I've been using and experimenting with the Amazon Echo for a little over two weeks now. Echo is a cloud-connected, wireless speaker from Amazon, currently in limited release. Overall, it's been an outstanding addition to my home as well as an all-around neat gadget. I love to watch Amazon continue to grow as a company by bringing offerings into so many, varied fields. As usual, Amazon delivered a quality product, at the right price here. It seems as though Amazon has correctly predicted the evolution of the wireless speaker, and beat all competitors to market with an outstanding product.
A Solid Speaker
At it's core, Echo is just another web-connected home speaker. Under the surface, however, Amazon has managed to make Echo smarter, more powerful and less intrusive than others on the market today. Echo performs flawlessly and executes on its core functionalities with vigor. It's a solid speaker, easily able to one-up my Jambox device both in terms of sheer volume and audio quality. I typically have it at the two lowest volume settings in my home, and it remains clearly audible in most rooms.
Echo is a corded, plug-it-in device gasp. While this may be interpreted as a detractor to some, I have found to be an improvement over other wireless devices on the market. The biggest two advantages include that Echo will never run out of batteries and is always connected to the cloud. Amazon seems to be one of the first companies acknowledging the fact that battery technology has simply been unable to keep pace with other technologies. We have all of this magical technology, yet it's commonly drained of life and thus neglected; an annoyingly common problem.
The Echo device cylinder itself is very beautiful, but in a more subtle way than Apple's product design. It's only available in black, at the moment, and I've found that Echo blends into it's surroundings and disappears from sight. It's not a gleaming silver trophy in my home, but simply something always there and ready to hear and be heard, by my command.
Another notable bit of hardware is the included remote control. While it's not a necessary feature to control Echo, it certainly is a nice-to-have addition. I've personally only used it sparingly, when the room was too loud to shout across or when I just didn't feel like talking to the device. It feels great in your hand and has very simple controls (think, a slightly chunkier Apple TV remote). It also features a slick, mountable magnetic base, a neat solution to the problem of always losing remotes in the couch cushions at home.
Being cloud connected means Echo's the software is constantly updated and being iterated on by Amazon's development teams. No need to plug into your computer, no slow update processes, nothing. It just sits there and gets better. In the small timeframe that I've been using Echo, many new features have already been pushed to me.
Alexa, the voice behind Echo, just works. When speaking to Echo, you're speaking with Alexa. She is Amazon's voice/personality behind the device, similar to iOS's Siri or Android's Google Now. I've found her to be more pleasant to interact with than the other industry leaders here, it's a really natural/pleasant experience. Very minimal repetition, confirmation seeking, etc that can make voice recognition technology a real hassle. Speaking with Alexa is very natural, and she had understood literally every command I've sent her way to this point. Impressive.
Companion Mobile App / 3rd Party Integrations
The Echo experience is augmented with a companion mobile app, available for both Android & iOS. The app is one of the options for the initial setup and while it is not a necessity to enjoy Echo, it can make the overall experience a more personal one. For example, I'm able to sync my Amazon account with Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and a few other 3rd-party music applications, thus broadening my music choices. Bravo to Amazon for not restricting the listeners experience to their own their own library and profits.
I hope to see more and more 3rd party integrations make their way to Echo, as I've found the Pandora integration to be flawless. After signing in once on the companion mobile app, I can play any Pandora playlists simply by asking Alexa. The features go even further by allowing you to "like" or "thumbs-down" songs, just as you would on their website. There are a few other audio streaming integrations, but I've not had the chance and/or need to.
Ads & Purchasing Hooks
Again, I was pleasantly surprised by the minimal amount of intrusiveness the Echo introduced in terms of branding and advertising. It has been critiqued in the media as being an obvious ploy to get more purchases through Amazon Prime. In my two weeks using the Echo thus far, I've never once been prompted or suggested to purchased a single thing. Not once. That being said, it would be very simple to turn these features on, but it would be by my own doing, not any Amazon trickery or dark user experience patterns. Its been my experience that those of us who pay for Prime membership typically use the service to a point that this type of voice purchasing could become second nature. This may make the lives of Prime members more convenient overall, actually breaking down barriers and making life a little easier.
The Creep Factor
One small aside about Echo is the creep factor introduced here. Technically, the device is always listening, nut only for the activation word, Alexa. Or so we've been told.. Also be sure to note that Amazon stores all commands you speak to Alexa. These are then available for playback via the companion applications. Amazon uses this as a clever feedback mechanism, allowing the user (or, customer in Amazon's vernacular), to confirm that Alexa/Echo heard correctly. While I'm sure this is used to enhance the product overall, I hate to think of how else my voice information could be leaked, sold, categorized or otherwise manipulated. What a world we live in!
In conclusion, I'm an Echo fan. If you're in the market for a bluetooth speaker for your home, do not pass this one up. I managed to snag mine, as a Prime member, for the initial release price of $99. I believe at this time it's up to $149, still a solid price. The software will continue to evolve - and the customer support surrounding the product has been unparalleled.
You can request in invitation to purchase the Echo here.