Two years is a long time to wait for any new bit of technology. Just imagine the uproar if Apple had released the iPhone 7 in the US and we in the UK had to wait until the iPhone 8 was out until we could get it, without having to go through the rigmarole of importing and deal with myriad restrictions.
This is pretty much what Amazon has done with the Amazon Echo.
Launched in the US in November 2014 as an invite-only deal to Prime members, the Echo was something of a revelation but had a number of niggles and was limited. Amazon squashed what bugs it could, released the Echo to the wider public in the summer of 2015 and opened up the speaker to third-party companies to utilise how they wished.
The result: 3,000 Skills (what Amazon likes to call applications that work with the speaker), millions of Echos in US homes and a smart speaker that is really smart.
Amazon has never confirmed why it delayed the launch of the Echo in the UK, but it's actually a benefit to us that it did. The last two years have been a training ground for both Alexa - the voice controlled cloud system that is the brainpower behind the device - and Amazon.
Functionality issues that were there in the first year have all-but disappeared and the device has grown from being a bit of a gimmick to something that can slot into any home and make it a smart home.
The reason: the Alexa Voice Service improves with every word spoken, and it's learning new Skills all of the time. So, while the hardware remains relatively similar, the brains of the device have improved significantly.
Check out how we got on when we used the Echo's younger sibling, the Echo Dot for a week.
Design and setup
- A great-looking device with minimal physical buttons.
- Easy to setup but there are a few niggles.
The Amazon Echo speaker costs £149, is 235mm high and 83mm wide and is cylindrical. It's got a sleek, minimal look that won't look out of place in most homes. The device we got into review was black but there is also a white version available. Thankfully, Amazon's branding is hidden on the base of the Echo and isn't too 'in your face', while the main shaft is mottled to allow the speaker innards contained within to be heard.
The only buttons are on top of the Amazon Echo. There's a Mute button - press this when you don't want Alexa to listen in on what you are doing - and Listen, which wakes the device up from its slumber.
There is also a physical volume control which you use by moving the top ring of the Amazon Echo clockwise and anti-clockwise. This is a great design flourish, negating the need of more buttons and it's lovely and smooth to use. Not that you will get up to touch the Amazon Echo much, as you will be too busy controlling it with your voice.
Something to note: the Amazon Echo in the US comes with a remote, the UK version does not. In our tests we never felt like we needed to use a remote, but it's omission here is interesting.
Aside the volume ring is the light ring. This glows blue when you summon Alexa, flashes when it is searching for an answer to your query and glows red when you press the Mute button, so you really know that it isn't listening.
The Amazon Echo is small enough to be not too imposing but it's also robust enough to pipe out music at a fair whack.
To do this it uses a 2.5-inch woofer for those bass notes in addition to its 2-inch tweeter which is used to hit those high Cs.
Audio-wise, the speaker produces 360-degree omni-directional sound, so it doesn't really matter whereabouts it sits - whether on a shelf or as a centrepiece on your mantlepiece the sound you get from it is decent though not mind blowing.
Also contained within the chassis is an array of seven microphones, all of which act as ears for the Amazon Echo. They are packed with noise-cancelling technology, so when you say 'Alexa' - the wake word for the Echo - it will be heard, even if you have a soft voice, are in a noisy room, or are playing music - which is likely given the Echo is primarily a speaker.
And you will be saying Alexa a lot - although your reasons of which will be different for every person that uses it.
If you are lost for words at the beginning - and we were, given speaking to a speaker does feel a little unnatural at first - then don't panic. Amazon offers up a small list of things to say to your device when you get it set up, with a selection of hints that are on the box itself and in handy card form. The list isn't extensive but it is enough to get you started. There's also a Things To Try section on the Alexa app, which is a bit more extensive.
But before you can speak to it, you need to set it up. Thankfully this is a fairly simple process.
In our tests, we used the Amazon Echo connected to a Sky Fibre Broadband line. To connect it to your home network, you need to download the Alexa companion app on Android or iOS and follow the instructions, with your Amazon Echo plugged in.
This app isn't just for Amazon Echo, so if you have a Fire TV or any other Amazon-connected device then these will appear in the Alexa app.The app prompted us to manually connect the Echo through our wireless settings (by choosing Amazon in the settings), but it may ask you to hold the action button on the device for five seconds.
