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Amazon Echo review: The smart speaker that can control your whole house

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, Uber, Domino's and Capital One. Most, however, come from smaller developers. Some of these offer genuine niche utility, while others, like a Skill that teaches Alexa to recite "cat facts" on demand, veer toward banal gimmickry.

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The Echo works with a growing number of smart home gadgets.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Still, the point is that there's something for everyone. If you're a gamer, there are Skills for games such as Minecraft and Destiny that'll turn Alexa into a helpful sidekick. If you're a budding mixologist, there's a Skill that'll teach Alexa to talk you through complicated cocktail recipes. If you're a musician, there are Skills that let you use the Echo as a metronome or guitar tuner.

Something else you'll find in the Skills section: a growing number of smart home products. All of them promise to let you monitor or control your gadgets using only your voice.

This is the "a-ha" moment for Alexa's Skills, the point in the story where the scope of the Echo's potential really comes into focus. Anyone who doubts that voice control is the next big frontier for the smart home (a frontier in and of itself) need only look so far as Apple. The company is currently betting big on Siri controls to help sell the masses on HomeKit, its iOS-powered vision for the connected home.

Here's the thing: For now, at least, Alexa does it better. The Echo is a dedicated voice control device that stays plugged in. It's always ready to take a command, and anyone can use it, regardless of what sort of phone they use or whether or not they have an Amazon Prime account. If you have guests staying in your home for a few days, you don't have to transfer your account settings to anyone else's device, and you don't have to share a password with anyone. Just scribble any relevant Alexa commands onto a notecard for them. It's as simple as that.

Other Echo integrations go even deeper than the ones you'll find in Alexa's list of Skills. Lifx and Philips Hue's connected lights, Belkin's WeMo line of smart switches, Ecobee's connected thermostats and smart home platforms such as Wink, SmartThings and Insteon all offer native support for the Echo. That means that you don't need to enable a Skill for any of those devices -- you can connect them with the Echo straight out of the box. And, unlike the Skills, the native integrations don't require you to remember any extra vocabulary in order to use them (i.e., "Alexa, tell Vivint to arm my security system," or, "Alexa, ask Automatic where I parked my car." Instead, you can just say, "Alexa, turn off the lights").

Alexa also works with the free online automation service IFTTT. The marquee feature here is that you can write your own custom Alexa commands and use them to trigger whatever IFTTT recipe you want -- though, whatever your custom command is, it'll need to start with the word "trigger." 

Some new features, some old limitations

The last time this review received a major update, I pointed out that Alexa couldn't call anyone without help of a specialized third-party skill, as well as the fact that she didn't work with smart TV sets or with Amazon Fire TV. Now, one year later, both of those criticisms no longer apply.

For starters, you can now use your Echo to call or message other Alexa users. You'll need to enable the feature in the Alexa app and register your phone number with Amazon. Alexa will then scan your contacts and look for any numbers in Amazon's database. From there, you'll be able to tell your Echo to call or message those contacts using your home Wi-Fi network. (Alexa doesn't actually call numbers like a phone does -- instead, she calls other Alexa accounts, and uses the phone number strictly as a means of identifying contacts you can call.)

Alexa still can't call 911, though, and she can't call people who aren't in your list of contacts. That limits her usefulness as a home phone replacement, but it also creates a closed network of friends and family members you actually want to talk to. You can also use one Echo device in your home to call or message another -- sort of an Alexa-powered intercom service.

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Deeper phone integrations for the Echo would make a lot of sense -- if Amazon can figure out a way of keeping things private.

Sarah Tew/CNET

On the TV front, the Echo can now control Amazon Fire TV setups with commands like "launch Netflix," "turn the volume up," or "play 'Twin Peaks.'" There are also new Fire TV-edition television sets with Amazon's media streamer and Alexa controls built right in. They function the same as using an Echo with Amazon Fire TV, but with the added benefit of being able to use the TV's voice remote to ask Alexa to switch TV inputs. Similarly, some smart TV sets are beginning to embrace Alexa as a direct voice control option, no Amazon Fire TV necessary. Watch for this trend to continue.

