After having been out in the US for almost two years, the Amazon Echo is about to arrive in the UK as well, on September 28 to be exact. We'll admit it would have been nice to have seen it on both sides of the Atlantic in a simultaneous release, but thankfully those two years of development have seen Alexa grow in intelligence by a fair amount.
Almost two years ago our US team had their first conversation with Alexa, a personal assistant built in to the $179 Amazon Echo (£150, around AU$230). The conversation wasn't very deep, but they got a good laugh asking Alexa stupid questions, having her shuffle music and asking about mundane topics like the weather or the time. The earliest conversations were simple, almost child-like.
As the months went on the conversations got deeper as the team at Amazon added more functionality. Soon we could talk about sports, or what I had coming up on my calendar. Alexa could give sporting scores, or tell us how we were already late for a meeting.
It wasn't much longer before Alexa could read audiobooks, play my favorite podcasts and control some of the other smart devices I have around the house. Most recently Amazon took Alexa out of the house (figuratively) to teach her about local businesses through Yelp. I can now ask Alexa about where I should go for Chinese food, or when the grocery store closes. Alexa can even now play music from services other than Amazon Prime like Spotify or Pandora in the US.
All this is a way to say that we've seen the Amazon Echo grow up from a novelty to an actually semi-intelligent AI. We've used products for years – iPods or Xboxs for example – but this is the first time that we've witnessed something evolve so much without ever needing a guiding hand.
Our US team has now spent a year with it in the home, and it's clear that Amazon Echo is something you don't know you want until you have it, and something you don't miss until it's gone. Which is surprising, really, when you consider that its primary function – a Bluetooth speaker for music – is actually pretty subpar.
It's easy to mistake the Echo for a portable dehumidifier. It's all matte black exterior and 9.25 x 3.27 inch cylindrical shape gives it the kind of camouflage you'd expect from an appliance.
Another difference between the Echo and other portable speakers is that the Echo isn't exactly portable. It needs to be plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi at all times. (Which, considering the six-foot power cable, can be a bit of a struggle.)
And this decision makes sense when you give it some thought. How could an always-on microphone hear you if it runs out of power? It couldn't. Moreover, how would it send your voice to Amazon servers without a connection to the internet? Again, not going to happen.
Sure, it's a hassle to always be connected, but Wi-Fi networks are a dime-a-dozen in 2016.
On top of the canister are two buttons, mute and listen, while the top ring rotates to raise or lower volume. If you're worried about regular controls (play, pause, forward and backward), don't. The Echo comes with a traditional remote identical to the one that comes with the Amazon Fire TV, or can be controlled from your phone via the Amazon Echo App.
Speaking of which, the app isn't the most fleshed-out companion app we've ever used, and can feel pretty barren in comparison to the Amazon Fire TV storefront. I found a few of the selections relatively useful – controlling radio stations via the app is painless compared with asking Alexa to do it – but the design looks and feels like it certainly wasn't ready for release.
Along the bottom of the Echo is a 360-degree speaker grille that gives it some surprisingly room-filling sound along with a small, white Amazon logo.
While the Echo can crank the volume, the quality of the sound near its upper and lower limits leaves a lot to be desired.
Testing took place in two environments: a small, 12 x 14 ft bedroom and much larger 20 x 15 ft living room. The confined space, as you might expect, benefitted the quieter volume levels and completely muddled anything above 7. Given enough space, sound only faltered at the highest levels, 9 and 10, but Alexa had a tougher time picking up commands. At least the balance around volumes 4-6 were spot on.
With any other Bluetooth speaker, these kinds of problems would've been grounds for a failing grade. But the fact that Alexa not only needs to produce a lot of noise, but be able to hear over it as well, is good reason to cut it some slack.
Streaming music selection
Now that I've sold you on its music-playing capabilities (not), you're probably thinking, "but gee, what can I play on it?"
The Echo supports Spotify, TuneIn and, if you're a Prime subscriber, Amazon Prime Music. If you're in the US, the Echo also supports Pandora as well.
Unless you dig into the menus to tell it otherwise, Amazon Prime Music is Alexa's go-to media app. If the song isn't available on Prime Music – and trust me, two out of three songs are not – then Alexa will play a sample from the Amazon Music Store instead. Decide you like what you're listening to? Buying the song or album is as simple as saying "Alexa, buy this song," and confirming the price.
But, if all else fails or you don't feel like re-buying songs you've paid for on other services, there's one last-ditch effort to get your music: Amazon will actually allow you to import 250 songs to the cloud from your personal collection for free. This may not sound like a lot, but for those of us with one or two go-to playlists, it compensates for any slight inconvenience it caused to add them.
When it works, Alexa feels like the talking computer that sci-fi has been imagining for the last 50 years. Conversations can happen in informal language, and queries are picked up by natural cues instead of awkward syntax. Both "Alexa tell me about razors" and "Alexa, what is a razor?" lead me to the same answer, and feel completely natural when said out loud.
Two years later...
The scariest part of Amazon's grand experiment is that it's still going, and has shown no signs of slowing down. Alexa receives more updates than my Amazon Fire TV or the Kindle, and the team of developers have proven time after time that they really care about feedback.
All this means that Alexa is arriving in a much more feature complete state in the UK than what was previously available in the States.
Alexa is still behind Siri in terms of what it can do, but one year from now, on Alexa's third birthday, that might not be the case.
Alexa, as an AI, used to feel more like a fun parlor trick that I could show off at a dinner party, rather than a full-fledged personal assistant like the other two. Now it's practical to use it over going and turning on my computer or pulling out my phone.
The addition of information about local businesses is a big step forward, and shows that other companies are taking notice of Alexa and want to integrate their services with it. It's validation that this project has become bigger and more important to Amazon than anyone ever thought.
Thanks to Amazon's investment in its Alexa Skills Kit and Alexa Voice Service APIs, more and more skills (essentially voice-controlled apps) are being added all the time.
There's still growing to do, though. Alexa doesn't handle deep knowledge questions very well (it won't answer questions like "who was the President in 1954?") but it's an exponentially smarter system than the one I pulled out of the box a year ago.
That first year, we spent so much time focusing on how the Echo performed as a Bluetooth speaker that we failed to see how much potential the platform had as a smart-home hub and generally intelligent, time-saving device. We put it up against Siri and there was no contest – Apple's AI was simply smarter and more well-rounded. That's no longer the case.
For many, the $179 / £150 Echo is still a novelty, and until Alexa starts truly understanding natural human speech I don't expect to change their minds. The Echo is for those that can recognize the potential in a product, the DIY-ers and makers of the world that can look at something and find new uses.
It's for those that need a Bluetooth speaker, sure (as we stated earlier, we really can't see myself going back to a run-of-the-mill speaker after spending so much time with the Echo), but it's not the audio fidelity that will keep the Echo on your shelf for a year. It's Alexa.
If you can't see yourself enjoying the 'smart' aspect of Amazon's smart speaker, we wouldn't recommend the Echo. With other connected speakers out there like Sonos, LG Multi-Room Audio and a dozen Google Cast-enabled devices like the Chromecast Audio, there's just no reason to go all-in on a subpar speaker.
That said, if you want to see the future of AI in the making and be a part of that process, you absolutely need to buy the Amazon Echo.
Originally reviewed January 2015