Amazon's smart speaker was arguably the breakout product of 2015. Two years later, Alexa is still going strong.
Editor's note, October 26, 2017:
The world has changed since Amazon introduced its first smart speaker in 2014. Back then, the Echo was something of an oddity -- a bookshelf speaker made interactive and, remarkably, truly useful through Amazon's voice-activated Alexa virtual assistant. Since then, the company has expanded its lineup of smart speakers to include a variety of specialties, while continuing to build out Alexa's arsenal of skills and integrations with third-party apps and smart home gadgets. And the world has caught up, too, pitting Amazon against an increasingly competitive market full of noteworthy rivals including Google, Sonos, and, soon, Apple. Here's everything you need to know about the Amazon Echo and Alexa.
Read: How all of Amazon's Echo smart speakers stack up
This fall, Amazon, which has continued to experiment with its smart speaker portfolio, released an update of its flagship Echo speaker. In our testing, the second-generation model delivered improved audio quality courtesy of a dedicated woofer and tweeter and Dolby sound. It also follows the lead of its Echo Dot sibling, providing an auxiliary jack and Bluetooth connectivity for hooking up to an existing speaker system. The first-generation Echo has been discontinued, and though Amazon still sells a certified refurbished version for $90, there's really no point. The superior Echo 2.0 costs only $100 (£90 or about AU$155), down from its original $180 price, and Amazon offers a $50 discount on a three-pack.
Editor's note: The original Amazon Echo review, originally published in July 2015 and updated most recently in July 2017 follows below.
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 more than two years, I talk to it every day.
I ask it for the morning headlines as I brew my 8 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. That price seemed fair to me when the Echo was a shiny, new curiosity, but I'm not sure that's still the case now that the Alexa lineup -- and the competition -- has matured. Take the Echo Dot: It's just as smart and as capable as the full-sized Echo at less than a third of the cost, and unlike the original Echo, you can connect it with the external speakers of your choice. It seems like the best Alexa starting point by a considerable margin. And though it's still playing catch-up, the well-reviewed Google Home smart speaker costs just $130.
Still, 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. It's no longer the first Alexa gadget I'd recommend, but it's still a fascinating product and a worthy buy if you can catch it on sale during Prime Day or Black Friday.
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. If you're a Star Trek fan, you can also choose to wake it up by saying "Computer"). Once you have Alexa's attention, 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 corny 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. And, if you've got more than one Echo device in your home, only the one nearest to you should respond.
More and more all the time, it seems. Most recently, Amazon unveiled new tricks that let you call and message other Alexa users, along with new software tools that'll let Alexa control Amazon Fire TV setups, as well as select smart TVs.
Other core uses include:
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. That's an option with the pint-sized Echo Dot, but not with the full-sized Echo. 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 telephone. 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 morning while I'm brushing my teeth 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.
As of now, the Echo is available in the US, Germany and the UK. One of the challenges in launching the Echo in a range of countries is making sure Alexa understands different accents and knows when words are used in different contexts.
For example, sports fans can ask for the result of the latest "Spurs game." The US version of the Echo will know you probably mean the San Antonio Spurs and give you a basketball result, while the UK version knows you mean Tottenham Hotspur and gives you a soccer result. The UK version also gives you British English spellings and jokey Easter eggs relating to British cultural touchstones like "Monty Python," among a number of other uniquely UK-focused features. Check out the video above to see some of those British features in action.
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. 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. As of July 2017, the number of skills is well above 10,000.
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.
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 Vivintto 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."
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.
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 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.
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.