Amazon’s Echo speaker, now in its second generation and with several versions, continues to expand its smart-home, digital-assistant, and music abilities. It is first a wireless speaker, but it’s capable of so much more. Using only your voice, you can play music, create to-do and shopping lists, search the Internet, get instant weather reports, shop online and control your smart-home products. All this while your smartphone stays safely in your pocket.
Alexa, who was named after the ancient library of Alexandria, is Amazon’s voice-controlled system. You can speak your desires to an Echo smart speaker and seem them fulfilled. At least, your simple desires, like dimming your lights or playing music. This guide will cover how it works, what is it capable of doing, where it falls short, privacy concerns, and how to choose the right Echo.
What sets this voice-controlled system apart from the first-generation voice assistants is its responsiveness. There is no activation button to push. Simply say the trigger word (either “Alexa,” “Echo,” “Amazon,” or “Computer”) followed by your command, and it will usually be completed. That is, as long as you have set everything up properly and are using the correct command sequence. Once you get used to the quirks, using Alexa becomes much more natural and responsive than phone-based voice assistants like Apple’s Siri. As a result, you’ll find yourself using your phone less frequently at home.
Who Should Get an Echo
First, realize that although Echo is a decent speaker itself, you can get a better sound, if music streaming is all you want to do. The reason to get an Echo is because you want the voice-controlled platform, making interacting with your speaker and other devices must easier. Voice control frees you from being tethered to your smartphone. If you thought the transition from using a remote for your TV and pressing smartphone buttons was life-changing, then letting Alexa control things will be even more satisfying.
Alexa is particularly useful for smart-home users. It allows you to control your Alexa-compatible devices without taking out your phone and launch the app. Note: Alexa does have an app, but is mostly for setup and configuration, or to add new abilities and view to-do and shopping lists. Most of the time, Amazon’s devices allow you to access Alexa’s useful features without having to interact with a screen at all. Without touching a thing, you can walk into a quiet room and ask for music, or walk into a dark room and ask for lights.
Beyond asking for music, you can have Alexa search Wikipedia, make quick cooking conversions, create a to-do list, or help with homework. A growing list of built-in capabilities and third-party skills means that your Alexa device keeps improving the longer you own it.
If you already have some Alexa-compatible devices or one of the three smart-home hubs (SmartThings, Wink, or Insteon), adding an Echo can make accessing that device more interesting and convenient.
However, do realize that Echo is not a comprehensive smart-home system. It will not replace the smart-home hub for programmed automations. Also, it won’t always be the most practical means of interacting with your other devices. Think of Echo as an additional interface for your smart home that provides functionality better than an app on your smartphone. This will then lead to you relying on Echo more and more. The new Zigbee-enabled Echo Plus and Alexa’s new “routines” feature can move the product closer to hub-level home automation, but is isn’t there yet.
How Does Alexa Work?
Amazon geniuses built a natural-language processing system that is extremely easy to interact with. If you ask a question or deliver a command, you usually only have to ask once. Part of its success is dependent on several very sensitive microphones built into all Echo devices. Alexa is always listening and ready to respond.
As noted previously, Echo devices stream your voice to the cloud when you ask it to do something. Your requests shop up in the app and you have the option to delete them if you don’t want to have a record. The default wake word is “Alexa, but you can change this to “Echo,” “Amazon,” or “Computer.”
Once you say the magic wake word, the microphone takes everything you say next. Your words are beamed up to Amazon’s cloud computers for quick analysis. If it’s a question it can answer, such as, “Alexa, what’s the weather in Los Angeles today?” an answer is given from the speaker in a female, slightly computery voice. If you want music, Alexa will search through the Amazon Music catalog or Amazon Prime Music for your request. It can also play TuneIn Internet radio stations, music from Pandora, iHeartRadio, and Spotify if you have subscriptions to those. You can request a joke, but be prepared to groan. If you request to turn off the light or adjust the thermostat, that will happen if you’ve asked correctly and have properly integrated that ability into the system.