Once done, select your Wi-Fi network, enter the passwords and you should be in, with a confirmation message appearing in the app. This took under two minutes for us to do but there has been some issues with connecting to the BT Home Hub. Luckily, we have a quick guide on how to get Amazon Echo to work with BT Home Hub, so BT customers don't miss out.
Features and performance
- The quality of Skills available vary although the smart home section is fantastic.
- The speaker is intuitive, the voice tech fantastic, but the sound quality could be better.
Once up and running, you can leave the app if you wish and just start using your voice, but this will mean that you are only using the default settings on the Amazon Echo and none of its extra Skills. This isn't an issue as there's still some fun to be had.
Without adding any additional Skills, you can ask Alexa the time, set an alarm and get weather and news reports. The good thing about Alexa and the Echo is that you don't have to be exact in your phrasing when asking for these things.
While the Things To Try list that comes with the speaker says to say: "Alexa, play my flash briefing", you can actually say something a bit more natural like: "Alexa, what's going on in the news today?" and you will get a news update from Sky News.
This is the same with things like weather and listening to radio stations: "Alexa, what's the weather doing?" and "Alexa, play 6Music" will get the same response as the more formal, "Alexa play the programme 6Music" and so on.
Other pre-programmed responses are jokes - of which there are plenty and of differing quality - and Alexa's ability to tell you who famous people are.
There's a mixture of gimmick and actual use in these commands but allowing a bit of fun alongside the more formal things you actually want the Echo to do makes you want to use it more and not forget that it's actually a smart device. After a few days' use, it was natural for me to ask what the weather was but also, just say: "Alexa, good morning" to it, completely unprompted. The response is always different, and sometimes amusing.
You can help Alexa, and in turn the Amazon Echo, learn a bit more about you to make it even smarter. In the Alexa app, there's sections for Music and Media, Flash Briefing, Sports Update, Traffic and Calendar. Without adding any new Skills you can add information to these and then use that information through Alexa. We linked up our Google Calendar in seconds and could then ask what's happening in the day. Linking up our music was a little harder, though.
Currently Alexa recognises Amazon Music (obviously), Spotify and TuneIn but not Apple Music, Google Play Music or Tidal, if you are that way inclined. We're hoping these will come with time but don't hold your breath. This wasn't an issue as we have a Spotify account but we did have to jump through hoops to get the account linked up.
Now, we were linking our account on day one of the Echo being released in the UK, so it may have been teething problems, but it just wouldn't link up through the Android version of the app. Once we put our password in, it would hang on the authorisation page and do nothing.
A quick search on Twitter confirmed that this was a problem that was happening to a number of people. We got around it by using the iOS app, others found that linking the account through the web version of Alexa also worked.
Skills to pay the bills
Alexa really comes to life when you start adding Skills to it. In the US, Amazon is boasting that there's now over 3,000 skills available for Alexa. It's a nice number but dig into this and you can see that it's quantity over quality.
In the UK, at our count, there's around 2,800 Skills available - a great number and not bad for something that's just launched in the UK but, again, that number is flattering. Many of the skills are fairly useless add-ons that you will probably use once then grow bored of them.
We tried a number of them and they vary in quality. Some of them are really simple but great to use. Guitar Tuner worked well: load this up and it will help you tune up your guitar's strings in no time. Jamie Oliver's Skill is good too. We asked it how to make a decent bolognese and it emailed us the recipe straight way. It would have been more helpful to have this narrated through the Echo but it was useful all the same.
The majority of Skills aren't great though, unless you want to learn facts about cats, snakes, coffee, chameleons… this list unfortunately goes on and on.
There are a whole host of UK-specific Amazon Echo skills but they are scattered in with the rest of the Skills, which is a tad annoying. Also, the Skills section doesn't indicate if you have already linked up the Skill or not. And some Skills are doubled up - there's two Tado apps in the smart home section, for instance, as well as two Hive apps. Many of the decent skills require linking to your accounts, so make sure that you have the passwords handy.
In amongst the filler there are some fantastic Skills available, especially if you have already taken some steps to making your home smart.
We have Hive installed and linking this with Amazon Echo was a revelation. Having the ability to turn on your smart lights with your voice never grows old and it feels instinctive to ask Alexa to turn your heating up by a degree or two. Echo will also link in with Nest, Netatmo, Philips Hue, Smartthings and Honeywell products. There's no doubt that the smart home is where Amazon Echo thrives - it just works so well. And it won't end here, either - as Sonos has announced that it will offer integration in 2017.
