Having been available in the US for nearly 2 years, the Amazon Echo recently launched in the UK. The device itself attempts to improve on the functionality of assistants from Siri and Cortana, and package it into something that could almost be regarded as a domestic appliance.
As is the norm these days, the box contains very little. Little more than the device, a power adaptor (built into the plug itself, so allow extra space when plugging it in) and a couple of sheets to get you started with talking to the Echo itself and a pointer to installing the app on the your smartphone (in my case, an iPhone) to allow you to connect the Echo to Wi-Fi and provide credentials for Amazon and services such as Spotify.
In use, the Echo is as straightforward as the commercials would have you believe. From any part of my kitchen, or even from another room I was able to trigger the blue circle of attentiveness on top of the black cylinder by calling out “Alexa!” and then an instruction. The Echo had no problem hearing my voice, or that of my wife. It does have difficulty understanding my 4 year old daughter, which is no bad thing after the 20th utterance of “Alexa! Tell me a joke…”
Like all the other AI assistants, the Echo needs a certain sentence structure in order to understand instructions. In my use of it so far, I would say it seems to be the most intelligent (much more so than Siri, and superior to Google and Cortana), with context generally being understood. However, it is hard not to slip into a mode of addressing the device as though one is speaking to the village idiot. Which, in a way, one is.
Getting accustomed to issuing instructions in an Alexa-friendly way soon becomes second nature, and it wasn’t long before talking to empty space seemed perfectly normal.
Functionality-wise, the Echo can create to-do lists, answer basic questions, play music, set timers and so on. As a speaker, it has plenty of volume and good bass. It stands up well to other Bluetooth speakers I have tried, filling a room with clear, undistorted sound. However, it is the third party applications that make this an intriguing device.
One of the functions that attracted me to the Echo was the support for third party services, in this case TuneIn and Spotify. This means that I would not be trapped in the walled garden of my Amazon Prime music. This integration is well implemented, although unless one sets Spotify to be default, you do have to include the service name in your instruction. For example: “Alexa! Play Party playlist from Spotify”.
It is possible to extend the functionality of the Echo by adding more Skills, as Amazon calls them, using either the app installed on your smartphone or via a management web page accessed using your Amazon account. It might be easiest to think of these as apps, and a selection now exist of varying degrees of usefulness (much like any new app store.)
I selected two new Skills, one for the London underground and the other for National Rail. Adding the Skills is simply a matter of enabling them. Once enabled, I was able to ask Alexa for information in the current tube service and perform rail enquiries (as in the video.) However, you are very much at the mercy of the Skill developers – as you will hear, using the Rail Skill felt a little like an automated telephone service.
That aside, the potential for extending the abilities of the Echo through these add-ins is huge, and I am excited to see how they develop.
As a Bluetooth speaker, the Echo does an admirable job and, while pricey, I wouldn’t be disappointed with it just as that. However, add in an assistant that is already as good as, if not superior to many of the phone-based alternatives out there and it becomes an intriguing proposition. Sure, some of the third party applications need work, but this really does feel it may be the future.