In September Amazon announced that the Echo was coming to the UK, and that Prime members could preorder one for £99.99, rather than the usual price of £149.99. Over the last couple of years I have heard great things about the Echo (mainly from Podcasts with US hosts), and I was in the market for a new Bluetooth speaker anyway, so I knew that it wouldn’t a completely wasted purchase. So I went ahead and purchased the black model at the discounted price, in addition to the remote for £19.99.
I received the Amazon Echo on launch day, the packaging was nice but without the wow factor you get when unboxing an Apple product. The size of the Echo is what I expected from the various reviews and promo shots online, but a lot of the photos do a suspiciously good job of hiding the power cord coming out of it. The Echo itself has 2 buttons on the top, one for disabling the mic and another to trigger the setup process. Around the top of the Echo there is a light ring which is used to indicate activity. You can also twist the top of the Echo, which rather satisfyingly adjusts the volume.
I decided to put the Echo in my lounge as it is where I spend the majority of my time when I’m at home. The setup of the Echo using an iPhone was easy, you download the Alexa app from the AppStore and follow the on screen instructions. These involve connecting your iPhone to the Echo’s WiFi network and configuring it with your network’s WiFi credentials and Amazon account.
The Alexa app on iOS is clearly a hybrid app, in fact I would say it is predominately web based. There are a few strange behaviours with navigation (sometimes you press back and it appears to pop an entire web view from the navigation stack, thus you actually go back multiple steps) and it doesn’t use native controls which can be quite jarring at times. The app works, but I’m pleased that besides the initial configuration you don’t have to use it. It does have a nice feature where it shows you all the events you have triggered, and also (rather creepily) allows you to playback the audio from any of your requests that triggered Alexa, which is good for when you ask yourself “Why did it do that?”.
After configuring my Echo, i then proceeded to set up my Smart Home Devices. I have a Hive Thermostat and Smart Bulbs, and it was trivial to add these to my Echo. The Echo also allows you to to create groups of devices e.g. downstairs lights, which was a nice touch. My one issue with the integration (but I am not sure where the issue is), but simply saying “Alexa, Turn the hall light on” means that it sets the brightness to 100%, not the last brightness setting that was used.
I don’t use Spotify, but I have access to Amazon Music with my Prime Subscription, so I set this as my default music service and have used it to listen to music numerous times over the course of the last few months. In addition to music it also plays internet Radio, which I have used more than I thought I would. In my opinion the Echo sounds really good when compared to other Bluetooth Portable Speakers that I have heard, and has a loud enough speaker to fill a room although you lose some of the depth at full volume. In addition to streaming Audio from the internet, once paired you can say “Alexa connect” and it connects via bluetooth to your last paired device, in my case my iPhone, and then it works as a normal bluetooth speaker with support for voice commands to play, pause, next/previous track and volume up/down.
The Echo does a good job of listening to voice commands even when it’s outputting audio at a high volume (ducking the audio after it hears the trigger command), however this is the one scenario where by I would recommend the remote, as saying next track, adjusting the volume etc by voice can get a bit tedious. The remote is what you expect, it also has a mic button that you hold down to talk into it, but if you are not going to listen to audio I probably wouldn’t bother purchasing it.
One reason to use the Echo in the Kitchen/Bedroom is that it offers Timers and Alarms, you simple say “Alexa, set a timer for 7 minutes” and it will remind you. Obviously being in my Lounge means I don’t really make use of this feature, but when I tested it they both worked as you would expect.
Another major built in feature of the Echo is its ability to add items to both shopping and todo lists. Unfortunately these both require you to use the Alexa app, so I gave them a miss. Other than that, you can ask Alexa questions about the news, weather and more general questions such as unit conversions etc
Additional capabilities can be added to the Echo using Skills, which are in essence apps for your Echo. Once enabled you can then trigger a skill by saying “Alexa, ask SKILL QUESTION” e.g. “Alexa, ask TubeStatus are there any delays” (TubeStatus being the first Skill I downloaded to find out about delays on the London Underground). The Skills (if you can find any that you want) work fine, but they feel a bit robotic and you are conscious that you have to learn the syntax, whereas the built in features seem a bit more forgiving in wording and phrasing.
Obvious I couldn’t review Alexa without making the comparison to the other assistant in my life, Siri. After living with the Echo for a few months, the detection and transcription capabilities of Alexa on the Echo is leaps and bounds ahead of Siri on the iPhone 7. Alexa is also better at answering general questions, like the weather, unit conversion etc. However I feel that Siri’s intents API implementation means that for the few supported domains (8 as of iOS 10), your interactions feel a lot more natural compared to when interacting with a Skill. In short they are both coming at the problem from different directions, Alexa is currently winning but in my opinion that has a lot to do with the hardware.
So to conclude, would I recommend buying an Echo? Yes, if you want to make use of it as a Bluetooth speaker, whether than be with Spotify, Amazon Music or Internet Radio. I would also whole heartedly recommend it If you are interested in using it for interacting with your Smart Home Devices, but it is probably worth considering the cheaper (£49.99) Echo Dot device…. but I actually ended up buying a second Echo for my bedroom, so it is safe to say I recommend it.