Amazon Echo is stunning, sleek and slowly becoming more sentient
Update: The Amazon Echo is going to get a new look for 2017, the company announced during a secret, media-only keynote held at its Washington home base on September 27. The newest iteration of the speaker (what we've dubbed the Amazon Echo 2017) is going to be a bit smaller in stature, but just as full in function.
But the Amazon Echo 2017 isn't the only new device in town: there's also the Amazon Echo Plus and Amazon Echo Spot, an alarm clock-sized Amazon Echo meant for a nightstand. The devices are due out on October 30, alongside the new Amazon Fire TV, but are available for pre-order right now on Amazon and Amazon UK.
The Amazon Echo was the device that kicked off Amazon's voice-activated smart home ambitions, and although the company is constantly expanding the lineup (most recently with the new Amazon Echo Show) the Echo is still the core of the lineup.
After all, the original Echo is still receiving new functionality on a regular basis, and will even be getting some of the new functionality coming to the Echo Show, including voice calling and messaging.
It seems like only yesterday we had our first conversation with Alexa, a personal assistant built into the $179 Amazon Echo (£150, around AU$230). The conversation wasn't very deep, but they got a good laugh asking Alexa stupid questions, having her shuffle music and asking about mundane topics like the weather or the time. The earliest conversations were simple, almost child-like.
As the months went on the conversations got deeper as the team at Amazon added more functionality. Soon we could talk about sports, or what we had come upon our calendar. Alexa could give sporting scores, or tell us how we were already late for a meeting.
It wasn't much longer before Alexa could read audiobooks, play our favorite podcasts and control some of the other smart devices in our homes. You can now ask Alexa about where you should go for Chinese food, or when the grocery store closes thanks to Yelp integration. Alexa can even now play music from services other than Amazon Prime like Spotify or Pandora in the US.
All this is a way to say that we've seen the Amazon Echo grow up from a novelty to an actually semi-intelligent AI. We've used products for years – iPods or Xbox for example – but this is the first time that we've witnessed something evolve so much without ever needing a guiding hand.
It's clear that Amazon Echo is something you don't know you want until you have it, and something you don't miss until it's gone.
It's easy to mistake the Echo for a portable dehumidifier. It's all matte black exterior and 9.25 x 3.27-inch cylindrical shape gives it the kind of camouflage you'd expect from an appliance.
Another difference between the Echo and other portable speakers is that the Echo isn't exactly portable. It needs to be plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi at all times. (Which, considering the six-foot power cable, can be a bit of a struggle.)
And this decision makes sense when you give it some thought. How could an always-on microphone hear you if it runs out of power? It couldn't. Moreover, how would it send your voice to Amazon servers without a connection to the internet? Again, not going to happen.
Sure, it's a hassle to always be connected, but Wi-Fi networks are a dime-a-dozen these days.
On top of the canister are two buttons, mute and listen, while the top ring rotates to raise or lower volume.
Aside the volume ring is the light ring. This glows blue when you summon Alexa, flashes when it is searching for an answer to your query and glows red when you press the Mute button, so you really know that it isn't listening.
In the US the Echo comes with a traditional remote identical to the one that comes with the Amazon Fire TV or can be controlled from your phone via the Amazon Echo App for those concerned with not having physical buttons to press.
Speaking of which, the app isn't the most fleshed-out companion app we've ever used and can feel pretty barren in comparison to the Amazon Fire TV storefront. We found a few of the selections relatively useful – controlling radio stations via the app is painless compared with asking Alexa to do it – but the design can look and feel a little lacking compared to the competition.
Along the bottom of the Echo is a 360-degree speaker grille that gives it some surprisingly room-filling sound along with a small, white Amazon logo.
The speaker produces omnidirectional sound, so it doesn't really matter whereabouts it sits - whether on a shelf or as a centerpiece on your mantlepiece the sound you get from it is decent though not mind-blowing.
Also contained within the chassis is an array of seven microphones, all of which act as ears for the Amazon Echo. They are packed with noise-canceling technology, so when you say 'Alexa' - the wake word for the Echo - it will be heard, even if you have a soft voice, are in a noisy room, or are playing music - which is likely given the Echo is primarily a speaker.
And you will be saying, Alexa, a lot - although your reasons of which will be different for every person that uses it.
If you are lost for words at the beginning - and we were, given speaking to a speaker does feel a little unnatural at first - then don't panic. Amazon offers up a small list of things to say to your device when you get it set up, with a selection of hints that are on the box itself and in handy card form. The list isn't extensive but it is enough to get you started. There's also a Things To Try section on the Alexa app, which is a bit more extensive.
But before you can speak to it, you need to set it up. Thankfully this is a fairly simple process.
To connect it to your home network, you need to download the Alexa companion app on Android or iOS and follow the instructions, with your Amazon Echo, plugged in.
This app isn't just for Amazon Echo, so if you have a Fire TV or any other Amazon-connected device then these will appear in the Alexa app.The app prompted us to manually connect the Echo through our wireless settings (by choosing Amazon in the settings), but it may ask you to hold the action button on the device for five seconds.
Once done, select your Wi-Fi network, enter the passwords and you should be in, with a confirmation message appearing in the app. This took under two minutes for us to do.
While the Echo can crank the volume, the quality of the sound near its upper and lower limits leaves a lot to be desired.
Testing took place in two environments: a small, 12 x 14 ft bedroom and much larger 20 x 15 ft living room. The confined space, as you might expect, benefitted the quieter volume levels and completely muddled anything above 7. Given enough space, sound only faltered at the highest levels, 9 and 10, but Alexa had a tougher time picking up commands. At least the balance around volumes 4-6 were spot on.
With any other Bluetooth speaker, these kinds of problems would've been grounds for a failing grade. But the fact that Alexa not only needs to produce a lot of noise but be able to hear it as well, is good reason to cut it some slack.