The smart speaker is quickly becoming a big hit
Imagine Steve Jobs walking out onto the stage in January of 2007, holding up the never-before-seen iPhone, and saying, “It’s a phone!” Of course, he didn’t do that. Instead, Jobs boasted of launching three new products at once: a wide-screen iPod with touch controls, a mobile phone, and an Internet communications device. Since then, the iPhone has become so much more.
Likewise, the Amazon Echo isn’t just a speaker. It’s early days, so I won’t compare the potential of the voice-controlled device to the iPhone. But the Echo, backed by an artificial intelligence platform named Alexa, is much more than just another Bluetooth speaker. With Alexa’s smarts, the device is also a personal assistant, a smart home controller and beyond.
Whether you’ve already got an Echo or you’re considering a purchase, this in-depth guide will show you how to get the most out of this year’s surprise tech hit.
Out of the box, the Amazon Echo isn’t a particularly astonishing device. It’s about the size of two Campbell’s Chunky soup cans stacked atop each other. The Echo comes with a power plug and…that’s about it. Originally, the device also included a remote control with a microphone, but recent Echo shipments have lacked the accessory. Don’t sweat the loss — the Echo can hear you great even if you’re in the next room over, as long as you raise your voice.
Setup is as easy as any connected device I’ve ever configured. Simply plug in the speaker, download and open the Amazon Alexa app, and follow its prompts. Though it’s a Bluetooth speaker, Echo connects to your home’s Wi-Fi network to process voice commands over the Internet. This is also handy because if you listen to music or other audio using one of the speaker’s embedded apps (or what Amazon calls “skills”), the sound won’t cut out if your phone goes out of range.
The Echo’s accompanying app also requires you to log in via your Amazon user account. This links your speaker to all sorts of things you’ve bought through the years from the online retailer. For instance, my Amazon Echo can access music and Kindle e-books I bought years ago — more on that later.
In addition, you can use the app to change the Echo’s settings. There are two options in particular you’ll want to play with. The first is the speaker’s “wake word.” This is the term that the speaker is listening to hear. Once it hears the wake word, the Echo will interpret whatever follows as a command. The speaker’s default wake word is “Alexa,” as in the name of its voice-activated assistant. But if you know an Alexa or aren’t a fan of anthropomorphizing your tech, you can change it to “Echo” or “Amazon.” Unfortunately, you cannot use whatever word suits you, at least not yet.
The second key option for the Echo is enabling a wake sound. This confirmation tone is played after the speaker hears the wake word, helping you see that the Echo is listening. Whether you turn the wake sound on or off, a ring of blue light around the speaker’s top glows when the wake word is detected as well.
Together, the light ring and wake sound serve as a warning: The Echo is (almost) always listening. There is a “microphone off” button on the top of the speaker to make the device go deaf, but otherwise The Echo is constantly on alert for its wake word. Once it hears that term, it records the chunk of audio immediately following. These recordings are streamed over the web to Amazon, where they are instantly analyzed and turned into commands on the Echo, similar to how voice assistants from Apple, Google, and Microsoft work.
Through the Amazon Alexa app, users can see and hear a history of their commands. They can even be deleted, though you may not want to do that. The more the Echo hears, the better it gets at interpreting voice patterns and idiosyncrasies.
Meet Alexa, the newest virtual personal assistant
Voice-activated personal assistant technology might not be new, but Amazon’s approach differs from the competition. While Apple, Google, and Microsoft use their voice assistants to lock users into their various ecosystems, Amazon has a different endgame in mind — the online retailer wants its users to subscribe to Amazon Prime and make as many of their purchases through the site as possible.
So Echo users can link the device to their Google Calendar, enabling the device to keep track of their appointments. After connecting the speaker to your Google account, just ask the speaker, “Alexa, what’s coming up on my Google Calendar?” and the speaker will tell you what lies ahead.
