is Alexa. Why didn't Amazon name it Alexa, and what's the point of the name Echo? We're not sure.

When you activate Echo with the keyword, the ring on top changes blue so you know it's waiting for your command. You don't have to wait - saying "Alexa. What's the weather?" works the same as saying, "Alexa, what's the weather?"

The microphone array is really good at picking up your voice as well. With the device sitting on the counter, Echo had no problem hearing us in the living room, mudroom, or hallway. It's so good at picking up its name that during an episode of The Mentalist, Echo heard the wake word when the main character on the TV show said it out loud.

The little cylinder has answers to a lot of questions, but it's hard to predict what it will understand. Some questions that seem easy are met with, "I'm sorry, I don't understand the question," whereas others that you wouldn't expect an answer to are given perfect responses. As an example, asking who is the lead singer of Sympohny X resulted in a confused response, whereas Echo had no problem answering what the land mass of Texas is or the population density of Tokyo. It seems Echo knows some bands though, because it responded properly when asked about the lead singer of Dream Theater.

Amazon Echo also has the ability to add things to your shopping list and your to-do list within the Echo mobile app, handy when you notice you're out of milk.

Where the device really shines is as a music device. With Amazon Prime, customers have access to millions of songs as part of their membership, and Echo gives you access to all of them with simple voice commands. The first night we had Echo "a flawless and magical experience"setup, my wife said, "Alexa, play dinner music," and the device played a playlist of soft background music for dinner, a flawless and magical experience. She also frequently asks Alexa to play a random pop song when cleaning up the kitchen or getting ready for work. Occasionally Echo will only play a small snippit of a song if it's not part of Prime Music, but those cases have been far and few between.

Remember Amazon AutoRip, the free feature where Amazon puts all of the CDs you've ever purchased into their cloud for free? They're all available to play through Echo too. In addition, you can upload any of your tunes into Amazon and have full access to them. Even better, the audio quality is actually pretty good, something I'll cover in a bit.

Echo also has the ability to stream from both iHeartRadio and TuneIn, so it can act as a replacement radio. I was able to say, "Alexa, play 93x," and Echo figured out that 93x was a local radio station and told me it was streaming via iHeartRadio, all without any setup. You can link your accounts to Echo within the app to give access to custom playlists and such as well. There's currently no Spotify or Pandora integration, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's coming in the future.

There's also a lot of Easter Eggs hidden within Echo. Ask if the cake is a lie, how Alexa gets along with GladOS, or how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood, and you're greeted with a humorous response. And of course, Echo also responds to the classic line, "Open the pod bay doors."

It's clear that this is a version 1.0 product though. Other than being able to purchase music through Echo (you can disable this if you want), the device has no "Amazon will integrate with the storefront at some point"links to the Amazon store. I asked how much the Xbox One costs, fully expecting it to search Amazon.com and give me an answer, but instead Echo was confused and didn't know what I meant. My wife asked what the current New York Times bestseller was, and again the device had no answer for the question. I expect Amazon will integrate this with their storefront at some point in the future though.

Mobile App

As stated previously, Amazon Echo supports all mobile platforms with the exception of Windows Phone. Although the app is required for initial setup, it isn't required after that, but, it does add some nice functionality. For example, when you ask Echo to add something to your shopping cart or your to-do list, you can access it via the mobile app.

In addition to the lists, the app also shows you the history of your voice commands. Whenever you ask a question, a card (similar to Google Now) pops up on the Echo app. In addition to providing details, it also spells out what you asked, allows you to play the audio recording of your question, and gives users the option to say whether Echo heard you correctly or not. This last feature is obviously used to improve the voice recognition of the device.

It looks like Amazon has partnered with Microsoft because if Echo doesn't know an answer, the card provides a link to Bing to help find it.

The app is also where you will configure what information is presented in your Flash Briefings, news that the Echo can convey to you if you don't feel like reading it yourself. You can get a combination of pre-recorded updates from NPR and BBC News, as well as text-to-speech headlines about various topics.

