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Reviews

Amazon Echo review

The future is here, and it lives in your kitchen

Price
£124
  • Great speaker quality; Highly accurate voice recognition; Machine learning promises easier use over time;
  • Limited inital skillset; Occasionally struggles to detect 'wake word' at high volumes;

The Amazon Echo has finally made it to the UK. Amazon's connected speaker has been out in the US for around a year, but UK users have been left out in the cold until now.

While the Echo is primarily a speaker, the real genius lies under the hood in the form of a cloud-based digital assistant called Alexa. Similar to Siri or Cortana, Alexa will answer questions and perform tasks based on verbal commands, but unlike its rivals, Amazon has seriously raised the bar in terms of user interaction.

Design and appearance

According to Amazon, the Echo is "designed to disappear", blending seamlessly into your home dcor when you're not using it. It's a goal it accomplishes very well, and if you don't want it to be the center of attention, the subtle and unobtrusive design ensures that it won't stick out like a sore thumb.

However, you may want to make it a statement piece anyway. Though understated, the Echo's perfectly cylindrical body - measuring 9.25in tall and 3.27in across, accented by a speaker grille around the lower half - is attractive and sophisticated.

Our review unit came in white, although we probably would have gone for the alternative black colour option given the choice. We've got a sneaking suspicion that after a while, the white plastic chassis will start to pick up grubby marks and stains.

Sound quality

While the most interesting part of the Amazon Echo is undoubtedly its AI capabilities, fundamentally it's still a connected speaker and the company has definitely not skimped in that regard. The Echo has a 2in tweeter for high tones and a 2.5in woofer for bass, augmented with a special inbuilt chamber to amplify and enhance the bass. The speakers are both downward firing, which provides omnidirectional 360-degree sound.

As a speaker, the Echo is an excellent offering, with deep, rich tones, a surprising amount of volume and as much bass as one can reasonably expect from a standalone unit with no external subwoofer. If you like your music loud and punchy, then the Echo will deliver - when Amazon boasts of 'room-filling sound', it's no joke.

Alexa

As good as the speaker is, the main attraction is Alexa, the cloud-powered AI brain that sits at the heart of the Echo. Alexa is designed to act as a completely handsfree digital assistant, similar to Siri or Google Now. She responds to voice commands, answering questions, telling jokes and integrating with apps and services to perform basic tasks.

Right now, the two main uses for Alexa are playing music or audiobooks and controlling smarthome systems. Alexa can currently stream audio from Spotify, TuneIn and Amazon - including both Prime Music and any music you've purchased - and she can read Audible audiobooks.

There are also numerous smarthome integrations on offer. Alexa can control smart home appliances from Wemo, Hue, Netatmo, Hive, Nest, Honeywell and more. Voice command feels much more convenient than pulling out your phone - especially if you just want to turn the light off. Alexa also unifies smarthome services from multiple providers, so if you've been holding out from getting smart home controls fitted, Alexa is an excellent reason to take the plunge.

Alexa can integrate with third-party apps thanks to sets of commands called 'skills'. There's a selection of major skills available at launch, including a Jamie Oliver skill to walk you through some of the Naked Chef's favourite recipes step by step, a Just Eat integration to help you reorder your favourite takeaway and a Guardian service that reads you the latest news and headlines.

Although these are fun, Alexa's most immediately useful abilities are telling you the weather, reporing on traffic and public transport status and giving you a 'flash briefing' of all the day's major news (which you can customise depending on your preference of news source). If you use Google Calendar, she can also tell you your schedule and add new events to your diary, all of which are especially handy when you're getting ready for work in the morning.

Sadly, aside from this handful of notable exceptions, there's a lack of quality third-party skills. There's enough on offer to constitute a decent initial offering, but when compared with the options open to US users, the UK's version of Alexa does feel a little limited. We're particularly jealous of the Dominos and Jeopardy! skills.

On the other hand, the Echo was only released in the UK a week ago, whereas it has been available in the US for around a year, so has had much longer to grow its ecosystem. Given a few months, we'd expect the range of skill on offer to grow substantially, particularly since Alexa's SDK is open source, meaning anyone is free to make skills for her to use.

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