The Amazon Echo’s second generation is almost a year old. But, even with its flaws, it still feels like a device ahead of its time.
We’re probably a couple of months away from the announcement of the newest Amazon Echo smart speaker device. The nature of the tech business demands that new devices appear each year. However, Amazon has had an amazing year already. They recently passed the $1 trillion mark and CEO Jeff Bezos is the richest man in history. So, if the next generation of Echo doesn’t rattle the industry to its bones, that’s okay. The reason Amazon needn’t worry about the next generation of Echo is that, after a year, it’s still a relatively well-loved prodauct.
It’s not been entirely smooth sailing for the Amazon Echo, however. Concerns rose up from technical snafus stemming from the technology’s need to actually listen to us. From a practical point-of-view it makes sense. A voice-activated device has to know our voices. Still, we humans aren’t quite used to our technology operating like that on its own. There are also concerns that bad actors could hack into these devices, using them to eavesdrop or even worse. In this review, we will address all those concerns and examine the features the Amazon Echo and Alexa offer.
A Little About Amazon, the Echo, and Alexa
Because you can never have enough context, let’s take a look at what this product is for and why Amazon even bothered with it. Like most innovative products that try to change the way we interface with technology, there is an adjustment period. But it’s not going anywhere as other tech giants like Google and Apple are working on their own versions.
How Amazon Got Here
It seems like for as long as there has been the World Wide Web, there has been an Amazon.com. The company was the brainchild of Jeff Bezos, an investor already a millionaire, when he realized that the internet was the future of commerce. They began with an easy product, books. They had their own stores and they partnered with used booksellers across the country. It was good for everyone.
However, soon, Amazon branched out into other retail areas. Today, they sell almost anything you can think of. Warehouses stationed in population centers across the U.S. only underscore just how gigantic this company has gotten. The Amazon Echo is the next step of making this company the main provider of most goods for tech-savvy people who don’t have time to go to retail outlets any more. It’s Amazon’s next big gamble, and if it pays off it will cement their dominance for a long time.
The Amazon Echo is a Speaker but Also, More
In practical terms, the Amazon Echo is a voice-activated speaker that connects wirelessly to the internet and Bluetooth devices. Already the voice-activation sets this product apart from other Bluetooth speakers. All too often, connecting a speaker to Bluetooth isn’t as easy as you’d like, especially if there are multiple devices in-range.
Being able to tell the speaker what to connect to rather than fumbling with buttons would be very convenient. However, the Amazon Echo is more than just a Bluetooth speaker. Amazon wants it to be a new way for people to interface with their services. Unlike switching from buttons and menus to touchscreens, voice-control is actually less intuitive. Or it would be, if the speaker isn’t “smart.”
The Alexa Awakening
Whether you are talking about Smartphones or Smart Kitchens, all that really means is whatever the device is has a “computer” inside of it that is running some sort of operating system. That’s what “Alexa,” the digital assistant that comes with the Amazon Echo, is.
In order for the voice-activation feature to work the way they wanted it to, they needed to develop an artificial intelligence that understood people. To use technology like that just handle the functions of a speaker would be a waste. It would be like inventing an iPhone and just using it as a digital picture frame. What Alexa is capable of, especially after being exposed to the (likely) hundreds of thousands of Amazon Echo users, is limitless. In ten years, maybe less, you will be able to have full conversations with an AI.
And don’t worry, this sort of artificial intelligence is the kind you see in the movies or read about in books. It’s not a super-intelligence, but simply a program that learns from its users and adapts to better serve them. There is no danger of Alexa becoming sentient like Ultron or Skynet. But, be polite to her just in case.
A Bit About Amazon's ‘Competition’
In these reviews, we always show you examples of similar products to better help you weigh your options. In this case, it’s a bit more complicated because we’re dealing with essentially two products. There is the Amazon Echo, a smart speaker, and the built-in digital assistant that helps control it. Behind Alexa, there are the Amazon and third-party services you can use. The product is the speaker, but the product’s value is greatly diminished without the digital assistant. So, in this case, we’re going to show you alternatives to the Echo, but ones that still are compatible with Alexa.
Both Apple and Google are taking Amazon on directly in this marketplace, with HomePod and Google Home, respectively. Some services are interchangeable with Amazon and others are limited to only Apple- or Google-sanctioned options. Again, while you can find a digital assistant (Siri and ‘Ok Google’) paired with a smart-speaker, there are a lot of features, services, and problems to contend with. Look for stories here that explain them in greater detail.
