- The Amazon Echo family is a line of Alexa-enabled smart speakers that use voice commands to play music, answer questions, perform tasks, make calls, control home automation devices, and more.
- The Echo and Echo Plus have music-quality speakers, with the Plus also having a built-in smart home hub. The Echo Dot can respond to questions but is normally connected to an external speaker or headphones to play music. The Echo Spot has a 2.5″ video screen and the Echo Show has a 7″ screen as well as the highest quality speakers of them all.
- To set up the devices, simply plug them in and follow the verbal instructions to connect them to the Internet using the Alexa mobile app or website.
What is the Amazon Echo Family?
The Amazon Echo family is a line of smart Bluetooth speakers, which means that they not only play music, but they can also do a whole bunch of other things like search for and deliver information from the Internet, perform tasks to help you be more productive, and control compatible home automation products (lights, thermostats, etc.).
The devices are powered by Amazon’s cloud-based Alexa software that lets you operate it by voice.
Note: It can be easy to think of the Echo and Alexa as the same thing, especially because the Echo was the first Amazon device to use the software. However, Alexa is also built into Amazon’s Fire TV streaming media players and Fire tablets, as well as the Alexa app that can be used to control all those as well as third-party products with your voice.
Current products in the Echo family
Here are the main differences between the various models currently available.
The Echo is Amazon’s original smart speaker, but it was redesigned in 2017 to be a little shorter than the first generation and has a variety of finishes to choose from. It has its own music-quality speaker.
The Dot is about a third of the height of the Echo and comes in black or white. It has a built-in speaker so that it can respond to questions but for playing music or other audio where quality is important, you can connect it to an external speaker or headphones via cable or Bluetooth.
The Echo Plus is closer to the size of the original Echo, comes in black, silver, or white, and has a built-in ZigBee hub for controlling compatible smart home products like outlets, lights, and door locks.
The Spot is also new this year. A small, rounded device, the Echo Spot has a 2.5″ screen for making video calls, monitoring video feeds, and more. Its speaker is better than the Dot’s but not as good as the other Echo models.
The Show is rectangular with a 7″ screen and dual 2″ speakers. Note: Unlike the other models, the Show does not have an audio cable port, so you can only connect it to external speakers via Bluetooth.
There are two other related products as well that Amazon doesn’t include as part of the main family.
The Look is described as a “hands-free camera and style assistant,” and seems targeted primarily at social media influencers, which may explain why you need an invitation to purchase it.
The Tap has always been the odd man out of the Echo family and Amazon doesn’t even include it on its Echo pages. However, it performs a similar function with its main differentiator being its portability because it’s smaller than the full-sized Echos and has a battery so you don’t have to keep it plugged in. (The Echo Dot now has a battery-powered sleeve, sold separately, that makes it more portable.) I’m not entirely sure what Amazon’s plan is for this product but at the time of writing, it’s still available.
For the rest of this post, I’m going to use “Echo” to refer to all these devices unless otherwise specified.
What can you do with an Amazon Echo?
The Echo streams music from a variety of sources, including:
- Your personal Amazon Music library from your Bluetooth-enabled devices or streaming from the Amazon cloud player
- Amazon Music Unlimited, Amazon’s cloud-based service that lets you stream tens of millions of songs for a monthly subscription fee, with discounted pricing for Amazon Prime members and Echo owners.
- The Amazon Prime Music library, which includes millions of songs available for free for Amazon Prime members
- Third-party streaming services: Spotify Premium, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn
To operate the Echo devices with Alexa, you simply say the commands within its listening range. You can ask it to play music from a particular artist through a particular service and control its Play/Pause, Shuffle, Repeat, and Volume functions. All the models except the Spot also support Multi-Room Music, so you can play music on multiple devices simultaneously.
The Echo can also play non-music audio sources including Audible books and any audio content from Bluetooth-enabled mobile devices. For example, although the Echo doesn’t have its own podcast service, there are a few options for listening to them on it. This T4L post has additional details about how to do that:
In addition to speaking directly to the device, you can also purchase an optional voice remote to control it for when you’re too far away or the room is too noisy for the Echo to hear you. (NOTE: The remote doesn’t work with the Tap.) And you can perform some actions through the Alexa mobile app, which is available for Fire OS, Android, and iOS, or web browser interface.
Because Alexa is connected to the Internet, you can use it to search for and deliver information such as current time, weather, news, sports scores, local business info, traffic conditions, and answers to questions (e.g. “Who plays Han Solo?”). Unfortunately, it uses Bing as its search engine, so it can get stumped quite a bit. (Reeeaaally wish Amazon and Google would get over their mutual hatred of the other…)
You can also use the Echo to set timers and alarms, check your Google calendar’s schedule, and create shopping and to-do lists.
Make Calls and Leave Messages
You can use most of the devices (not Tap or Look) to make no-cost, hands-free calls to almost any phone number in the United States, Canada, or Mexico and you can call and leave voice messages for people who also have one of those devices or have the Alexa mobile app.
There’s also the Echo Connect adapter that you can use to make hands-free calls from your own landline.
Control Home Automation Devices
All Alexa-enabled devices support a number of home automation systems (WeMo, Philips Hue, SmartThings, Insteon, Wink) so you can control things like lights, fans, and space heaters with your voice. In addition, the Echo Plus has its own built-in ZigBee hub for controlling products that work with that platform.
