Alexa, is TechSmash the best tech editorial ever?’ Too bad Alexa could not answer that question, but I am sure we all know the answer. So, who is Alexa? She is the voice behind the Amazon Echo, and is their version of a voice activated knowledge hub/personal assistant. Think of it as Amazon’s answer to Siri or Google Voice but in the form of a speaker for your home.
The Echo is a very simple device with only two buttons on the entire surface. After taking the Echo out of the box and plugging it in, you will need to connect it to your homes’ WiFi. The Echo requires the use of a smartphone, tablet, or computer for the initial setup. Setup is quick and simple, with step by step instructions. While an Amazon Prime membership is not required, it is highly recommended to take advantage of Prime Music. The Echo is probably one of the easiest devices I have ever set up. Its simplicity provides much comfort to those who might not consider themselves tech-savvy.
I was pleasantly surprised by how well Alexa did when it came to hearing me. This is probably due to the fact that the Echo has seven microphones installed into the device. Some may say that seven microphones is excessive, but the extra microphones put the Echo a step above the competition from a vocal recognition standpoint; especially at a distance. In addition to the seven microphones, the Echo also utilizes beam-forming technology and enhanced noise cancellation to further understand your commands. I tried and tried and found it difficult to find a real-world situation where Alexa could not hear when I was talking to her. I turned up the TV, turned on the dishwasher, had my dog barking, and even daughter screaming in the background. Surprisingly, with all of the extra commotion, Alexa was still able to know when someone was talking to her. In my experience, the Echo outperformed Siri and Google Voice when it came to filtering out background noise.
As you use the Echo, the device will adapt to your speech, allowing it to better understand what you are asking. It utilizes your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences to deliver better results over time. Don’t expect to see immediate improvements, though, as I felt it took about a week or two of use before I truly saw a difference. With that said, out of the box it still does a great job knowing what is being asked.
There are a number of questions that the Echo can answer; most are basic questions that can be answered in a simple Wikipedia search. You can ask questions such as, ‘How tall is Steve Nash?’ Or, ‘How old is Brad Pitt?’ Alexa can also answer questions regarding the weather and when specific holidays are. If you struggle with measuring conversions, Alexa can handle those commands as well. The ability to create a shopping list using the echo was also helpful. As you are rummaging through your pantry and fridge it is much easier to say, ‘Alexa, add bread to my shopping list’ rather than digging around the junk drawer for a pen and writing it down or covering your smartphone in brownie batter.
I was happy to see that Amazon did not limit the Echo to only play music from Amazon Music. You can connect the Echo via Bluetooth to your Spotify, Pandora, or other music streaming services. Sadly, you are not able to voice the command ‘Alexa, play Curtis’s playlist from Spotify’. In order to play music from other services, you must manually play it through the streaming services app. At that point, the Echo is ‘just another’ wireless Bluetooth speaker.
Regardless of what you have asked Alexa to do, you can follow along using the Echo app. Every question asked or request made is stored in the app for your use. If you asked who the 5th president of the United States was, the app will provide additional information to the question. This is a pretty nifty feature, as long as you have your phone right next to you. (Which for most people is almost always)
It’s hard to say anything negative about the Amazon Echo when it comes to performance. There are a number of useful features and the device’s vocal recognition works exceedingly well. However, the jury is still out regarding whether a stationary voice controlled speaker is something that people will actually want or need.
I was impressed with the design of the Amazon Echo. Photos online simply do not do it justice. The Echo stands at about 10 inches tall, and is just over 3 inches in diameter. It weighs about 2 pounds and I would consider it just slightly too big to be portable. However, if you carry a larger purse or backpack around, you can easily travel with it.
Along with the speaker itself, it comes a remote and a magnetic holder. The magnet is strong enough to stick to just about any metal surface. This is a nice touch considering that you don’t have to drill holes in your wall in order to mount the remote. The mount is intended to help keep track of your remote, and keeps it out of little hands. However, I found the remote somewhat useless. Because you can do everything through voice command, the remote is not needed and I don’t feel it adds much to the overall experience.
Along the top of the Echo sits a light ring that changes colors depending on what is happening. The colors are bright and vibrant, but do not overpower the Echo.
The sleek and stylish design of the Echo drew lots of attention to those unfamiliar with the Amazon Echo. For the few that were familiar with the device, they were equally impressed by its design. The device is a great conversation starter; especially once Alexa joins the conversation.
The Echo comes equipped with a 2 inch tweeter, 2.5 inch woofer, and a Reflex port that allows the woofer to produce deeper sounds. When it comes to speaker quality, I would consider the Echo slightly above average. I was by no means blown away by the quality of sound, but at the same time I was not left wanting more for the price of the speaker. I could clearly hear what was being said, and the music was not muffled or distorted in any way. It’s no Bose speaker, but it got the job done.
In terms of overall volume the Echo packs a punch for its size, and can get surprisingly loud. It’s unlikely that anyone would need to listen to the Echo on its highest setting. You are able to change the volume in one of three ways: through voice command (‘Alexa, volume 4’), on the remote control, or by twisting the top of the Echo.
There are a number of Bluetooth speakers on the market that perform just as well, if not better than the Amazon Echo, from a sound clarity and volume perspective. However, when you couple all the features of the Amazon Echo and their above average speakers, it’s hard to beat.
Standing the Test of Time
The first day of using the Echo I was highly impressed by its sleek design, noise cancelling features, and overall performance. However, after about a week of use I found myself going back to my old ways. I used my phone to listen to music, typed a shopping list out, and even used Google Voice to answer questions I had regarding various topics. This was not so much an issue with how the Echo performed, but due to the fact that using my phone was more convenient and always handy. Since the Echo is a stationary device, you can only use it when you are near it. If I wanted to listen to music when taking a shower, I had to move the Echo to another location.
For some the Echo might be just what you need. I think of the Echo as a glorified Bluetooth speaker. For what you get out of it, it’s hard to beat the $99 price tag for Amazon Prime Members. If you’re not a Amazon Prime Member, it might be a little harder to justify the purchase since the Echo is listed at $199.
Currently, the Echo is only available to those who have received an invitation to purchase it. You can visit Amazon’s website to request an invitation.
For those of you who have had the opportunity to use the Echo, what are your thoughts? Was it all you hoped it to be? Let us know what you like and dislike about the Echo in the comment section below.