First Impressions – Echo Smart Speaker (from Amazon)
Amazon is usually not shy about releasing new products. Just opening up the home page of amazon.com will usually point you right at whatever new thing the company is pushing to the market. It’s the holiday season so the Kindle Fire tablets are front and center, which is not a surprise. But there’s a new device that Amazon is releasing very quietly. It’s a Bluetooth speaker called the Echo, and it’s like nothing you’ve seen before.
Thanks to a generous co-worker I am getting to test out this new device over the holiday season. Currently the speaker is only available via invitation (which you can request here). And it’s only for Amazon Prime members at the moment too, at the cost of $100 (it will be $200 when it releases to the general public). Based on my first couple of weeks with the Echo, I’ve already got my invitation request in! So what is the Echo exactly?
It’s a Bluetooth Speaker
There are tons of Bluetooth speakers on the market; everything from the cheap things you can get at Wal-Mart or Target, to the higher end (while still consumer focused) devices like the Jambox from Jawbone. You can always drop a ton of coin on the offerings from Bose, but that’s not what the majority of casual music listeners are looking for in a Bluetooth speaker. The Bluetooth speaker I’ve had for a while is the Jam Wireless Speaker (which you can pick up for $30). It’s a decent speaker but it has to be charged, and has limited bluetooth range. So I’ve been pretty sour on Bluetooth speakers in general. But the Echo is a powered speaker (meaning it’s plugged into the wall all the time). So no issues with power drain. So far the Bluetooth range to my phone has been good too. No dropped connections at this point. But Echo is so much more than just a Bluetooth speaker.
It’s a Digital Assistant
Think Siri. Think Google Now. If you’re a Windows user, think Cortana. These are all digital assistants. They come in all high-end smartphones, standard these days, and in plenty of tablet computers as well. They are tools that connect you to the Internet, for news updates, weather reports, calendar appointments, Wikipedia searches, that sort of thing. I have an iPhone and rarely use Siri, but I do use Google Now quite a bit. Especially for those “what sushi bars are nearby” kind of questions. The Echo speaker has a digital assistant built into it, and her name is “Alexa”.
All you have to do is say the name “Alexa” and the speaker comes to life (via a spinning blue circle on the top) and begins listening for your questions. Simple things like “what time is it” and “will it rain tomorrow” are child’s play for her. Using the WIFI element built into the speaker, Alexa can search Wikipedia with the best of them. Answering the question tech companies seems to always think we care the most about, you know it, “how tall is Mount Everest?” It’s really important that we all know this. And Alexa will make sure we stay informed. On that topic, you can ask “Alexa, give me my news update” and she will connect to either NPR or BBC radio to provide a quick news briefing just for you. There are some tailoring aspects that I haven’t had time to explore, but I’m excited to learn more!
With the Echo companion app installed on your smartphone or tablet, you can have Alexa save things to a “to do” list or a “shopping list”, just by saying “Alexa add milk to my shopping list”. That’s pretty handy. Now you don’t need to pick up a phone or tablet to have a digital assistant ready to take care of you. Alexa is still a bit of a beta device though, so she can’t answer everything, so be warned. “Alexa what movies are playing near me?” She hasn’t got a clue. But will gladly search BING for you.
One last note about music listening with the Echo. Prime members have access to “Prime Music” and that is the main resource Alexa uses when you ask for a genre or artist. Don’t be surprised that the selection is limited. Alexa can also search for any music you’ve purchased on amazon.com. The other two music resources, as of now, are “I Heart Radio” and “TuneIn Radio“. Both give you plenty of options for whatever genre of tunes you’re in the mood for.
It’s Always Listening
Here’s the coolest thing about the Echo speaker. There are microphones lining the top circle of the device (where the pretty blue light shows up when active). And they are long-range mics, so even if you are across the room, the speaker can hear you and respond. “Alexa, play some Christmas music” and before you know it, chestnuts are roasting by that open fire! Do you want more volume, just say “Alexa volume up” or “Alexa volume 5”. Beware of going over Volume 7 though. I made the mistake of saying volume 10 to her (the highest setting) and the music was so loud the mics couldn’t hear me. Pretty funny scene though as I shouted for Alexa to turn the music down. Volume can be controlled via an included remote control too, but you won’t want to use it.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
The Echo Smart speaker has a ton of potential. Tech writers are already speculating about what this new technology could mean for the future of home tech. Imagine coming home and saying “Alexa lights on and play some 80s hair bands” and it’s done (though darker lights might be a better choice if you’re planning to jam to Motley Crue). The possibilities go beyond lighting and sweet tunes though. Digital Assistants could control your thermostat (like the Nest does now), unlock your doors, open your garage, start your oven, or brew your morning coffee. We are only limited by our imagination! And Echo, along with Alexa is the first step into a pretty cool world.
To get an idea of what this device can do, check out Amazon’s official commercial here.
And for a slightly more “colorful” commercial, check out this parody.