There's still room for Alexa to grow. Deeper smartphone integrations would be a good start, and a handy way to help keep your phone in your pocket. It'd be great if you could ask Alexa to read incoming emails or texts, for instance -- ideally with the same option for a voice passcode that you can currently use to keep your kids from going on an Alexa-powered shopping spree. You similarly wouldn't want your nosy roommate asking Alexa to dig through your inbox.

Another complaint: You still can't sync multiple Echo devices up for stereo-style playback.

It's also worth mentioning that the Echo won't let you program smart home scenes the way that competing platforms like HomeKit will. You can add compatible lights and devices in the Alexa app, and then group them to turn multiple things on and off at once, but you can't, for instance, program a scene that sets the Hue bulbs to blue and raises the thermostat to 70 F.

Alexa will, however, detect scenes that you've programmed in third-party apps for compataible devices, then let you "turn those scenes on" with a voice command. For instance, you could create a "Fourth of July" scene in the Lifx app that sets three color-changing smart bulbs to red, white and blue. When you scan for new devices, Alexa will discover that scene and list it in the app. From there, you can trigger it by saying, "Alexa, turn on Fourth of July."

Alexa still has a substantial lead over rivals Siri and the Google Assistant.

Chris Monroe/CNET

What about the competition?

Alexa enjoyed a lengthy head start in the smart speaker category, with Echoes and Echo Dots selling in droves before a true competitor arrived. Ultimately, that competitor emerged in the form of the Google Home smart speaker, but not before Alexa had built up a substantial lead with consumers and developers alike. That means more users, more skills, more compatible devices, and more momentum.

Still, there's some merit to Google Home as an Alexa alternative. It can use voice recognition to distinguish between multiple users, which Alexa still can't do, and it also offers a little more flexibility over how you word your commands. If you're looking for cooking assistance, we also prefer Google Home's approach to guiding you through a recipe step-by-step.

Then there's Siri. She's already adept at bringing voice control to the connected living space via HomeKit, Apple's set of smart home protocols in the latest versions of its iOS platform for mobile devices. HomeKit allows you to use Siri to control compatible smart home devices, but you still need an iPhone or an iPad. That's a problem if guests or family members don't use iOS devices -- though the arrival of the Siri-enabled HomePod smart speaker this December should finally fix that (albeit at a hefty $350).

The Echo is almost three years old at this point, and it's a clear breakout that continues to sell. If nothing else, it's proven that there's a place for a dedicated voice-control device in the modern home -- and a market for it, too. To that end, Amazon has moved aggressively to diversify the Alexa lineup with the ultra-affordable Echo Dot, the battery powered Tap, the touchscreen-equipped Echo Show, and the style-centric Echo Look camera. You might prefer one of those over the original Echo, but they all share the same Alexa appeal.

In addition, Amazon's Alexa Voice Service makes the software that powers the virtual assistant available to third-party manufacturers. That means that any device with built-in microphones and speakers can add Alexa-powered voice controls with just a few lines of code. We saw the first hints of third-party Alexa devices at CES 2016 before the floodgates opened a year later -- now, you can find a growing range of third-party Alexa speakers, along with an Alexa lamp, an Alexa refrigerator, an Alexa thermostat and a lot more. There's nothing like that happening with Siri or the Google Assistant.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The speaker of the house

We asked the smart home to start making sense. Amazon Echo heard us. In an age of app-enabled connected gadgets and automated everything, the Echo does something different. It isn't just a smart speaker. It's a user interface for your home, the thing you use more than anything else. It's overwhelmingly good at what it does, and it's learning to do more and more every day. And I'd be remiss not to mention the impact that the Echo is already making with the elderly and disabled.

That's the kind of transformative tech that's worth buying into. At $180, the Amazon Echo isn't as good a deal as the $50 Echo Dot, but it still remains a worthy and futuristic upgrade for your home. It'll surprise you, and it'll grow on you. You might not know you want it. But you do.

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