Similarly, the Echo fetches information on local businesses using Yelp. This feature is one of the many reasons to enter your address into the Amazon Alexa app — doing so means the Echo will tailor search results to your location. (Privacy prudes, relax: If you’ve got an Amazon account, the company already has your address.) So, you can ask the speaker complex local business questions, like “Alexa, what are the hours for the nearest pharmacy?” or “Alexa, what is the phone number for a nearby mechanic?”
The Echo doesn’t need outside help for every personal assistant feature. Timers and alarms are managed by the device and its app, for instance. The Echo’s to-do list feature lets users bark reminders at their speaker, which will remember them for you. The downside is that your to-do list gets stuck in Amazon’s Alexa smartphone app rather than appearing in your iPhone or Android’s default to-do apps. In other words, Echo users have to deal with yet another app for organizing (or losing track of) their thoughts.
There’s one other Echo feature that on-the-go users will find particularly helpful: Traffic updates. If there’s a location you frequently visit, you can enter it into the Amazon Alexa app and ask the speaker for a traffic report whenever you’re headed out the door. Other platforms like Android and iOS have this capability, but they try to anticipate your commute based on your routine. For non-routine drivers (or people who don’t want to check their phone), this Echo feature can be a real time-saver.
A real know-it-all
In the 20th century, most homes had radios that people turned on to hear music, news, sports, and other audio. But that could be a drag, since you had to wait around for the information you were most interested in, like sports scores. So these days, we use our phones to get info on demand.
Still, hunting and pecking through phone menus to find this content can also be a time suck. But combining the phone-free interface of old school radio with the on-demand access of Internet-connected devices, the Echo is basically a home radio built for the 21st century.
Start by telling the Amazon Alexa app what news sources you want to hear in the Settings menu. To tailor your news update, tap on “Flash Briefing,” then select the sources you’d like to get your headlines from. Ranging from CNN to TMZ, there are currently more than 10 options, with more content providers being added all the time. Choose as many as you like and say, “Alexa, what’s the news?” and the Flash Briefing will begin to play.
It’s worth pausing here to explore what you can and cannot say to the Echo. In addition to “What’s the news?” I’ve also evoked the Flash Briefing with, “Give me the latest headlines,” “What’s going on?” and “What’s new?,” among other phrases. In other words, the Echo is really good at understanding the context of what you’re saying. I haven’t had to slow my speech, turn my head to the microphone, or talk overly loud to spur the device into action. The Echo works well with the way people naturally speak, or at least the way that I do.
But let’s get back to the device’s audio capabilities. Through a partnership with TuneIn, the device can also play local radio station streams. Just tell it to play your favorite station using its call letters (“Alexa, play WEEI,” for instance) and live radio starts streaming through. You can ask it to play online radio or podcasts simply by requesting shows by their names.
But with so much of the Internet’s content at its disposal, the Echo can get confused at times. For example, saying “Alexa, play Serial,” does not yield the wildly popular podcast. Instead it pulls up Cereal Killer, a rap song by Method Man and Redman, which is very different. (For Serial, ask for “Serial podcast,” instead.)
The Echo also has game. Asking it questions like “When is the next Los Angeles Galaxy game?,” “How are the St. Louis Blues doing?,” and “What was the score of the Denver Nuggets game?” yields a general update on your teams’ latest and upcoming games. The service follows teams from the NBA, NHL, NFL, MLB, MLS, NCAA basketball and football, and the WNBA.
You’d expect the sports update functionality to dive into highlights and headlines, but it doesn’t. Really, just having the expectation that it should is a testament to the quality of the Echo’s conversational tone and its ability to understand users’ questions.
Finally, sourcing information from Wikipedia and other reference sources, the Echo is able to answer all sorts of questions. Still, the results can be spotty. For example, the Echo can tell you which movie won the Academy Award for best picture in 1980 (Kramer vs. Kramer), but not who won the presidential election that year (Ronald Regan).
The perfect personal shopper
Though it’s a seemingly minor feature, the Echo’s ability to order goods from Amazon Prime is a major part of the company’s strategy for the Internet-connected speaker. And once you’re logged into the Alexa app with your Amazon account, it’s extremely easy — maybe too easy — to place an order.
