Amazon Echo review: Amazon’s smart speaker now has a smaller, fatter sibling

£149
Price when reviewed

Update: The original Amazon Echo is relatively old news now. It’s been usurped by younger, more advanced (and in some case better looking) models. Yet that didn’t stop it from being an incredibly popular way to bring smart features to your dumb home. 

To help get you started with Amazon Echo, we have the review of the 1st generation model below. The new Amazon Echo, dubbed Amazon Echo (2nd generation), is a smaller, fatter model. It has improved microphone and speaker technology and comes in a range of fabric cases, from Charcoal to an Oak finish. It’s also joined in the range by the Amazon Echo Plus, which builds in support for smart home devices, and the Amazon Echo Show, which costs £199 and has a 7in screen and 5-megapixel camera for carrying out video-based Drop-In calls.

Amazon Echo (1st generation) review

Digital voice assistants aren’t actually very useful. There is something faintly magical about being able to converse with your phone, but the banal reality is that it’s rarely any quicker than reaching for Google search or tapping on an app icon. However, Amazon is hoping to change everyone’s mind. The Echo is Siri for your living room, or Cortana for your kitchen, and this time she’s called Alexa.

What is Amazon Echo?

Despite appearances, the Amazon Echo is much more than just a fancy Bluetooth speaker. Seven internal microphones are constantly listening, lying in wait for a voice command to ripple across the room. It doesn’t matter where you’re sitting, either. Six of those microphones are dotted around the top of the speaker, and one is placed slap-bang in the centre so that the Echo can hear voice commands from any direction.

READ NEXT: Best Alexa Skills

In tandem with those microphones, the Echo uses Amazon’s far-field voice-recognition technology to sieve through the hum and buzz of everyday life. Call out a command, and you can tell when it’s listening – the Echo’s glowing upper edge changes to a lighter shade of blue and pinpoints which of the six microphones is hearing you loudest.

Try to use the Echo in a noisy household, and the blather of housemates, TVs and ringing telephones means that you’ll often need to raise your voice, but by and large, the Echo is impressively responsive. The multiple microphones do a fine job of filtering through household chatter to deliver news, calendar updates, music, traffic information, sports results and answers to any inane question you can think of.

Getting started

Getting up and running couldn’t be easier. The Alexa app acts as Echo’s main control centre, and this allows you to connect Echo to your Wi-Fi network and set your wake word. The default wake word is “Alexa”, but you can also switch it to Amazon or Echo if you prefer.

The app records everything you’ve ever asked the Echo, and provides a stack of menus with which to manage its various functions. You can connect your Prime Music, Spotify Premium, TuneIn Radio and Audible accounts, and further menu items allow you to adjust your timer and alarm settings, peruse the music in your Now Playing list, and also check out your Echo’s Skills list (more on that shortly). And if you’ve forgotten what you’ve added to your Shopping and To-Do lists, you can view these in the app too.

If you’ve packed your home with smart gadgetry, then the Echo may become your new best friend. The app’s Smart Home menu can take control of all manner of home-automation tech, and there’s support for Honeywell, Hive, Nest, Netatmo, Samsung SmartThings, Tado, TP-Link’s Kasa and LIFX lightbulbs. I’m waiting on some compatible smart-home devices to arrive, and will update this review with my impressions once Echo’s been put through its paces.

Skills

Amazon’s “skills” make it possible to expand the Echo’s abilities. These are essentially basic little apps. For instance, you can get quick headline summaries from The Guardian, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Sky News as skills, while the National Rail skill means you can check for train delays without even picking up your phone. There are other skills, including Skyscanner Flight Search for checking flights, and recipes from Jamie Oliver, but by far my favourite is the Just Eat support – this allows you to reorder your last meal without even moving from the sofa. There’s no support for some popular services such as Evernote or Google Keep, though, which may be a deal-breaker for some.

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