The chances are you’ve encountered the phrases “artificial intelligence” and “smart home” over the last year or so, such has been the rise of the technology in the area.
Facebook, Apple, Samsung and Google are applying this sort of technology in one way or another – whether it be through assistants built into smartphones, software to control connected devices around the home or chatbot software running through a messaging app.
Amazon are joining in as well, and more than a year after launching in the US, have finally brought Echo – their smart home manager and personal intelligent assistant – to the UK.
Powered by software called Alexa – the word you say to prompt it – Echo is in essence a smart speaker, connected to the internet and as a result is able to summon knowledge, answers and entertainment from the cloud and your Amazon Prime account.
She’s impressive upon your first encounter, but the true test of Echo and its ability comes when you place it in your home and make it part of the family.
Initially setting up Echo is a relatively straightforward process in theory, with the early steps revolving around getting Echo connected to your WiFi network. As with any process that involves trying to connect to your WiFi, this can be up-and-down, particularly if you’re placing Echo in a room not close to your router.
Once in place though you have something that can come surprisingly come to matching any connected speaker system you might have used in the past. However, it is something of an Echo blind spot that hooking up with Sonos or similar isn’t possible on the full size speaker to boost and expand music streaming output, but it’s also understandable once you start using Echo to stream music and hear just how capable it is.
Though be warned, unless you have an Amazon Prime account or Spotify, you will be significantly reduced in the music you can play.
The speaker housed within Echo is 360-degrees so can push out audio comfortably no matter where in the layout of a room you place it.
Below the blue light ring that illuminates when you say the word “Alexa” are seven microphones that are designed to pick up your voice and your instructions no matter where you are in the room or how much background noise there is.
Amazon has long boasted about how good the microphones in Echo are – with good reason; Alexa picked up our calls every time without issue and regardless of background noise from music, the TV or conversation noise from a room full of people.
In fact, we found that sometimes the microphone was almost too sensitive and would mistakenly spark into life having thought it had heard “Alexa” in the midst of the Great British Bake-Off, startling us when it revealed it didn’t have an answer to the non-existent question it thought it had heard.
It’s powerful tech, but perhaps trying a little too hard to hear its own name sometimes.
Though there are teething problems with some aspects of Alexa, the companion app, which you assume will be more of an afterthought, actually becomes an incredibly useful central hub for all aspects of your interaction with Echo.
All the questions you ask are listed here, so should you want to get a visual grasp of what you want to know about – the weather forecast for example – the Alexa app shows it.
It’s also here that you can build to-do and shopping lists, both of which you can add to by asking Alexa.
The most impressive part of the app however is how it can be used to personalise the various things you use Echo for. The Skills section of the app is essentially an app store, where you can add links to your accounts, including Google for your calendar, Just Eat for takeaways and even Uber so you can request rides. In that instance Echo gives the set location you gave it on set-up as the pick-up point.
The Skills are a very good way to hone and customise your Echo experience too, where you can add National Rail and the tube times app should planning your commute be a big part of your day, or install some mindfulness and workout apps should you want to put a little more well being into your routine.
Be warned though: we found that Skills can be hit and miss in terms of quality – though that is something that is likely to improve over time as Echo picks up users and matures as a platform.
What is very clear from using Echo is that there is no definitive way you should be using Amazon’s take on artificial intelligence. If you have a home already boasting a range of smart home tech – lights, appliances and fittings – then Alexa could and probably will be the hub you’ve always been looking for. Once hooked in to your WiFi network there is no doubt Echo is a smart and solid way of running your home entertainment.
The speaker is at its best though when slotted into your daily routine. It took only a couple of days for us to enjoy heading into the kitchen first thing and having Alexa play the morning news briefing while making breakfast and a coffee. We also used it for jazz music at dinner time, or when we were hosting friends as not just a conversation starter – which is inevitable – but as a hub for background entertainment.
Background is perhaps the key word here. Echo is at its best as an addition to your home rather than as the centre or boss of it. It may be able to control a lot, but you still give the instructions after all.
So even if you don’t have any other smart products to connect to Echo, it doesn’t mean you should rule it out. The very nature of the product means you need to be open to the idea of a smart home of course, but a voice-controlled internet at your disposal is a very helpful tool.
But again, already being an Amazon Prime member will help massively too, which may be a sticking point for some.
On the surface and as a package Amazon Echo ticks a lot of the right boxes – at £150 it is not unreasonable at all for what you get – and there’s the smaller Echo Dot version at £50 if price is an issue.
It’s a smart-looking product too and in no way sticks out once slotted into place on a work surface or shelf.
But there’s teething problems with the software and voice recognition, whether it be sparking into life at the wrong time or simply ignoring what you say. These are things that will happen to you in the early stages of use. This is a new platform after all, and so time is needed.
But there’s a charming surprise to how useful Echo can be when the timing is right. This isn’t a flagship smartphone and therefore glued to your hand 24/7. Echo is an assistant – there when you need it – and for that reason Amazon deserve credit for creating something that can enhance your home, not take it over.
What do you think of Echo? Would you use it in your home? Let us know in the Comments section below.