Last fall Amazon announced the Echo: a combination personnel assistant (think Siri) and bluetooth speaker. For some reason I found the cheezy video strangely compelling, so I signed up for one (and at $99 for Prime members it seemed pretty reasonable). And here we are in February and it just arrived.
Unbox and Setup
- The Echo tower
- Power adapter
- Remote control
- Batteries for remote control
- Getting started guide and Echo tip sheet
The Echo tower itself is nicely finished and pleasantly hefty due to the two speaker drivers with large magnets. On top of the tower is a light ring that is both a volume knob and a visual indicator that changes color/pattern depending on what’s going on with the Echo.
So I plug it in and it powers up, first flashing some blue, then changing to a sweeping orange. Echo then speaks, telling me that it’s time to start the setup app. My dog is slightly spooked.
The companion app for the Echo runs on iPhones, Android phones, and browsers on your computer. I decided to do the setup using my iMac and Safari, so I went to http://echo.amazon.com and the app loaded. So far so good. I advanced to the connection screen where I’m informed that the Echo has set up a WiFi network, and it was time to turn on my iMac WiFi and connect to Amazon-XXX. I did, and the Echo pleasantly informed me that my client had connected and to continue with the setup app.
And then I hit a problem. The application was stuck on “Connecting….”. My iMac had joined the temporary wifi network just fine (according to my network settings), but it couldn’t connect to the Echo. I tried all the normal things you try in this situation: power cycling the Echo, trying the app on an iPad, etc. Nothing helped. So I called Amazon support.
Initially I talked to a general support engineer in some far away country, but he quickly transferred me to an Echo specialist, Stephanie, who sounded like she was right next door. After going over some basics, Stephanie had me reset the Echo by inserting a paper clip into a small hole in the base of the Echo. And to make a long story short — that did the trick. I was able to perform the setup process. So to highlight this for others:
If your Echo setup application hangs on “Connecting…”, then turn your Echo over, insert a paper clip into the small hole in the bottom of the Echo, hold for 5 seconds to reset the Echo to factory defaults, and then re-do the setup process.
OK! So now our Echo was up and running.
The first thing I was interested in was the speaker quality. One of the primary uses of Echo is to play music so it better sound pretty good. And it does.
The tower contains two downward firing drivers: a 2″ tweeter and a 2.5″ woofer. Clearly you’re not going to get window shaking bass, but the Echo does produce a full rich sound. Since it is a point source of audio, it’s not going to fill your room like a good home system does. But for background music while you are cooking dinner? Perfect!
Overall the Echo played louder and sounded better than the Cambridge Soundworks Oontz we have (a small decent sounding bluetooth speaker). But it likely lacks the punch of higher end ($200) speakers. I do wish the Echo had some way to support adding external speakers — maybe a headphone out. But it does not.
In general I have no complaints with the sound quality. It sounds great for what it is.
To get the Echo’s attention you use a wakeup word — “Alexa” by default (you have an option to use “Amazon” for those families that already have an Alexa). In general the voice recognition works well. Both my wife and I had no problem using the Echo, and even when it is playing music it easily recognized me without needing to shout. The Echo comes with a remote control with a microphone for those cases when the room is too noisy, or you are too far away. The companion app contains a voice recognition training feature, but so far we’ve felt no need to use it.
In terms of range — it is quite good. The Echo seemed to easily hear us from any point in a large room — and even a room away (with no music playing).
In fact, the voice recognition might be too good! We were watching American Idol one evening, and there was a contestant named “Alexis”. I’m not sure exactly what Ryan Seacrest said, but in the middle of the show our Echo announced “Adding Books to your shopping list”.
Currently the primary use of the Echo will be to stream music. The Echo has access to your Amazon Prime music, as well as the streaming services iHeartRadio and TunieIn. Some example of requests you can ask Echo:
- Play my “Dinner Party” play list
- Play Journey
- Play KNBR radio
- Play Taylor Swift
- Volume 4
Generally Echo first tries to satisfy your request using your Prime Music library, then falls back to free content on Prime Music. At times it has also fallen back to iHeartRadio and TuneIn. For example Amazon Prime has plenty of Journey, but apparently no Taylor Swift. So “Play Journey” played stuff from Prime, and “Play Taylor Swift” went to iHeartRadio.
iHeartRadio also streams live radio, so “Play KNBR” plays our local sports radio station. And of course you can explicitly pick an iHeardRadio custom station by saying “Play iHeartRadio My Jazz”.
TuneIn has a variety of podcasts and NPR shows, so “Play This American Life” will play the latest episode. Unfortunately I have not found a way to select a specific podcast episode via voice command. For example I want to listen to Episode 1 of the Serial podcast, but I can’t get the Echo to do that unless I use the companion app to select it.
Overall the music streaming works pretty well, but it is not without frustration. There have been times that I just can’t get the Echo to understand what I’m requesting. For example, I have some tracks from the soundtrack to Whiplash in my Prime music library, but no matter what I said it kept playing some song name Whiplash. I had to resort to creating a specific playlist — at which point “Play playlist whiplash” did the trick. Also, sometimes requesting specific classical pieces does not go well. It just has no idea what I’m asking for.
But these frustrations have been relatively minor, and we find ourselves using the music streaming capability often.
In addition to streaming music Echo has some additional features:
- Sports: The Echo has some integration with sports results. It’s very handy to be able to ask: “Alexa, when do the Warriors play next” or “What was the score of the Giants game?”.
- Setting a timer: we love this feature! If you’ve just phoned in your Japanese take out order and you need to leave in ten minutes to pick it up: “Alexa, 10 minute timer!”. Our your hands are covered in bread dough: “Alexa, 15 minute timer!”.
- Shopping and ToDo list: You can add and remove things from these lists by asking Alexa. These lists are made available in the companion app so you can access them on your smart phone. “Alexa, add Almond Milk to the shopping list”.
- Flash Briefing: You can get a brief update on news and weather by asking: “Alexa, flash briefing”. We have ours configured to use NPR for the news.
- General info: I was concerned that the Echo might be a temptation to cheat on my Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle — after all, I’m used to asking my wife questions. Why not Alexa? Well no worries there — the Echo is not as smart as some of the other digital assistants — at least not yet. For example it did not know the largest lake in South America. And in general, these type of queries are hit and miss. But the Echo does know about local sports teams, which is huge! So this does work: “Alexa, when do the Warriors play next?”. And I get the answer in Pacific Time (which is better than Yahoo Sports which seems to list everything in ET).
- Spelling: oh yes, the Echo can spell. So now my family can ask Alexa instead of me!
So why is this better than Siri on your iPhone plus a bluetooth speaker?
It’s better because the Echo is always on, and always there. You don’t have to find it. You don’t have to touch it. You just talk at the room and voila — you have your answer or your music. So for $99 bucks I think it’s a bundle of fun for Amazon Prime members.