Note: I’ve used Alexa to control one outlet with my voice, and it works great, but I have no experience with smart home hubs, so can’t say much about its value at this point.
The Echo includes an incredibly random selection of apps and games, which they call Skills. Some examples are: 7-Minute Workout, Bitcoin Rate, DC Metro, Demotivate Me (!), Famous Quotes, Guitar Tuner, Knock Knock Jokes… I did mention they were random, right? 🙂
Because all these features are managed through the Alexa software, as Amazon develops new apps and features, you can start using them immediately. (NOTE: Some Skills require accounts with third-party services.) They’re constantly adding new Skills—I get an email every week with a list of new ones. Some that have been added since I originally wrote this post: The Bartender, which will give you cocktail recipes; August Smart Lock, so you can lock your doors by voice; and TrackR app to help you find your phone (TrackR device not required).
You can also set up separate profiles for different members of your household so each person can access their own content and apps.
So is there anything NOT to love about the Amazon Echo?
Well, since nobody’s perfect, there are a few things:
- Other than the Multi-Room Music feature, the devices all operate independently, which means if I set a timer on my Dot in the kitchen, I can’t get alerted through my Echo in the living room.
- While Alexa understands what I’m saying most of the time, I have gotten some “interesting” results based on what it thought I was saying. 🙂
- Every time you make an Alexa request, it gets recorded to the Amazon cloud and to the Alexa app on your mobile device and in your web browser. It’s actually relatively easy to remove your request history from the cloud, but not so easy to remove it from your phone, tablet, or computer—you have to delete each entry separately.
- When you’re making requests to Alexa, the Echo listens to your voice while you’re speaking and then stops listening almost immediately, As a result, you have to constantly wake it up again to do multiple things in a row. However, you can combine commands so, for example, I can ask it to play a playlist at a certain volume and shuffle the songs all in one command. But I still wish it would stay active for a longer period of time because not all commands can be combined into one.
My Two Cents
NOTE: I have used the Echo, Echo Dot, and Amazon Tap, but not the Echo Show or Echo Look.
First I have to say that I am so not an audiophile, so I am completely unqualified to comment on the quality of the sound that comes out of the Echo. It seems perfectly fine to me but it would have to be pretty bad for me to even notice a problem. So to better understand the quality it delivers, your best bet is to check out the tech specs and read reviews from customers that know (and care) more about these things.
Next, I bought the Echo shortly after it was introduced back in November 2014. I was part of an early group that was offered the opportunity to buy it for $99 (I don’t remember why exactly… maybe because I had bought a Fire TV?) and I took advantage of the deal because I figured I could write about it here—and it only took me 13 months to do it! 🙂
It also took me a while to use it much at all, but there are a few things I do with it regularly, including setting timers, turning my living room lamp on and off (especially helpful if I need to go to the kitchen in the middle of the night) and my favourite thing—listening to the Pod Save America podcast through my phone’s Pocket Casts app! 🙂
And while I don’t take advantage of everything the Echo has to offer, I think it does what it does very well.
Ready to Buy?
NOTE: You need to request an invitation to purchase the Echo Look.
Also available at:
Note: The instructions below are from a previous generation of the Echo with an earlier version of the software. I will be updating it as soon as I can but, in the meantime, the basic steps should be the same even.
Setting up the Amazon Echo is extremely simple. When you plug it in, the light ring at the top of the player will turn blue and about a minute later it will turn orange. At that point, it’s ready to be connected to the Internet.
Then you go to Settings > Set Up New Device and follow the on-screen directions.
Basically, you’ll connect your computer or mobile device to the Echo and then connect the Echo to your Wi-Fi network. Note that during the brief time your computer/phone/tablet is connected to the Echo, it will not be connected to the Internet.
Using the Echo
Whether you want to play music, set a timer, find out last night’s hockey scores, or perform any of the other functions the Echo can do, you start by saying the wake-up word. By default it’s “Alexa,” but you can change it to “Amazon,” “Echo,” or “Computer” in the settings. (For the life of me, I can’t figure out why you can’t create your own wake-up word. But as far as I can tell, you can’t do that with Siri or OK Google either…)
As soon as you say the wake-up word, the light ring on the player will turn blue. As long as it’s lit, it will accept commands from you. You can pretty much use natural language, e.g. “Alexa, play Top Playlist”, “Alexa, louder”, “Alexa, add lettuce and cheese to my shopping list”, “Alexa, what time is it?” etc.
Note: The app and browser page have a menu option for Things to Try to give you more examples of commands/requests that you can use.
Managing Your Request History
When you make a request to Alexa, the results will appear as cards on the Home screen of the browser interface and mobile apps.
A voice recording of your command will also appear in the history settings and will be sent to the Amazon Cloud. If it got the words wrong, you can mark that so that Alexa will learn your voice and become more accurate over time.
You can delete individual cards and voice recordings through the Alexa interface. If you want to delete all voice recordings, go to the Manage Your Content and Devices page on Amazon and select Manage Voice Recordings them from the Echo listing.
Congratulations… You’re now ready to start using your Amazon Echo!
You may also be interested in: