Editors' note (March 3, 2016): On March 3, Amazon announced two new products in the Echo family: The $130 Tap and the $90 Dot. Both begin shipping on March 31. The Echo, reviewed here, remains at the top of the line at the same price of $180.
I didn't know I wanted to talk to my house until I talked to my house. Now, after living with the Amazon Echo for a year, I talk to it every day.
I ask it for the morning headlines as I brew my 8:00 a.m. pot of coffee. I ask it to play the most recent episode of my favorite podcast while I work out. I ask it to set a timer when I throw a frozen pizza in the oven for dinner. I ask it to turn my lights out when I'm hitting the sack. It's always listening, and it always just works.
That's the true success of Amazon's likable smart speaker -- it fits in seamlessly with your daily routine. It doesn't ask you to change any of your habits, it just makes a surprising number of those habits better. It's the most futuristic product that I own, yet it's also right at place in my present.
After initially debuting as an invite-only beta-gadget for $99 (I was one of the lucky ones who bought in at that price), the Amazon Echo now retails for nearly twice that: $180. The Echo isn't yet available in Australia or the UK, but that price converts roughly to about AU$255 or £125. For most, I still think it's worth the cost. The Echo is more than a souped-up speaker with Siri-like smarts -- it's the connected home experience you didn't know you wanted.
How do I use it?
Take the Amazon Echo out of the box and plug it in, and you'll hear the sound of Alexa waking up. She'll say hello, then talk you through the setup process. You'll connect to the speaker's Wi-Fi network on your phone or tablet, then sync things back up with your home network in the Alexa app. Within a minute, you'll be up and running.
The speaker will light up whenever it hears you say its wake word, "Alexa" (or "Amazon," or "Echo," in case you don't want to anthropomorphize the thing. Or in case your name happens to be Alexa). From there, you'll tell the Echo what you want. Whether that's some light jazz, the latest headlines from NPR, a 20-minute kitchen timer, an especially dumb joke or any one of the countless other things you might think to ask for is entirely up to you.
The Echo is a good listener. Hidden within are seven noise-cancelling microphones that use "far-field" voice recognition technology. All that really means is that it's good at hearing you even when you aren't next to it, and even when there's other chatter going on. In my home, the Echo can understand me just fine from several feet away, even when I've got the TV on.
What can it do?
More and more each month, it seems. Most recently, the Echo unveiled new tricks that let you hail a ride from Uber, order a pizza from Domino's or stream music straight from Spotify -- provided you're a paid, premium subscriber of the service.
In CNET's original Amazon Echo review, David Carnoy rightly pointed to Spotify as a notable omission from the list of music streaming services from which Alexa can pull. At the time, it would play tracks from the Amazon Prime Music library (about 1 million songs), but if you wanted to stream from Spotify's library of more than 30 million songs, you needed to control things on your phone or tablet, then use the Echo as a plain old Bluetooth speaker.
The new integration finally adds in the voice-powered Alexa smarts for Spotify's premium subscriber base -- you'll just need to be sure to end your request for a song, album or artist with "on Spotify," as in, "Alexa, play Adele on Spotify." It's a good get for Amazon, and the biggest feather in its music-streaming cap yet, joining Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn as services you can ask Alexa to stream from.
As for audio quality, the Echo features dual downward-firing speakers that promise 360 degrees of "immersive sound." Some of us at CNET, myself included, have noted that its bass tends to weaken or distort at maximum volume, but I haven't had a problem with that personally, since I rarely find myself needing to dial things up much higher than 60 percent or so. To my ear, the Echo does a fine job of filling a room with sound, especially with crisp speech playback, something you'll notice when you listen to a podcast or stream an audiobook.
Still, if it's audio quality you're concerned with, you can find better-sounding speakers at this price. The option to sync the Echo up with an external sound system and use it more strictly as a point of control would be a good fix, and a nice touch for the audiophiles out there. Unfortunately, you can't do that -- at least not yet. Amazon seems pretty committed to the idea of the Echo as an all-in-one device.
All of that said, the Echo is more than a music streamer, just as an iPhone is more than a phone. The key is Alexa. She's helpful, she's capable and she's mostly good at understanding what I'm asking of her, enough so to put her right on par with Apple's Siri as far as virtual assistants go.
But unlike Siri, which is still secondary to touch as a means of interfacing with iOS devices, Alexa is essentially all the Echo has. It was critical for Amazon to get her right -- thankfully, she delivers (and yes, calling Alexa "she" feels more correct than calling Alexa "it," a testament to how personable she is).
At the Echo's launch, Alexa's native capabilities included reading off weather forecasts, setting timers and alarms, and managing your to-do list and shopping list (and, of course, crossing items off of that shopping list by making purchases on Amazon whenever you ask her to). One trick that I use almost every day is to ask her for the news. In response, she'll offer a curated list of the day's headlines and news blurbs from popular sources such as NPR, CNN, BBC News and Fox Sports Radio. You pick which sources you want to hear from and which categories you want to hear about in the Alexa app.
Since launching, the Echo has only gotten smarter. Most of what's new comes by way of Alexa's "Skills," which are essentially the Echo's apps. There are over a hundred of them at this point, and whenever you enable one, you're basically teaching Alexa a new trick. And, thanks to Amazon releasing a software development kit that third parties can use to craft those Skills, the list of options is growing rapidly.
How smart are those Skills?
The Skills section of the Alexa app reminds me of the early days of the iPhone's App Store. There are some from big names such as Yelp, and the Skills for Domino's and Uber that I mentioned earlier. Most, however, come from smaller developers. Some offer genuine niche utility, while others, like a Skill that teaches Alexa to recite "cat facts" on demand, veer toward banal gimmickry. And as of now, there isn't a great way to sort through all of them -- no categories, collections or top picks. With the list growing, a refresh of the Skills section (and of the entire Alexa app, frankly) ought to be high on Amazon's to-do list.