Amazon Echo review
The Echo is a hands-free voice-activated speaker which uses Amazon's Alexa, a virtual assistant, to play music, check the weather, turn on the lights and much, much more. Here's our Amazon Echo review. See also: How to use Alexa and funny things Alexa can say to you
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Alexa can answer your questions like Siri or the Google Assistant in Google Home, as well as giving you a news and weather briefing. If you have some smart home equipment such as a Nest thermostat or Philips Hue lights, Alexa can often control these too once you've enabled the appropriate Skills.
Not only is the voice recognition excellent, but Alexa will still hear you even if your kids are having an argument or you’re already using your Echo to listen to music.
Amazon Echo review: Price
There are two versions of the Echo available in the UK. The main one costs £149.99 from Amazon and comes in black or white.
There’s also the Echo Dot, which is £49.99 from Amazon. This also comes in black and white and differs from the Echo only in that it doesn’t have the same high-quality speaker inside it, which also makes it considerably smaller.
Google Home isn't yet on sale in the UK, but it is in the US. For more, see Amazon Echo vs Google Home.
Amazon Echo review: Design
The big Echo is 235mm tall (around 9in) and has two buttons on top. One mutes the microphone to prevent Alexa hearing you, and the other is an action button which has various uses including stopping timers or alarms and putting the Echo into Wi-Fi setup mode.
Around the top is a light ring which tells you when Alexa is working, the volume level and if there’s an issue with Wi-Fi or internet connectivity. There’s also a volume ring for turning it up or down, but you can do this by asking Alexa to “turn it up” or saying, “Alexa, volume 5”.
The Echo Dot is only 32mm tall, but the same diameter as the big version at 84mm. It lacks the volume ring, so has two extra buttons on top for turning the level up or down.
Its internal speaker is fine for Alexa’s voice feedback, but you can still use it to play music, podcasts and listen to your Flash Briefing. It just doesn't have the quality or loudness of the large Echo. But the idea is that you connect your own speaker of hi-fi via the 3.5mm minijack. Or you can pair a Bluetooth speaker and use that (just bear in mind that models which need a PIN to pair aren’t supported).
Inside the large Echo are two speakers, a 2.5in woofer and a separate tweeter. Sound quality is decent, particularly when Alexa is speaking, but it’s far from the best-sounding speaker for music at higher volumes and there are better speakers at this price.
However, if you’re going to use it in the kitchen (my personal preference) or a bedroom, the volume and quality are fine. If you really want top-notch audio with plenty of bass, then buy an Echo Dot and hook it up to whichever speaker floats your boat. For inspiration, see our list of the best Bluetooth speakers.
If you buy the big Echo, you can also use it as a Bluetooth speaker and play music from your phone directly. This works really well, and you can still use Alexa to control playback. (The Echo Dot can also work as a Bluetooth speaker, which can be a clever way to turn a wired speaker or Hi-Fi into a wireless system for playing music from your phone.)
See also: Best smart heating systems
Amazon Echo review: Setup
Installation is easy enough, but we've written a step-by-step guide on how to set up an Amazon Echo to be extra helpful. What you do is download the free Alexa app on your iPhone, Android device or Amazon Fire tablet. Pop in your Amazon account and password, since it uses this for various things, including keeping a history of what you’ve asked Alexa to do, as well as to make orders by voice and to get an update on those orders.
Like most Wi-Fi gadgets, it scans and asks which network to connect to and after you’ve selected your router and connected, you’re good to go. There’s no voice training: anyone can speak to Alexa. (The Voice Training option previously seen in the US version of the app is absent from the UK version, so if you have a particularly thick accent which Alexa doesn’t understand there’s currently nothing you can do about it, but everyone that has tested the Echo in my house has been understood without any issues.)
At this point you can start using Alexa to do things such as setting alarms, timers and even telling jokes, but a little more configuration (such as setting your location in the app) will give you things like local weather forecasts and news briefings. In fact, you can even customise which news outlets provide your updates.
Sky News updates, for example, are pre-recorded headlines such as those you’d hear on the radio. Try and listen to the Guardian app’s headlines, though and Alexa has to read the RSS feed which doesn’t work nearly as well. Newspaper headlines tend to be nuanced and don’t work well with text-to-speech engines. As good as Alexa is, the lack of human intelligence means the intonation isn’t there, and headlines can often be hard to understand.
Similarly, if you say “Alexa, good morning” you’ll get a greeting and a fact of the day. Sometimes it’s quite wordy and difficult to understand.
Incidentally, if you or someone in your household is called Alexa, you can change the ‘wake word’ in the app to Amazon or Echo. Unfortunately, you can’t change it to any word you like.