What is the Amazon Echo?
The Amazon Echo is a smart Bluetooth speaker, which means that it not only plays music, but it can 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.). You can get the device in black or white.
The Echo is 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 all the models of the Amazon Fire TV streaming media player (box and stick, 1st and 2nd generation) can also work with Alexa now, although they don’t support as many of Alexa’s functions as the Echo. For example, you can’t currently set timers or alarms with the Fire TV. (More capabilities may be added in the future.)
What’s the difference between the Amazon Echo, the Echo Dot, and the Amazon Tap?
In early 2016, Amazon introduced two additional variations of the Echo.
- The Echo Dot is about a quarter of the height of the Echo because it has a much smaller speaker, which is fine for getting basic information. If you want to play music on it, you’d be better off to connect the Dot to a better speaker either with a cable or via Bluetooth, with the bonus of adding Alexa’s capabilities to that speaker. NOTE: In September 2016, Amazon introduced the second generation of the Echo Dot. While it has a more powerful processor and a few cosmetic differences from the earlier model (smaller, lighter, etc.), the biggest difference is a price drop from $90 to $50. Additionally, they’re offering a Buy 5, Get 1 Free option for the Dot, as well as a special bundle with an Echo Dot and Bose SoundLink Mini II for $35 off the price of buying them separately. (I don’t know if or when these deals may expire.)
Or if you do need a speaker, you can also go the non-traditional route as well…
- The Amazon Tap, which does have a speaker, is a little smaller than the Echo, and is battery-powered, making it easier to move around than the original.
However, because it’s not plugged in, it is not “always on” so you can’t talk to it until you tap a button on it (hence the name).In February 2017, Amazon began rolling out a software update to the Tap so that you can now use it with your voice, making it an actual portable Echo. Check out this Amazon Help article to learn how to update the software on your Alexa devices. Once you have the update, you’ll need to turn the hands-free feature on in the Alexa app.
What about the Echo Show and the Echo Look?
In the spring of 2017, Amazon added two new devices to the Echo family.
- The Echo Show has all the features of the Echo plus a touchscreen to add visual features to the device. For example, instead of just listening to your news briefings and weather reports, you can now see them on the screen. You can also watch YouTube videos, read lyrics to songs playing through Amazon Music, check your shopping and to-do lists and monitor what’s happening inside and outside your house when using Alexa-compatible smart home cameras.
- The Echo Look bills itself as a “hands-free camera and style assistant” that can help you find your best look. I’ll be honest: As someone who’s not exactly known for her sense of style (!), I have a harder time wrapping my head around how one would really use this device, although given that you currently need an invitation to purchase the Look, I’m guessing it might be a good one for that class of people referred to as “Instagram stars.” It includes a basic speaker for getting news flashes, etc., but not one that is designed for playing high-quality music.
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
- 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
UPDATE: On October 12, 2016, the launched their Amazon Music Unlimited service, which lets you stream tens of millions of songs for a monthly subscription fee, with discounted pricing for Amazon Prime members and Echo owners.
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.
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 the Echo, Echo Dot, and Echo Show to make hands-free calls and leave voice messages for people in the United States who also own one of those devices.
Control Home Automation Devices
The Echo supports 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.
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 Echo’s 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:
- 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 look, it only took me 13 months to do it! 🙂
If not for those reasons, I probably would never buy an Echo for myself. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not an audiophile and I have several other ways to listen to music already. I don’t really use any of its other features (I started a shopping list once and put a few items on it and then never added anything else to it and didn’t check it when I was actually shopping), I don’t own any home automation devices (yet) and I’m on my laptop most of the day so I can get news, weather, and other info pretty easily as is. So I’m definitely not representative of the Echo’s target audience.
Having said that, it is definitely a convenient way to play music and I can easily move it to other rooms where I don’t have another player. (I’m also not one to carry my phone around with me everywhere or keep headphones on all the time.) I also like the fact that when I am playing music, I can operate the controls with my voice without having to look for a remote. And, as I mentioned before, I do use it to play podcasts and I have also used the timer function fairly often—I’m less likely to miss it going off than my oven timer!
So while I don’t take advantage of everything the Echo has to offer, I think it does what it does very well. If you’re the type of person who would enjoy all the extra features it provides or you just think the music quality it delivers is good for its price, then this could be a great product for you.
As for the Dot and Tap, the former really adds a whole new level of convenience since you can affordably add them to multiple locations and the latter is great for taking your music on the go, especially now that it supports voice activation as well.
Ready to Buy?
NOTE: You need to request an invitation to purchase the Echo Look.
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 Apple or Google devices 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!
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