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Cracking Open: Amazon EchoBill Detwiler cracks open the Amazon Echo and explores the tech inside this cloud-connected, "smart" speaker.
Alexa, what's inside the Amazon Echo? Hm, I can't find the answer to the question I heard. [LAUGH] Well, the Echo may not the answer, but I know another way to find out. And perhaps, in the process we'll also find out what makes this a smart speaker. I'm Bill Detwiler and this is Cracking Open. [MUSIC] Part speaker, part microphone, part Star Trek computer in your house, the Echo is around nine and a quarter inches tall and three and a quarter inches wide, or about the size of a one liter drink container. It's controls are minimal. There are speaker on off and action buttons on the top as well as a rotating and lighted volume ring. On the bottom is the connector for the power cord. Now from the outside, that's really about all there is to see other than the microphone and speaker holes that cover the Echo's black plastic shell. So to learn what really makes this speaker smart, we'll have to break out our screwdrivers and crack it open. To get inside the Echo, you'll need to go through the bottom. So first I remove the rubber base. Now unfortunately, I used a bit too much force and tore it during the process. But since it's on the bottom, no one will really notice when I put the Echo back together. Four screws hold the bottom cover in place. Once I removed them and disconnected a few cables, I can remove the cover which also holds the power board. Now the lower speaker cover comes off next. Followed by the outer shell and a thin piece of fabric which sits behind the speaker holes. We now get our first look inside the Echo. Now on the bottom is a two inch tweeter followed by a two and a half inch woofer. Now the system board is mounted to the side of the internal frame and air chamber. And finally a volume ring, control button and microphone assembly is located on the top. Another set of four screws hold the tweeter in place. And after removing them, I can lift out both the tweeter and the woofer. After detaching a few cables, and removing a few more screws, the system board came off next. Although much of the processing for the Echo happens in the cloud, there are a few cool chips on the board. Including a Texas Instruments DM3725 digital media processor, a 250 meg Samsung mobile DRAM chip, a four gig Toshiba NAND flash storage chip, and a Qualcomm QCA6234 wireless chip. Now lastly, I removed the volume ring assembly. Which is made up of several layers. All sandwiched together and covering the microphone and control board. Now on the top of the control board, are the LEDs and contacts for the speaker on off button and the action button. On the under side are microphones and more LEDs. Various LED drivers and audio processors, and the volume control wheel. With the Echo completely in pieces, our tear down is complete. Well, now we know that there's plenty of cool tech inside the Echo. and we got a look at the speakers and air chambers that help it deliver pretty good sound, as small bluetooth speakers go. But did we find out what makes the Echo smart? Well, yes, and the answer is, as with most digital assistants, like Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana, or Google Now, the Cloud. Somewhere in massive data centers Armies of servers collect a recording of your voice, process your request. And then send a response back down to the echo. In essence, the echo is just the ears and mouth of Amazon's Alexa voice servers. So the echo is only as smart as that service is. Which I would say is average as digital assistants go. Where the Echo really shines however, is it's always-on capability. Day and night, it's sitting there, waiting for you to make a request. Now, yes, this is a bit creepy. But it's also incredibly useful. Sure, I could take my iPhone out of my pocket, hold the Home button and ask Siri to do the same thing as the Echo. But that's just not as easy as walking into my kitchen and asking Alexa what the weather is, to turn on the news, or to set a timer so I don't burn what I'm cooking. I've used the Echo for several weeks and found it to be incredibly useful and as close to a Star Trek computer as any digital assistant I've tested. Now if I could only get the echo to wake up when I say computer. Now for more information on the Amazon Echo, including real world tests and pricing, check out David Carnoy's full CNET review. To see more tear down photos and read my full hardware analysis, go to techrepublic.com/crackingopen. [MUSIC]