5 things you need to know about the Amazon Echo

Just what is the Amazon Echo?

Amazon Echo listening

Amazon unleashed an unexpected new device on the tech world with the Echo, a gadget that gives away little at first glance.

What is it? Where did it come from? Do I need one? These are all perfectly reasonable questions to be asking yourself right now.

And luckily we have answers for you.

The Amazon Echo is less than 10 inches tall, but that doesn't make it portable. It's meant to have a home in your living room, and despite its small stature, it may just take over whatever space you put it in.

Here are five things you should know if you're at all intrigued by the Amazon Echo.

1. It's a Bluetooth speaker

Perhaps first and foremost, the Amazon Echo is a Bluetooth speaker. That means you can connect any Bluetooth-capable device - from an iPhone 6 to your laptop - to it wirelessly to play music or other audio.

As such it has some interesting audio components on the inside of its small, cylindrical chassis. Amazon calls it "advanced audio design."

Most of its innards are comprised of audio components, like "dual downward-firing" speakers that shoot sound outward all 360 degrees around the device. The bookseller says it can fill an entire room. A "reflex port" allows for "deeper sounds without distortion," while a 2.5-inch woofer and 2-inch "tweeter" round out the lows and the highs of whatever you're listening to.

The Echo comes with a remote with a built-in mic and music playback and volume controls, and as a wi-fi enabled gadget, it can access streaming music services like Amazon Music, Prime Music, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn. Which brings us to our next point…

2. It's always on (and listening)

Given that the Amazon Echo can access streaming music services - but lacks a display with which to navigate said services - Amazon must be pretty confident in its voice recognition capabilities.

Amazon Echo
The cylinder is the new square, apparently

Underneath the gadget's light ring on top is a seven-microphone array with something Amazon calls "far-field voice recognition," and these mics, as well as the one in the remote, are always on and always listening.

They apparently "use beam-forming technology" to hear you no matter where you are in relation to the Echo (is the name starting to make sense?). In addition it has noise cancellation capabilities that allow it to hear your commands even when it's piping out music.

3. It has search functionality

We've established that the Amazon Echo has music-streaming abilities, and that it's always on and listening. So what is it listening for?

The answer is a single word: "Alexa." Saying "Alexa" where the Echo can hear you is like saying "Xbox" with an Xbox One Kinect in the room, or "Hey Siri" when your iPhone 6 feels like listening to you. In other words it gets the thing's attention.

And the main thing you'll be doing once you have the Echo's attention is searching - for music and more. You can tell it to play a certain artist or song, but you can also ask general questions: "Will it rain tomorrow?" "When is Thanksgiving?" and "Wikipedia: Abraham Lincoln" are just some of the queries Amazon has provided as examples.

It remains to be seen how useful it will be to have the Echo read entire Wikipedia entries to aloud, but you can't deny it's an interesting premise. In addition it seems you may be able to change the wake word - extra helpful for people who are actually named Alexa - though so far we haven't been able to confirm this with Amazon. We'll update here if we do.

4. It has an app

Thankfully the Echo's functionality isn't limited to its microphones, speaker and remote. There's also an app for Android handsets and Amazon Fire phones, plus a browser app for other devices - and we're guessing that will extend further if the Echo takes off.

Amazon Echo app
Imagine trying to set up wi-fi with voice commands

According to Amazon you can use the Echo's companion app to manage whatever it's doing, from the music it's playing to alarms and beyond. The app will also help you with initial set-up, including connecting the Echo to wi-fi.

If the Echo is as capable as Amazon says, it may well be easy to do almost everything without the app, but sometimes you just need to have a screen to accomplish what you want, and thankfully it seems Amazon knows that.

5. It *may* be the start of the connected home

But the most exciting thing about the Amazon Echo is that Amazon may be using it to kickstart its own connected Internet of Things at home.

In addition to what we've already discussed, the Echo can manage your to-do lists, alarms and reminders, and it can also play radio stations. But that's far from the device's limit, according to Amazon, and the bookseller has promised it will be updated periodically with new features and services.

In between updates the Echo will always be learning and improving, the company says, and there are clearly lots of possibilities. Imagine the potential it has to be the access point for your whole connected home: "Alexa, turn the heat up in the kitchen;" "Alexa, is the front door locked?" "Alexa, turn on the Xbox." And the best part? That way you wouldn't have to rely on Kinect anymore.

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