To get some Amazon goods delivered straight to your door using the Echo, simply ask it to buy something you’ve previously ordered via Amazon Prime. The device then combs through your previous orders and pulls out options. It recites the product details aloud, including price, and asks if you would like to place an order.
Having information spoken aloud may sound clunky, but if you’re re-ordering a household staple and know what you’re getting, it works great. As for Amazon the company, it works even better. That’s because customers ordering without a screen don’t have the ability to comparison shop. So if Amazon can get its customers to restock their cupboards through an Amazon Echo, it will will cut out the competition.
Bringing the smart home to life
In the past year, smart home accessories have grown in number and capabilities by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, with so many apps, devices, and companies out there, the smart home world is hopelessly confusing. Apple has tried to wrangle the space with its Siri-enabled HomeKit platform, but with challenging setups, persnickety commands, and spotty service, the effort has been a disappointment. And pinning its smart home efforts on the Nest Learning Thermostat, Google’s plan isn’t a good fit for everyone, either.
All this has left a lane open for Amazon. The Echo is quickly plowing ahead, becoming one of the best smart home hubs on the market. The Echo makes it very easy to control smart home gadgets from the likes of Philips, Insteon, Belkin and more.
However, the Echo can be finicky about phrases at times. For instance, it took me several tries to find the magic words to control my Ecobee 3 thermostat via the Echo, while my Philips Hue lights turned on and off (and dimmed) with ease. The fault may lie more with the smart home gadget companies than with Amazon, though.
Making the smart home even smarter, the Echo’s ability to connect to IFTTT — the online service that uses simple rules to connect devices to apps, services, and even other devices — adds a nearly infinite amount of capabilities to the canister speaker. Though there’s no official Echo feature for the Rachio Iro smart sprinkler controller, you can use IFTTT to set up the device to turn on when you say, “Alexa, turn on sprinklers.” Or if you want to get your iOS or Android to-do list synced up with your new Amazon list, there are IFTTT recipes for that, too. They may take some configuring, but once they are set up, IFTTT interactions are among the most useful programs in tech.
The speaker of the house
Though this guide may make it seem like an afterthought, the Echo is also a very good speaker. Able to connect to smartphones and tablets via Bluetooth, it delivers serviceable sound. Compared to a Sonos or another high-end speaker, the quality isn’t astounding. But since it’s wall-powered, the Echo packs a lot more punch than battery-packing portables.
However, since the Echo also connects to your home’s wi-fi network, it also offers a rock-solid signal when you use it as the primary audio source instead of a phone or tablet.
Echo users’ musical requests are routed through their Amazon Music Library or Prime Music account first. With just a million songs to its library, Prime Music’s picks get repetitive quickly. However, the speaker also connects to third-party music services like Spotify Premium, Pandora, and iHeartRadio.
In addition to the news, radio station, and podcast features listed above, the Echo will also play audiobooks from Audible, if you have a subscription. And if you don’t, but you do have a library of Kindle e-books, the Echo can read those titles aloud to you, free of charge.
Echo and the future
Amazon Echo has only been widely available for about eight months, but it’s quickly turned into a sleeper hit. App development on the platform has skyrocketed, too. There are currently more than 200 third-party “skills” available for the Echo, ranging from stock-quoting capabilities supplied by Fidelity to New York City subway status reports. And there are more being added all the time. Earlier this month, the Echo gained the abilities to hail an Uber and order a Dominos pizza in the same week.
But it’s still early days for the platform, and with that comes a little bit of frustration. For instance, the Echo app is growing unwieldy, with its connected home settings (a considerable feature on the device) buried in its settings menu. In addition, finding skills is a very disorganized affair, with no real categorization to their capabilities, just page after page of listings.
But that’s another way the Echo is like the iPhone. When the Apple App Store launched, it was criticized for its poor organization. Will this connected speaker ever get to the 1.5 million apps that the iPhone has? Not likely. But 200 is a good start.