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Everything you need to know about the Amazon Echo

Amazon's Alexa-activated smart speaker is a smash hit. If you're thinking about buying in (or just curious about what she's capable of), here's a helpful cheat sheet.

Ian Knighton/CNET

The Amazon Echo is the biggest tech breakout in recent memory -- a voice-activated, internet-connected "smart speaker" with a built-in virtual assistant named Alexa that can answer your questions, follow your instructions and control your smart home devices. As Amazon likes to put it, the Echo is a Star Trek computer for your home.

Now approaching its fourth year, the Echo and its multiple offshoots, including the mini-sized Echo Dot and the touchscreen-equipped Echo Show, have found their way into millions of homes around the world. If they've found their way into yours and you don't know what to do with them, or if you're just curious about whether or not you should also buy in, then you, my friend, have come to the right post.

What is the Amazon Echo, and how does it work?

Let's start at the beginning. Amazon introduced the Echo smart speaker at the end of 2014. It's a standalone Bluetooth speaker with an array of "far-field" microphones that can hear you at a moderate distance plus a Wi-Fi connection to the Amazon cloud.

You wake the Echo up by saying "Alexa," the name of Amazon's virtual assistant (you can change this wake word to "Amazon," "Echo" or "Computer," if you like). Once the speaker hears the wake word, the ring around the top will light up blue to indicate that Alexa is actively listening for your question and command. Say something like, "what's the weather today," and Alexa will answer your question -- in this case, with a quick summary of the day's forecast.

Here's how that works: Whenever you ask Alexa a question or give her a command, the Echo records the audio and uploads the snippet to Amazon's cloud servers. Those servers translate the audio into text, then figure out the best way for Alexa to answer. That info gets sent back to your Echo speaker, where Alexa translates the text back into a spoken response. All of this happens in about a second.

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Press the mute button on the top of the Echo and Alexa will stop listening for the wake word.

Ian Knighton/CNET

So, Alexa is always listening to me?

Sort of. The Echo is always listening for the wake word, but it only starts recording and transmitting audio once it thinks it hears it. Echo devices indicate this with that blue ring of light -- when it lights up, that means Alexa is recording and uploading what it hears in order to figure out how to respond.

Amazon uses encryption to protect those audio snippets whenever Alexa uploads them, and it stores them in the Amazon servers so that you can play them back in the Alexa app to hear what Alexa heard and see what she thinks you asked. You can erase that backlog of audio snippets any time you like (here's how), and you can also press a button to "mute" the microphone and keep the Echo from listening for the wake word at all. In that case, the Echo's ring will turn red to indicate that Alexa is covering her ears.

OK. So what all can Alexa do?

There are countless ways to put Alexa to use, but here are the main ones:

  • General knowledge: From kitchen conversions to celebrity birthdays to sports statistics, Alexa is awfully handy at pulling up a quick fact. Just ask. She'll also give you a rundown of the day's headlines from the news sources of your choice if you say, "Alexa, what's my flash briefing?"

Click here for a complete rundown on everything you can ask Alexa.

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The Echo is great for streaming music, audiobooks, and podcasts. If you want, you can connect the Echo with your existing speakers via auxiliary cable or Bluetooth.

Ian Knighton/CNET
  • Music playback: Alexa can play songs, artists, albums, playlists, genres or podcasts on request. You can choose either Amazon Music or Spotify as your default music library, and you can choose between Amazon Music, iHeartRadio and Pandora as your default station service. Alexa also supports audiobooks via Kindle Unlimited and Audible, and you can also ask for live radio broadcasts through TuneIn, including premium access sporting events and newscasts for a monthly fee.

Click here for our top Alexa tips for music lovers.

  • Smart home control: Alexa works with thousands of connected devices -- smart lights, thermostats, Wi-Fi-enabled appliances, connected cameras, home security systems, robot vacuums and much more. Connect devices like those with your Echo using the Alexa app, and you'll be able to tell Alexa to turn things on and off, or control them in other device-specific ways.

Click here for CNET's top-rated smart home gadgets that work with Alexa. 

  • Alarms and timers: Alexa is always happy to set a quick kitchen timer, which comes in handy when your hands are messy. She'll also set a recurring alarm if you want to use your Echo as an alarm clock. Along with a variety of classic alarm clock tones, you can also choose to wake up to a favorite song or station

Click here to learn how to set a recurring alarm on your Echo device.

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    Alexa can make calls and send messages to friends and family members' Echo devices, or you can just ask her to dial a number.