Listening to music or adding something to your shopping list is as easy as asking Alexa.
The smart-home integrations are what most people are excited about with Echo. One of the key characteristics of a smart device is that is should make common tasks easier. Echo is for smart-home users who prefer to speak their desires rather than the tedious work of launching an app. The simplest integrations are with products Alexa can work with directly. These are found in the smart-home section of the app’s menu.
Initially, users were limited to one action per voice command. However, now you can string activities together into one command using grouping or routines. For instance, you can group smart lights together by room or area and turn them off with one command. Routines are custom activities you program that will combine smart devices (such as lights) with other tasks like playing your morning news briefing. Routines can also be scheduled to activate at a certain time. Unfortunately, at this time, music and playlists are not supported by routines.
You can also use the entire family of Amazon Echo speakers as an intercom system. If you have multiple Echos throughout your house, you can initiate walkie-talkie-style cats between them using a voice command. You will need to set this up first by given each of your devices a name and enabling the “drop-in” feature. You can also ask Echo to make phone calls by saying, “Alexa, call…” If you have a video-enabled Echo (Show and Spot), you can make video calls free.
Another feature of Echo is voice-controlled shopping. This feature is available only to Prime members and only on Prime-eligible products. There are other restrictions as well. For instance, you can’t order clothing, jewelry, or shoes by voice. To purchase something, ask Alexa to order that item. It will search for it, tell you the price and confirm with a four-digit security code that you already configured in the app. This prevents children and strangers from making unauthorized purchases. The purchase is then charged to your default payment method. Often, Amazon offers special deals exclusive to voice buyers. You can discover those by asking, “Alexa, what are today’s deals?”
What Can Alexa Skills Do?
In the Alexa world, a skill is like an app. It’s a small program you can add to your Echo to enable a new ability. At the time of writing, there are more than 15,000 skills in the menu of the Alexa app, with more launching each week. Once you add a skill to your Alexa account, it will work with all the Alexa devices in your home.
One of the most useful skills for the smart-home user is the IFTTT skill. IFTT stands for “If This Than That.” It is a website and app that allows you to link different devices and services in the cloud with what is called recipes.
Interacting with the Echo app allows you to manage Alexa’s skills and connected devices.
Some skills will allow you to purchase outside of Amazon. For instance, there is an Uber skill for ordering a ride, a skill for ordering flowers from 1-800-flowers, a Domino’s Pizza skill for ordering food, and more. Users can find skills for a variety of interests and hobbies. There are homework helper skills, traffic report skills, recipe skills, and smart-home skills. DrinkBoy skill allows you to search for drink recipes. Cricket Facts skills teaches you about cricket. There is unicorn trivia, daily affirmation, and even skills for “yo mama” jokes. There is no limit on the number of skills you can have. Just remember that you must remember the voice commands to make them work.
Alexa is quite talented. But sometimes things don’t work exactly as you expect them to. For instance, you can create a shopping list by telling Alexa to add firecrackers or beer to your list, but you have to add them separately. So, instead of saying, “Alexa add firecrackers and beer to my shopping list,” you must say, “Alexa, add firecrackers to my shopping list. Alexa, add beer to my shopping list.” This process can become irritating if you’re creating a long list. Moreover, though Alexa creates a shopping list in its app for you to access when you’re in the store, you must use an IFTTT recipe to create a version of the list for sharing or printing.
Also, Alexa isn’t Google. The system knows a lot, but what it can’t answer far outweighs what it can. If your primary use for a smart speaker is to answer factual questions, your better option is Google Home.
Another consideration is the limited number of wake words. If you have multiple devices, using “Alexa” could activate multiple devices because of their far-field microphones. The wake word can be changed for each device, but then you have to remember which wake word belongs with which device.
Sometimes Alexa can’t hear your request due to playing music too loudly or background noise. However, the second-generation Echo is much better at hearing through music than the original version.
Is Your Echo Spying on You?
