I first reviewed the Amazon Echo when it arrived in the UK in 2016 and was impressed. My spouse was less so. Have a year of app updates and some new hardware helped or hindered Alexa’s advance into the home?
The 2017 Amazon Echo is shorter and squatter than it’s elder sibling, and where the original took the line of “any colour and finish you like so long as its black or white plastic”, Amazon now offer the Echo in a variety of finishes, from fabric through plastics and wood effect. This is may be in response to the look of Apple’s delayed Homepod or the Google Home, but is welcome nonetheless.
Unfortunately, the styling gurus giveth and the styling gurus taketh away, and gone is the rotating dial on top of the Echo to control the volume, replaced by the push buttons found on the smaller Echo Dot which, while functional, are not as aesthetically pleasing.
Power comes in at the back of the Echo (annoyingly not using a USB connector) along with a 3.5mm jack to allow the Echo’s speaker to be bypassed. Since there is no way of controlling this bypass, if you plan to use it then it would probably be better to consider the smaller and cheaper Echo Dot.
The original Echo was a competent, if uninspiring speaker, and the new 2017 editions continues this trend for good or bad. With a 2.5-inch woofer and 0.6-inch tweeter courtesy of Dolby, one should not expect great things and if you are an audiophile, then it might be worth spending considerably more on some of the new Alexa-aware Sonos speakers or considering the Echo’s big brother, the Echo Plus. However, the Echo does a workman-like job of filling a room with sound with distortion only really becoming apparent when the volume becomes excessive.
One audio area that has seen notable improvement are the microphones. The seven microphones are considerably better at picking up my voice and correctly identifying commands than those of an original Echo or Echo Dot in the same location. This undoubtedly bodes well for the gradual roll-out of voice identification over the Echo range.
The ease of setup is unchanged. Once the Alexa App has been installed on a recent IOS or Android device, it is a simple matter of taking the Echo speaker out of its box, plugging in and adding it on the app. The app contains plenty of help for connecting the Echo to Wi-Fi and users should expect little or no issues.
The Echo is all about Amazon’s digital assistant, Alexa. ‘She’ has certainly polarised opinions in my household, with me and my five-year-old daughter quite happy to chatter away at Amazon’s cloud, while others in the house refuse to have anything to do with ‘her’. Since the Alexa service runs on Amazon’s cloud servers, the hardware bump offers little in terms of new functionality. However, it is worth running through the updates over the last year.
Firstly, the range of skills continues to grow at an impressive rate providing a wealth of services, albeit often with a slightly stilted way of triggering them. It remains important to look at the sample vocabulary for any new tasks.
Calling and Messaging is effective, with hands-free calling using contacts particularly impressive (assuming your target is also an Alexa user, either through a device or the Alexa App). Homes with more than one Echo can also make use of the Drop In feature to turn those devices into intercoms and avoid the hoarseness caused by bellowing up and down stairs.
The Alexa App is also much better at configuring supported smart devices, with Routines added to chain a number of smart home functions together (for example, “Alexa, I’m home” would turn on the downstairs lights and turn up the thermostat).
Finally, it is also possible to have one Echo device control another in the home – for example, being in the kitchen and asking for music in the living room.
While many of the functions above are possible with third party tools and hardware (for example IFTTT or Sonos), it is good to see these smart home functions appear in a more mainstream application in a way that users less keen on tinkering with scripts, settings and cabling, will find simple to use.
It was always going to be difficult to follow the original Echo, and Amazon have mostly done a good job. The device itself is now more aesthetically pleasing with many more options for personalisation, and the hardware has benefitted from subtle improvements. The loss of the volume dial is the only real negative in the mix. Alexa continues to improve and Echo devices old and new will benefit. Finally, at the currently price point (£69 today, but normally nearer £89) the Echo is a highly tempting proposition with very little competition for the smart home tech buyer.