    Ry Crist/CNET
  • Calling and messaging: If any of the contacts in your phone use Alexa, you can ask your Echo to give them a call or send them a message. When you do, their Echo devices will light up green and Alexa will announce that you're calling. They can answer and start talking to you by saying "Alexa, answer the call." You can also call landlines and mobile numbers in the US, Canada and Mexico -- if you want to call internationally, or call 911, you'll need to buy an Echo Connect, which plugs Alexa into your existing home phone line rather than just calling people over Wi-Fi.

Click here to learn more about calling landlines and mobile numbers using Alexa.

  • Skills: It didn't take long for Amazon to offer software support for outside developers who wanted to create new ways of putting Alexa to use. Now, after just a few years on the market, Alexa has tens of thousands of "skills," which are basically just voice apps. Each skill teaches Alexa a new trick (ordering pizza, hosting trivia night, making fart noises -- you name it), and none of them cost anything to try. To enable one, just head to the skills section of the Alexa app, or, if you know the skill you want, just ask Alexa to enable it herself.

Click here for our regularly-updated list of the 50 most useful Alexa skills.

Oh, and if you need to buy something on Amazon, Alexa can help with that, too. Imagine that!

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Alexa comes in a variety of different packages.

Ian Knighton/CNET

How many different kinds of Echo devices are there?

After the Echo became a clear hit with the mainstream, Amazon doubled down and began releasing a number of offshoot devices designed to broaden the appeal of Alexa's voice interface. All of them offer the same Alexa features in different packages and with different features that might interest different kinds of people. Here's a quick list:

  • Amazon Echo -- The original Echo smart speaker, now in its second generation, comes in a variety of interchangeable cases called "shells," and sells for $100 in the US, £90 in the UK and AU$120 in Australia.
  • Amazon Echo Dot -- Also in its second generation, the Echo Dot is just a smaller, cheaper version of the Echo that comes in white or black. It costs $50 in the US, £50 in the UK and AU$80 in Australia.
  • Amazon Echo Dot, Kids Edition -- At $80, this kid-friendly version of the Dot adds in a colorful bumper case, protections against adult content and voice purchases, parental controls and trial subscriptions to premium kid content. It isn't available in the UK or Australia just yet, but it's US price roughly converts to £60 and AU$105.
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    The Echo Spot is a small-sized Alexa speaker with a circular touchscreen for watching movies, making video calls and seeing information at a glance.

    Tyler Lizenby/CNET
  • Amazon Echo Show -- At an asking price of $230 (£200 in the UK, not available in Australia but its price converts to AU$305), the Echo Show adds a touchscreen and a camera to the Alexa interface, which lets Alexa show you information or stream video on demand. You can also use it to make video calls or check the feed from a compatible connected camera.
  • Amazon Echo Spot -- The softball-sized Echo Spot is basically a smaller Echo Show with a circular screen that works well as a high-end bedside alarm clock. It costs $130 in the US, £120 in the UK and AU$200 in Australia.
  • Amazon Echo Plus -- Available in black, white or silver, the Echo Plus takes the original Echo and adds in a Zigbee radio that lets it connect directly with Zigbee smart lights and other connected home gadgets without needing a hub to act as translator. It's also the only Echo device that still includes a fancy volume ring instead of volume buttons. The cost: $150 in the US, £140 in the UK and AU$230 in Australia.
  • Amazon Echo Connect -- At $35 (not available in the UK or Australia but would roughly cost £25 and AU$45), the Echo Connect is the Echo device everyone always seems to forget -- even Amazon leaves it out of the banner ad of Alexa gadgets at the top of every Echo listing. That might be because it isn't actually an Alexa device in and of itself -- instead, it's a little black box that plugs into your existing home phone line to bring full calling functionality to all of your other Echo devices, including international calls and emergency 911 calls.
  • Amazon Echo Look -- At $200 (not available in the UK or Australia but would roughly cost £150 and AU$265), the Echo Look houses a tiny Alexa speaker inside of a smart camera that can snap pictures of your different outfits, then advise you on what to wear. You have to request an invitation from Amazon to buy one.
  • Amazon Tap -- Currently available for $100 in the US, the Tap is a portable, battery-powered version of the Echo that you can take with you around the house or even outside. While it's not currently available in the UK or Australia, its US price converts roughly to £75 and AU$130.

Beyond those, you'll also find Alexa in Amazon's Fire tablets and Fire TV voice remotes -- as well as a rapidly growing number of devices not made by Amazon. Amazon sees outside developers as a huge part of the Alexa strategy, and it's making considerable efforts to make it as easy as possible for manufacturers to build Alexa into their devices.

Bottom line: Amazon doesn't care which voice-activated device you buy -- just so long as you're talking to Alexa.

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The Echo had a head start, but Google Home is nipping at its heels.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

What are the alternatives?

The Echo had the market to itself for about a year before any real competition showed up. But these days, the smart speaker category is about as crowded as it gets.