You needn’t worry about Echo’s always-on microphones.
Alexa can facilitate communication with third-party services, as mentioned above. Although you can utilize Capital One’s online banking services, Amazon cannot actually get access to the transactions taking place. In the case of Capital One, the bank says the system stays fully encrypted and the Alexa skill includes a user-created passcode to prevent unauthorized access.
The bottom line is that your Echo is always listening to you. The device hears everything you say within range of its very far-reaching microphones. But it is only listening for its wake word. Once it hears that, everything for the next few seconds after is viewed as a command or request and sent to Amazon’s cloud computers to find the appropriate response. You will know when Echo is paying attention because the circular blue light turns on when it hears the wake word. Echo is like a pet dog. It is always listening, but it only understands “walk,” “sit,” or “stay.” Everything else goes right over its head.
This is very similar to Apple’s Siri and some of Samsung’s smart TVs. They listen for key phrases to allow for searches or voice controls. Again, Echo kicks into gear only when it hears the wake word. That said, when Alexa hears a command and sends that command to the cloud, Amazon has just learned something about you. It may only be that you like broccoli. And if you said, “Alexa, where should I bury the body?” You won’t have the police banging down your door.
You need to decide how comfortable you are with Amazon collecting information. Your computer is already tracking everything you do online through cookies. Google knows everything you’ve ever searched. But remember, Amazon just wants to sell you stuff. As much stuff as they can. So, if you use a workout skill with your Echo, don’t be surprised to see emails from Amazon promoting yoga pants.
If you press the microphone button, you will disable Alexa’s listening capability. This will turn the LED light red.
Both the data collection and the always listening aspect can raise some privacy concerns. Should you tell guests Alexa is listening? Amazon doesn’t discriminate between users. Anyone within range can use the wake word and say a command. But everything you say to Alexa is noted in the app and then can be deleted. Amazon says that once it is deleted it is gone forever.
Amazon Echo vs. Echo Dot vs. Echo Plus
All Amazon Alexa devices offer the same basic Alexa functions. But they do differ enough that you can’t just substitute one for another or just go with the cheapest one.
If you want music without adding any speakers, the second-generation Echo offers a complete range of functions without the screen features of Show and Spot. It is good for kitchens, dens, offices, bedrooms, and other places where size and convenience are more important that audio performance. It has 360-dispersion speakers, so if you can put it in the center of the room, you will get sound in all four corners.
However, if you are a discerning listener, you might feel that the Echo speakers are a bit lacking. The bass is a little foggy and details can get lost. You can pair the Echo with your smartphone through Bluetooth for any music service Alexa doesn’t support, such as iTunes, but you can’t pair it with another speaker like Dot.
Echo devices can be used as a multi-room audio system like Sonos. You can create groups with multiple Echos and play the same music on all of them at once. However, you cannot make two Echos work as a stereo pair.
The Dot can wirelessly connect with a Bluetooth speaker.
For a lot less than a full-size Echo, the Echo Dot is a smart option. It can connect wirelessly to your choice of Bluetooth speaker or sound system. The Dot 2 is only about 1 ½ inches high and includes volume buttons instead of the turnable knob on the Echo. In this tiny package are all the Alexa controls and search features. It includes a speaker that’s good for hearing Alexa’s voice and talk radio. However, it isn’t enough to really enjoy music.
If you’re looking for smart-home controls, the Echo Plus will be your best choice. It’s larger than the current Echo. It’s main difference from the regular Echo is the inclusion of Zigbee, a wireless system for controlling smart-home devices.
The Echo Show appeals to those who want to video chat but don’t like the small screen on their phone. The Show as a built-in 7” display. And there is a small camera to use for selfies.
Like the Echo Show, the Echo Spot has a built-in camera and LCD screen displaying a clock, song lyrics, or videos. It allows video chats with other Spots, Shows, or the Alexa smartphone app. It’s about the size of a softball, making it perfect for a bedside clock. But its small size does limit what you’ll want to watch on it.