For some time I’ve hypothesized that Apple would bring Siri to the Apple TV, introducing a new level of simplicity and connectivity to the home. While Apple may still introduce such functionality, another company that begins with the letter “A” has done just that with the Amazon Echo.
After unboxing the Amazon Echo my immediate impression is that it is an incredibly capable device that creates a perpetual connection to the Internet. It is difficult to draw a comparison as the Amazon Echo comes from a category of one.
However, the experience reminds me of the first time I held the Apple iPad. At the time I felt like I was literally holding the Internet in my hands. Similarly, the Echo unlocks content and media with a simple voice command. It is remarkable.
Introducing the Amazon Echo
Last fall Amazon introduced an invite-only program for consumers to buy Echo, a device that is always on and responds to your voice. This creates a very simple interface for anyone to ask a question or issue a command.
You can ask for information, a weather forecast, the latest news and more. You can ask Echo to play music, add an item to your to-do or shopping list, and obviously order products from Amazon.
Once Amazon sends you an invitation to purchase Echo you only have seven days to complete your order because overwhelming consumer interest has created a long wait list.
I ordered my Amazon Echo on January 6th and received an anticipated ship date of mid-February. Amazon updated the ship date several times before I received notification that I would receive Echo on January 30th.
Unboxing the Amazon Echo
Echo is delivered in a very elegant and simple black box, void of any information or markings, except the Amazon logo. Opening the box revealed a bright red interior that held the black cylinder and its accessories.
Setup was incredibly quick and easy. Once plugged in I completed the process using my iPhone 6 and the iOS companion application. In under five minutes the Amazon Echo was connected to the Internet and awaiting my voice commands.
The device itself is just over nine inches (9.5″) tall and three inches (3.27″) in diameter. The lower half of the device is perforated to allow sound to pour from the 2.5″ woofer and 2″ tweeter which sit below the reflex port which is designed to enhance the woofer’s output for deeper sounds without distortion.
At the top of the Amazon Echo is a volume ring to physically control the level of sound coming from the device. According to Amazon, the echo uses a seven-microphone array and far-field technology for listening requests.
There is a light ring on the top of the Echo to provide a visual signal when it is in setup mode (orange) or waiting for a command (blue). You’ll also find two buttons; one to control the microphone and the action button that is used to wake the device, turn off a timer or alarm sound, or enter setup mode.
Echo uses on-device voice detection and keyword spotting to detect the wake word. When detected the devices comes to life, ready to recognize and respond to your voice request. Your choice for the wake word is Alexa or Amazon. But Alexa doesn’t roll off the tongue yet and calling the device Amazon seems awkward because I already associate the name with a service, not the device. It would be nice to select your own wake word. You know, something like Jarvis.
With just under four hours of hands-on experience I can confidently say I’ve experienced the future. Echo is an impressive device beginning with the power of a voice-controlled interface.
While Echo is tethered to the Internet, you don’t need to be. I immediately find myself wondering if I need another device to provide enough coverage in my home. I also wonder if I’ll find myself using Echo over my iPhone for simple information requests, my gut says yes.
While I felt like I was holding the Internet in my hands with the Apple iPad, Echo makes it feel like the nearly infinite information on the Internet is housed in it’s black cylindrical body. Echo responds to any question with a barely-there delay in a clear, responsive and pleasant voice. Most importantly, it has been responsive when I am in the next room and the information delivered has been accurate.
The Echo is an impressive speaker, delivering crisp and clear audio. It may not compare to your home theater or even a Bose system, but it is strong and capable.
Playback can be controlled with your voice, through the companion app, or the Web interface. Streaming and control are nearly instant. That said, navigation could be improved, namely the ability to control volume easily on-screen.
You can easily listen to your Amazon Music Library, Prime Music, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio. And according to Amazon you’ll soon be able to use Echo’s voice control for Pandora, Spotify, and iTunes through iOS and Android devices.
There were a few times I wish Echo actually had music controls on the device itself – it doesn’t but the included remote can be used in lieu of voice commands.
You can also use Echo to stay on time and organized with voice-controlled alarms, timers, shopping, and to-do lists.
And that is where I see the need for owners of Echo to also subscribe to Amazon Prime. As an Amazon Prime member you can stream virtually any artist, album or track to Echo. While shopping in your pajama’s has required a desktop, tablet or smartphone you’ll now find it easier to shop for your favorite products with a simple voice command.
Home Automation and Future Enhancements
At times I found myself tongue-tied after waking the device, searching my own brain for a request. Was I looking to answer a question, stream some music, test another command?
The power of Echo will really be seen once there are more integrations. Personally I’d like the ability to use Echo to control my Philips Hue lightbulbs and my Nest thermostat. I imagine Amazon is already working on similar integrations. And with Apple’s Homekit, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the company enter the market with a similar device, like an updated version of the Apple TV.
The price point is incredibly attractive with the Amazon Echo retailing for $199, but for a limited time Amazon Prime member can purchase the device for $99. You can request an invite at http://amazon.com/echo.
Perhaps future versions will be enhanced with additional sensors that track activity in the home or other ambient data points.
While I am sure the novelty will wear off at some point, the Echo does feel like a transformative device. I find myself incredibly locked into Apple’s ecosystem, but the Amazon Echo represents the first device that has me slightly disappointed that my entire media library isn’t housed with Amazon.
And perhaps that is Amazon’s expectation, for everyone to use their services more often. There is a coming battle for control of our home and other personal information and services. Google, Amazon, and Apple are all very well positioned to respond to our needs through a variety of devices, delivering the goods and services we need. I’m excited to see what comes next, and for now I find myself delighted with my Amazon Echo.