How much do you actually talk to your phone? If you’re like me, it’s probably almost never. The whole process is pretty painful: You hold down a button, speak carefully into the microphone, wait, and then either try again when it fails to understand you, or give up when it answers with an irrelevant quip.
Voice assistants have been on our phones for years, but they haven’t really taken off. They’re unreliable, and often not that much quicker than typing. It’s a long way from the future that Star Trek promised us. Sorry Siri.
The Amazon Echo and Echo Dot
But the Amazon Echo is different. A cylindrical speaker roughly the size of a wine bottle, it is not only the first gadget I have felt comfortable controlling with my voice, it is quite possibly the most promising new device since the iPhone.
What is it?
At its heart, the Echo is a wireless speaker. But while you can stream music, radio and so on to it, what really matters is the brain that runs it.
Wake the Echo up, by saying “Alexa” (the name of Amazon’s virtual assistant, which you can change to “Echo” or “Amazon” for those averse to anthropomorphic gadgets), and a blue ring at the top of the speaker will light up, ready for a command.
From here you can tell it to do any number of things: set alarms, play music, check the weather, read the news, check the football scores or answer factual questions.
There are no touchscreens or keypads. In fact the only physical controls are two buttons at the top – one to turn off the microphone for the privacy conscious, and an action button for waking the Echo up manually – and a ring you rotate to adjust the Echo’s volume. Apart from that, the whole thing is controlled by your voice.
The Echo costs £150 and there’s also a miniature £50 version with a low-powered speaker, the Echo Dot, that does exactly the same thing and which you can connect to a speaker with a cable or Bluetooth.
Setting up the Echo is a doddle. The box contains the Echo itself and a power cable, as well as a tiny instruction manual.
To get going, you download Amazon’s Alexa app, power on the Echo, run through a few steps to connect to Wi-Fi, and that’s essentially it (some BT Home Hub users have experienced problems, for which there is a fix here). From here, the Echo can respond any time you say “Alexa”.
The Echo’s controls are simple: a mute button, action button and volume ring
There are also a few tweaks you can make within the app: change default measurements between metric and imperial, switch your music service between Spotify and Prime Music (I found I had to run through the Spotify log-in three times for it to work), integrate your calendar and so on. But from unboxing to ready, setup takes about five minutes.
What do you do with it?
Amazon has a whole host of uses for the Echo detailed on its website. You can ask it a general knowledge question (What’s the maximum speed of a cheetah? How tall is the Eiffel Tower? How do you spell Mississippi?), ask it to read the news, or check the weather.
As well as this, you can install “skills” developed by third parties, which are the equivalent of smartphone apps. The Uber skill, for example, can order you a car, or Just Eat can request a takeaway.
A big focus with skills is the smart home. If you have an internet-connected thermostat such as Nest or Hive, Philips Hue lights or anything using Samsung’s SmartThings, you can download a skill for controlling it with the Echo. Amazon has positioned the Echo as the futuristic hub for the smart home: with a sentence you can turn off your lights or warm up your house.
But while all of the above works perfectly well, what the Echo excels in is not the futuristic at all, but the most humdrum of tasks.
In the week it has been in my house, I have used it almost exclusively to set timers and alarms, add things to my shopping list or to-do list, and turn the radio on and off.
It doesn’t sound like much – you couldn’t find a more low-tech thing than a timer – but the act of setting one by speaking out loud, “Alexa, count down 10 minutes”, is effortless. The natural place for the Echo is in the kitchen, and if you’re cooking, tidying or eating (between mouthfuls), then the difference between reaching for your phone and using your voice is the difference between having to interrupt what you’re doing and not having to stop at all.
Ultimately, Amazon will want you to buy things with the Echo, but strangely this feature isn’t available at launch in the UK (although it is coming by Christmas).
Price and release date
The Amazon Echo costs £149.99 and the Echo Dot costs £49.99, both are available now. (prices correct as at 2nd December 2016)
Original Article by James Titcomb – read the full article here…