With the Echo app, you have the ability to add other family members using "Amazon Household." This lets other people in your home switch to their profile when adding things to their various lists, giving them access to the their personal music collection and adding things to their individual lists. Sharing the access is nice, but it's something I hope to see improved in future versions because right now it feels like a tacked on feature.

Audio Quality

The audio quality of Echo is surprisingly good. As referenced earlier, it has both a 2" tweeter as well as a 2.5" woofer and is able to reproduce music extremely well. While it won't be a competitor for a high-end system, as a portable speaker it's able to hit both the high and low notes at most volumes without any noticeable distortion.

The audio quality does get a little distorted when you hit volume levels nine and ten, but for a $99 speaker, it's top-notch.

Echo also has Bluetooth built in, so you can easily stream music from your mobile device if you don't want to rely on Amazon's streaming service. Simply tell Echo to pair a device and it walks you through how to setup. When done, just tell Echo to unpair and you're done.

Privacy

The same people who are worried that Microsoft is invading their privacy with Kinect will probably not be any more at ease with Echo sitting passively on their countertop. Although Amazon claims that Echo is only listening for the key word, there's really nothing stopping the company from changing the firmware to act as a live microphone at all times.

Having said that, Amazon's documentation does a good job describing exactly what is captured.

Voice Services. You control Amazon Echo with your voice. Amazon Echo streams audio to the cloud when you press and hold the talk button on your Amazon Echo remote, press the wake button on your Amazon Echo, or when Amazon Echo detects the wake word, including a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word. Amazon Echo processes and retains your voice input and other information, such as your music playlists and your to-do and shopping lists, in the cloud to respond to your requests and improve our services. Learn more about these voice services including how to delete voice recordings associated with your account.

I'll admit that it was a little creepy when I first noticed you can playback your audio commands through the Echo app by clicking the "echo heard" link. I'm a little uneasy with the amount of data companies are collecting on everyone, and what information they be sharing with government organizations, but the fact of the matter is my cell phone is always by my side and it has the potential to always be listening as well, so I'm not sure the privacy fear is as big a deal as some people think it is.

For those who want to delete your voice history, Amazon has a FAQ setup to answer some questions. Unfortunately it's a little unclear as to whether they delete the data off of their servers or just off of the Amazon app. It's something Amazon should look at clearing up for those concerned with privacy.

Future

Right now it's clear that Echo has a limited understanding of questions and while the features it does have are compelling, in the future a device like this could easily control your entire home. With the Internet of Things taking off, there's no reason that you shouldn't be able to control your house with your voice.

For example, if Amazon integrated Echo with the Nexia home automation line of products, saying, "Alexa, turn on kitchen lights" would be a trivial command to execute. Or imagine saying, "Alexa, goodnight," and having the device turn off all of the lights in your house, close your garage door, and set your thermostat.

It's unclear whether Amazon will dominate this category in the future, but they have the underlying framework to do so.

Conclusion

Why is Alexa Echo so cool and frustrating at the same? When it knows how to answer your question, the experience is like magic. When my wife decided to ask, "Alexa, what color is the dress?" and the response was, "The dress is blue and black," we both thought it was amazing. On the other hand, far too frequently it doesn't know what you're asking about and can't give an answer, which is frustrating. Trying to figure out what questions Echo can and can not answer is also frustrating.

If you're looking for a small, high quality speaker to play music, Echo is a no-brainer. With Amazon Prime, you have access to millions of songs and the device costs only $99. However, Prime is only $99/year, so it's actually cheaper (by a dollar) to purchase Prime and Echo. Add in the instant access to TuneIn and iHeartRadio, and you have a practically unlimited amount of content to listen to.

If you want to use Echo as a personal assistant, you're probably better off waiting for version 2.0 because far too frequently you're simply told that Echo doesn't know the answer to your question.

Regardless, it's clear that voice commands are going to be a major way we interact with our devices in the future, and Amazon Echo is a great start towards that future.

UPDATE: When I first tested Echo, there was no web client available, forcing users to use a mobile device in order to setup and access the device. Thanks to Neowin reader wjbinokc for pointing out that going to https://echo.amazon.com now does indeed let you configure and control your Echo without a mobile device.

 

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