The closest competitor would be the Google Home smart speaker ($130 in the US, £130 in the UK and AU$200 in Australia). Powered by the voice-activated Google Assistant -- it comes the closest to matching Alexa's wide variety of features and integrations. Like Amazon, Google offers a smaller-sized version for $50 (£40 in the UK, AU$60 in Australia) called the Google Home Mini. It also offers a king-sized version called the Google Home Max for $400 (£400 in the UK, AU$580 in Australia) that offers superior sound quality. Amazon doesn't have anything that matches the Max speaker, at least not yet.

Apple does, though. Its Siri-activated HomePod, which costs $350 (£320 in the UK, AU$500 in Australia), also offers better sound than any Echo device, though the features and integrations feel narrower and less developed than what you'll get with Amazon or Google.

Other notable competitors include the Cortana-powered Invoke smart speaker from Harman Kardon, and also the abundance of third-party speakers that make use of Alexa or the Google Assistant to offer a fully developed voice interface. Most noteworthy among these: the $200 Sonos One smart speaker (£200 in the UK, AU$300 in Australia), which offers excellent sound quality and your choice of Alexa or the Google Assistant for voice controls.

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What other features should I know about?

We've covered the basics, so let's take a look at some of Alexa's more advanced features and how they stack up against the competition:

Voice recognition: You can train Alexa to recognize different voices, which lets her offer responses tailored to the individual user. You can also use this to keep your kids from making voice purchases -- just know that the feature isn't foolproof. The Google Home lineup can distinguish between different voices, too, but the Apple HomePod cannot.

Routines: Arguably one of Alexa's most useful features, Routines let you trigger multiple things all at once using a single, customizable voice command. For instance, saying "Alexa, good morning" could simultaneously turn several smart lights on while Alexa reads the day's weather forecast. You can also create custom Alexa commands using the free online automation service IFTTT, but they'll each need to start with the word "trigger," as in, "Alexa, trigger party mode." The Google Home speakers have routine-like functionality, too -- and like the Echo, they also let you craft custom voice controls using IFTTT. Plus, with Google home, no "trigger" word is necessary.

Drop in: If you like, you can authorize specific contacts to "drop in" on your Echo device to check in on you, or just use the feature like an intercom system from room to room. That'll let your contacts listen and talk through your speaker (or view the camera feed if you're using an Echo Show or an Echo Spot) without any input from you. Sounds creepy, yes, but it might make sense if you want to use an Echo device to keep an eye on a mischievous kid or an aging parent. Alexa will also let you "announce" things to the other Echo devices under your roof -- a useful way to tell the family that dinner's ready.

Memory: Always forgetting birthdays or other little pieces of info? You can ask Alexa to remember them for you. For instance, just say, "Alexa, remember that Kevin's shoe size is 8" and when it's time to buy your kid new shoes, you can just ask, "Alexa, what is Kevin's shoe size?" and she'll remind you.

External speaker support: The entire lineup of Echo devices can connect to external speakers using Bluetooth or a 3.5mm auxiliary cable. That's especially nice with the Echo Dot, which is a pretty puny speaker on its own. The Google Home and Google Home Mini don't have an aux jack for corded connections with external speakers, but they can connect over Bluetooth.

Smart entertainment controls: Entertainment is an ever-increasing point of focus for Alexa. Echo devices can already act as voice remotes for Fire TV streamers and for compatible smart TVs from names like Vizio, and we're also seeing more and more content providers taking advantage of Amazon's software development kit for video playback controls. That's led to integrations with services like Dish and Logitech Harmony that let you channel surf using your voice. More services like them are certain to follow suit.

Google isn't far behind here. Its Home smart speakers can already sync up with Chromecast streamers to launch content on Netflix or YouTube, and Google recently added new integrations of its own with Dish and Logitech. Watch this space -- the battle to win the couch potatoes over is just getting started.

Where can I buy one?

The easiest place to get one of Amazon's Echo devices is from Amazon itself, but you'll also find them at major retailers like Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, Staples, Sears and Home Depot. Amazon is also selling them in-store at Whole Foods grocery stores after it bought the chain for $13.7 billion last year.

Should I buy one?

If you've read this far, then you should certainly consider it. In-home voice control is evolving quickly, with new features and capabilities arriving week in and week out. That makes speakers like these a lot of fun to own -- and with Echo Dot speakers available for just $50, £50 and AU$80 or less, Alexa's barrier to entry is nice and low.

Of course, the same can be said of the equally cheap and comparably smart Google Home Mini. And if you're an Apple loyalist, then the HomePod's Siri controls might have you tempted to splurge. If you need guidance on which voice assistant is right for you, our quick five-question quiz can help you zero in on an answer. And as always, our smart speaker reviews are here to help, too.

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