What are the Best Uses for the Amazon Echo?
Unlike other gadgets, the Amazon Echo is designed to be the easiest thing you use in your day. In theory, you simply speak your instructions to it, and it complies. At its best, it is just that easy. Want to know the time? Just ask Alexa. Want to hear free, daily news briefs? Alexa can play those for you. Want to make a(n Amazon) shopping list? Alexa keeps a running list of items, which you can add to as you notice things you need. Depending on what third-party services you use or if you have subscriptions Amazon services, you will find other ways to use it. As the technology develops expect more and more ways to interact with the technology, some you may never have even expected.
Features & Benefits of the Amazon Echo
Below we will look at the many different ways you can use this product and the services attached to it. Naturally, all this assumes two things. First, the speaker is not portable and has no internal battery. Make sure that you have a place to plug it in in the room where you wish to use it. Second, the Amazon Echo requires a wireless internet connection. Without one, the Echo is essentially a novelty.
The Amazon Echo has four buttons on the top. Two are for volume control, though your voice can do that. One is to mute the microphones in the device, also something your voice can do. Though, you will need the button to undo it. Finally, the fourth button activates the device or sets it up in a new location. However, this product is designed to be spoken to. Just like the first smartphones put some people off because of their lack of tactile buttons, trusting just your voice can be a little strange. Still, simply by saying the wake-up word – “Alexa” – you can give it a command.
Because it needs to hear your voice, the Amazon Echo comes equipped with seven microphones. So, if you choose to use it as a speaker phone, it will sound better for the person on the other end than usual speakerphones. This is another technology that should be beloved, but no one’s gotten it quite right. Still, Amazon is going for it. However the experience is often better for the person on the other end of the call.
2. A Digital Assistant
One thing that Amazon hopes will help people get used to speaking at their tech rather than manually interfacing with it is that their tech talks back. Alexa is more than just a voice in a speaker, though. You can ask Alexa questions, and in many cases, she responds cogently. Other times, she just reads the first result of an internet search or a Wikipedia entry. You can use Alexa to manage your calendar, read emails, and order products both from Amazon or services like GrubHub and Uber. It also pairs with other smart technology, so you can tell her to start your coffee maker or tell you what is in your fridge.
Their voice-recognition technology works well, but it’s Alexa’s ability to engage with users that will help it catch on in a big way. Now that Amazon has introduced the Alexa app, which works to ingratiate the Alexa service into your life even further. In fact, the Alexa app will likely lead to more people getting Echoes, than getting an Echo would inspire them to download the app.
3. A Solo Sound System (and DJ, Maybe)
Amazon would like you to believe that the Echo is the only speaker you’ll need for full, rich sound when you listen to music. Truth be told, for its size, this speaker is remarkably powerful. The sound itself can be a little tinny or flat, which is good for spoken words but not so much for music.
Still, it’s great for casual listening while doing the dishes or in the bathroom while brushing your teeth. If you really want an audiophile experience the internal speaker alone won’t cut it. Of course, the Amazon Echo can connect to external speakers via either Bluetooth or an audio cable. They are doing amazing things with speakers today. You can probably find a (not smart) Bluetooth portable speaker for less than a hundred dollars that sounds better than your car’s factory audio system.
Still, the advantage of the Amazon Echo is not in the power of its tweeters and woofers. When paired with an Amazon Prime music subscription, the Echo is a virtual D.J. Thanks to Amazon’s extensive streaming library, you can ask it to play almost any song and it will. You can ask it to play specific genres or songs from a certain period of time, too. If you only know certain lyrics, you can ask Alexa to play the song “with” followed by those lyrics. She is pretty easy to stump, but this is a feature that will likely get better with time and deep learning. If you love music, but hate setting up digital libraries or playlists, Amazon Echo with music streaming is what you’ve always wanted.
4. Third-Party Services
Along with Amazon services, you can access other services via the Echo. These aren’t apps, at least not like we use them on our phones. These are “skills” that Alexa learns in order to do specific tasks. For example, you can enable skills that allow Alexa to play music through services like Pandora or Spotify. Naturally, Amazon streaming services are defaults, but you can train her to use Spotify as your main streaming app and Pandora as your app for music stations. You can order pizza, at least if there is a participating restaurant like Domino’s near you.