When you do choose a Skill, however, there are some inconsistencies with how you ask Alexa for that particular information. For instance, once we set up Hive to work with Alexa, we never had to ask Alexa to launch Hive, just say things like: "Alexa, dim the dining room lights 50%". That would dim the lights no problem. But, when it came to asking for travel information, we had to say: "Alexa, launch National Rail" and then ask about our commute. This adds a bit of a barrier that makes the experience less than seamless.
Another instance is when you ask Alexa to play a song or album. This works well, but what Alexa replies with is rather clunky, saying: "Playing David Bowie's Life on Mars through Spotify". The Spotify bit isn't really needed as we already set Spotify up as our default music service in the Alexa app.
You should also be prepared for some random live albums to be played instead of the album you want. Alexa is intuitive but does get it wrong occasionally. These are small niggles but they do take a little getting used to.
Audio quality and privacy
- As a straight speaker, the Echo doesn't do enough to impress.
- The way Alexa picks up your voice, even when noisy, is fantastic.
When it comes to playing music, the speaker is good but not amazing. Compared to other speakers of its size and price range - the Sonos Play: 1 in particular - it doesn't quite match the sound fidelity.
Set the volume to the higher levels, say 7 or 8, and things sound rather muddied and the lower levels are just that bit too quiet for a medium-sized living room.
Leave the volume at its middle and it gets a lot better, but we wouldn't go as far as using this as our main music speaker - the sound just isn't polished enough.
If you already have a decent speaker setup and want Alexa integration then it might be worth looking at the Amazon Echo Dot. This is a puck-like device that links up to your existing setup and offers up Alexa voice controls but through your own speakers.
What is impressive with the Echo is that Alexa can hear your voice no matter what the volume. We tried saying "Alexa" all around our living room and it picked up our voice no problem.
Inevitably, when it picks up your voice it is recording what you are saying so the thorny issue of privacy does come up with the Amazon Echo. Amazon gets around this with the ability to 'mute' the Echo - press the button on the top of the device and it will stop listening in to what you are doing. The light ring will go red and this actually disconnects it from the microphones so nothing will be heard.
There's also an option within the Alexa app to delete any information the Echo gets from you. So, if you say something unsightly such as "Alexa, I'm sorry but I prefer Siri" then you can get rid of it at anytime. The main feed of the app also shows you the history of what you have asked or demanded from Alexa, so you can keep tabs on what you have said. This also doubles as a learning tool for Alexa, as you can let it know if the voice information it has recorded is accurate.
To be clear: this is a device that listens to you, learns from you and feeds off the information you offer it. If that worries you then stay away from the Amazon Echo. We were pleased with the transparency of what information the Echo retained and it didn't feel more intrusive as, say, what you offer up to Google through search and the like.
The Amazon Echo is intuitive and fun to use. It's a gadget that you want to keep testing and seeing what it can do.
We really like the way it integrates with other smart home technology. Using it with Hive made the Echo an essential purchase for us - turning lights on and off with your voice never grows tiring.
Whether you use the Echo as a utility to check calendars, the weather or how terrible your commute is going to be, or as an entertainment device it works and works well.
The speaker is good but it's not great. Amazon has created a robust, good-looking device but there are better sounding, albeit non-smart, Bluetooth speakers in the £150 price range.
There may be over 2,000 Skills you can link to the Echo but you will only really use a handful. The rest are more filler than killer. And then there's the Alexa app - it's practical but it is limited and sometimes plays up - it certainly doesn't feel as advanced as Alexa itself.
It may have taken the best part of two years for the Amazon Echo to hit the UK but it's worth the wait. The speaker itself is smart and is a fantastic conduit for Alexa. Alexa bristles with intelligence and speaking to the Echo soon becomes second nature - give it a day or two and using Alexa goes from being a little strange to the norm. There's niggles and sometimes the Amazon Echo will draw a blank but these issues were few and far between.
The Amazon Echo is a fantastic addition to any home, a device that improves when linked to other smart devices and services. Use it without any of these and you'll find yourself soon bored with the sound of your own voice. Use the Echo to the fullest, though, and it may well become your favourite gadget.