Amazon Echo and Echo Dot review (hands-on): A really good listener

I’ll be honest, virtual assistants have always seemed a bit empty to me. I never use Google Now or Siri, or told my Xbox to shut itself down – and not just because it sounds unnecessarily cruel and I fear an AI rebellion. Talking to gadgets, to me, has always appeared empty: a nice party trick, but too unnatural and awkward to actually save time. Will I have to phrase myself in an exact way to be understood? What are its limitations? It’s the problem that Nuance’s Nils Lenke once described to me as “like boiling the ocean” – trying to take on too much in such a way that is ultimately unsatisfying to you or me.

At first glance, this could be a very real problem with the Amazon Echo – a virtual assistant speaker hybrid that sits in your house awaiting instruction. At the launch event, various Amazon employees ask it everything from an update on the weather (too hot to be at an event, since you ask), to how their commute is looking, to whether Manchester United won, and to tell us all a joke. Each requirement was met with a useful response, delivered after a short delay while the device consulted the cloud for guidance.[gallery:5]

Pre-order the Echo at Amazon

Amazon’s Dave Limp talked about the many problems they had in creating Alexa, the virtual assistant at the heart of Echo. Along with the logistical headaches of background noise and regional accents, a whole section was dedicated to privacy, for those who feel a bit queasy having a device designed to listen to their every move. Not only will you be able to see everything the device has ever heard and delete them from its history, but pressing the Mute button on Echo will mean that there’s no power going to the microphones. It physically can’t listen to what you’re doing at this point, and the ring around the top turns red so it’s suitably hard to miss.

In preparation for the UK launch, Echo has teamed up with a whole bunch of third parties too, making it generally more useful. This means you can get a Sky News update of the headlines, play a Spotify track, get a Jamie Oliver recipe dictated or re-order the takeaway you had from Just Eat. Conspicuous by their absence, of course, are Google- and Apple-related services. No surprise, but irritating for those of us who swear by Google Play Music (hi!).

Back in the demo area, it works pretty much as promised too – even in an environment crowded with tech journalists clamouring for attention, and with several Echos set up. This is partly down to the clever technology the company has added to compensate for houses with different Echos in different rooms. Now if two Echos hear you ask a question, they figure out which is closer and that one responds: neat.

Anyway, back to the demo. We were presented with a list of useful commands to test, which had no trouble recognising the broad range of accents on display (in both German and English), but going off-piste and asking for Derby County’s latest result (a 1-0 defeat to Ipswich, since you ask) left the Echo stumped. I imagine a team of experts in Amazon’s data centre are now desperately Googling “What is a Derby County?”[gallery:6]

Everything else worked nicely, though. For such a small device (it’s slightly bigger than a thermos flask), Echo packs quite a punch, easily filling a large open-plan space with surprisingly complex musical depth. For those that don’t trust the Echo’s ability to broadcast a sound, however, Amazon did announce a smaller version at a third of the cost. The Echo Dot cuts out the speaker section, while leaving in the virtual assistant side of things. The idea here is that you plug in your own sound system, and benefit from the aural ecosystem you’ve already put several months’ pay cheques into.

You can also use them in tandem with other Echos. Indeed, Amazon plans to sell the Echo Dots in six-packs and 12-packs, which offer a £50 and £100 discount respectively. Each Echo Dot costs £50, so you’re essentially getting one or two free. Well, as free as anything can be when you’re dropping £250 or £500 in one splurge.[gallery:1]

Pre-order the Echo Dot at Amazon

The fully fledged speaker version will set you back £150, although Prime members can get a pre-order discount of £50 for the next two days. That’s a very appealing proposition if this sounds like the kind of thing you’d use – and for those with fledgling connected homes, it’s almost a no-brainer. At the start of the presentation, Limp said the company were inspired by Star Trek, and the way the ships’ computers could help with any enquiry wherever Kirk was onboard the ship. If you want to see what living in a science-fiction world feels like, £100 is about as cheap as it’s going to come for the moment – and that will still be the case when the Echo launches on 28 September.

Pre-order the Echo at Amazon

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