There are dozens of other skills, such as having Alexa call you an Uber or Lyft. There are also games, jokes, workout guides, and Alexa can even help you tune your guitar. Expect more of these skills to be developed as the tech becomes more popular.
What People Are Saying About the Amazon Echo
Much of the reviews for the Amazon Echo are really reviews for the Alexa services and skills. People are often surprised or appreciate how well she listens and responds. Almost three-quarters of the reviews of the Amazon Echo are five stars, with four-star reviews earning a full half of the remainder. People especially love asking Alexa questions, like the operating hours of local businesses, saving them an internet search. Also, while many still complain about the audio, a number of folks love the sound after the firmware received an update last fall. Others like how easy this is for older folks to use, because of how well it understands commands.
Other than those disappointed in the speaker’s sound quality, the majority of complaints seem to be about security concerns. People worry that these devices listening to them all the time may be giving Amazon too much personal information. This concern is a legitimate one, and Amazon needs to be transparent about how it uses that data. However, some worry not about Amazon but rather hackers or other bad actors. Unless you are privy to government or corporate secrets, however, chances are you’re safe. Hacking these devices would be incredibly difficult and costly, so it is unlikely people would be randomly targeted. Still, anything that connects to the internet, in theory, can be hacked.
Alternatives to the Amazon Echo to Consider
Again, there are alternatives to the Alexa services out there, most notably Apple’s HomePod and Google Home. The below products, however, are all Alexa-enabled devices. These are alternatives to the Echo as a speaker and Alexa services.
1. Amazon Echo Dot
The Echo Dot is essentially the top part of the Amazon Echo. It does have a speaker, but one only suitable for close quarters. The Dot links up with other speakers via Bluetooth and has the same seven-microphone interface as its taller sibling. It can do anything the Echo could do, it’s just missing the speaker. Just be sure when you place it that nothing is in its way that could interfere with the microphones. However, because it’s a smaller device the Echo Dot is less conspicuous out in the open. If you are just interested in the Alexa services and not so much the speaker function, this may be the device for you.
The Echo Show is a newer device that adds a video screen, expanding how you can use both the device and Alexa services. There are two, powerful speakers in the base, and when streaming with Amazon Music you can even see the lyrics on the screen. Now, Alexa can show you videos or pictures with news briefings. And you can use the device to view the feed from a baby monitor or security camera. You can also use the devices like a video phone, though it’s possible that it will soon have functionality for services like Skype or Oovoo. If not having a screen was the thing holding you back from getting an Alexa device, the Echo Show is what you’ve been waiting for.
Thus far, the only Alexa devices are those produced by Amazon itself. There is the first generation Echo and then another speaker known as the Echo Tap. However, if you find the speakers in all of them lacking, the Sonos line of speakers with Alexa-enabled voice control is the companion gear you need. These speakers are top-of-the-line and work in concert with each other and Alexa devices. Still, paired with something like an Echo Dot, these speakers are a great way to get even greater coverage in your house for Alexa services.
The Amazon Echo, second generation, is still a solid choice for a smart speaker and still will be even after the next generation is released.
The third generation Amazon Echo will likely have some cosmetic and quality of life bells and whistles. The real product here, Alexa, is constantly being updated and improved. It may even be worth the upgrade (and, don’t worry, we’ll tell you). However, the Amazon Echo is still a great device that works as a gateway to Alexa services. It sounds great for podcasts, casual music listening, and phone calls in a quiet area. If you have one in your home, chances are you’ll find that you use it more than you even think you will. Of course, that also depends on how much you use Amazon services. While the Echo may not ultimately win the small-but-powerful speaker war, Alexa seems poised to be the standard-bearer for the voice-activated assistant.
There are big things ahead for Amazon, Alexa, and competitors hoping to break into this arena of tech. As it improves and becomes more prevalent, voice-activated devices and services may become our primary interface with the devices around us. Interestingly, it’s a lot like the way the computer works on Star Trek. And, the Echo Show actually looks a little like the computer monitors they used on the original series. This is appropriate, because this technology makes you feel like you are living in the future.
What do you think? Have you used an Amazon Echo or Alexa-enabled device? Did you like it? Would you want one? Tell us in the comments below. Don’t forget to share the article on social media, so your friends can get in on the conversation.
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