A while back Amazon surprised the internet by introducing it's latest and most out there device, the Echo. No one really knew what it was. It was a device that was out of the norm for Amazon. We're so used to seeing tablets and phones from them after all. But intrigued I was personally. It seemed to do the same things that Siri or "Ok Google" did, but it was different because it was always listening and there was no need to recharge it as it's intended to be an always on device. It was a bluetooth speaker, and it had this smooth voice that responded to any question you had. It could tell you jokes, then keep track of your shopping list. It could do all of those gimmicky things that you would show off one time and then forget about. So I just had to buy it.
I requested an invite to purchase the Echo as soon as they announced it, as Amazon had a deal for Prime members in which they could receive the Echo for $99 as opposed to the non-Prime cost of $199. A deal that I could not resist really. So I just received my Amazon Echo in the mail and could not have been more excited to unwrap and try it out. For those new to it, the Echo aims to make your life easier by connecting your home and your daily home life to the internet. If you have a question, you can ask the Echo. If you want to hear news you can ask the Echo. If you want to hear music, the Echo will take care of that too. It's essentially what your smartphone is, but for your home. Your home now has it's own smartphone. Pretty neat.
You plug it in somewhere central in your house or your bedroom, and that's it. It's always connected to the internet and responds to voice commands initiated with the keyword "Alexa". The Echo uses "Far Field Voice Recognition", which allows it to pick up commands even when there's ambient sound or while it 's playing music. As soon as you say "Alexa" you'll see the device light up with it's blue circular gradient light pointing in the direction of where the sound came from. The Echo keeps getting smarter as all calculations are done on the cloud so any new features roll out instantly to every owner.
What's In The Box??
So let's begin and talk about what everyone is here for.
My Echo arrived in a relatively small Amazon box, but it definitely has some weight to it. Which made me cringe knowing how it tossed and turned on route to me. Amazon's packaging is usually kept simple, which I'm a fan off as it keeps those pesky thieves at bay and it's just going to end up in the recycling bin anyhow.Thumbs up for Amazon packaging. And next our main guest, the Echo. It was actually shorter than I expected it to be at around 9.25 inches. It came with the a short manual with basic setup guides, which are important and following them will make this process a quick 2-minute task. It comes with the usual power adapter, as it is always on, and more awesomely than that, it also comes with a remote control for your Echo.
The control can be used to control the volume of the unit and also to make voice commands without being within earshot of your device. The control uses bluetooth, so it has the usual bluetooth distance limitations.
The Echo Itself
It looks very sleek is all I can say. It looks fantastic on any coffee table or desk particularly when it's on. I love the light pattern on top of the unit. Very "I'm a robot and I'm listening" futuristic feel to it. It's got a hefty weight on it, which is good as it makes it difficult for the Echo to fall over accidentally. The unit has two buttons on top of it, one to mute the devices microphone which prevents any commands to be made to it by using the "Alexa" keyword. Great for those paranoid about such things. Commands through the control will still work however. And also an "Action button", which can be used to turn off alarms and timers or to wake the unit. The very top of the unit is the volute control, which is displayed by a light blue light that circles the entire unit corresponding the volume level. You control it by rotating the top section.
The Echo fires up pretty fast. At first launch, there is an orange ring spiraling through the top waiting for you to connect it to the interwebs. You'll need to download and install the Amazon Echo phone app in order to set up the devices wifi. Once connected, you'll see the all too familiar blue ring and the phone app will walk you through a few test commands in order to get you familiar with the interface. Once you follow all of the steps on the app, you are free to try it out and ask it whatever your heart wishes. Whether you get a response is something else.
The one criticism I read and heard from people all over the interwebs that hadn't yet gotten their hands on the device was that it was pretty much just an overgrown smartphone that you couldn't take with you. And this is where that statement falls short. As a music playing device, the Echo is fantastic! Not only can you just say "Alexa, play *band name" and then have the device look for that music in prime music and begin playing, but it also has a fantastic sound to it. It has a 2.5 inch woofer and a 2.0 inch tweeter that I must say bring out clear and deep sounds. This is my first external bluetooth speaker and for the price, I was not disappointed one bit. The first time I said "Alexa, play my music" and was presented with Slayer destroying my living room I knew I made the right choice. You can pretty much tell the Echo to play any band and it will search through the Prime music collection or will play a sample of the music if non was found. You can purchase music by voice command as well, but as of now, I am too afraid to try it. But I will follow up with that soon.
Testing Some Commands
Now comes the fun part. Just what can the Amazon Echo do? Well, the truthful answer is that I have no idea. The phone application comes with a few test commands that you can try out, but aside from those, the Echo can and does understand plenty more that aren't listed. Here's a few that I tried that were a success:
"When is Jim Carrey's Birthday?"
"What weekday is June 25?"
"How many days until Christmas?"
"How many US Dollars is 10,000 Yen?"
There were plenty more commands that unfortunately yielded no results. I'm hoping that as time goes by whichever analytical engine that Amazon is using improves and it really does become second nature to ask it any question that you see fit. I want to be able to say "Alexa, add ingredients to make a cake to my shopping list" and then never make this cake. But I want the option to!
Overall though, the Amazon Echo is a $99 decent quality bluetooth speaker with limited voice control capabilities, but with the potential for something amazing. This can finally be the robotic house maid that we've all seen in movies for the past few decades. I'll be testing it heavily as the week goes on and will do a full review of how it held up, including commands that I got results from and commands which I wish would work.
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Walter Guevara is a Computer Scientist, software engineer, startup founder and currently mentors for a coding bootcamp. He has been creating software for the past 15 years.