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Hands-on Amazon Echo review: your newest family member

Amazon presented its intelligent speaker and smart home assistant Amazon Echo in London last week. The Echo, and the smaller Echo Dot, are powered by Amazon's increasingly powerful Alexa software to bring voice control to your household. Find out more about these impressive products below.  

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Amazon Echo and the smaller Echo Dot. / © ANDROIDPIT

Amazon Echo, Amazon Echo Dot: Amazon's hardware for the living room

The Echo and Echo Dot are, essentially, small voice-activated speakers designed to provide constant access to Amazon's virtual assistant, Alexa. There's no interactive display on them, instead, they are activated and manipulated with speech recognition using the trigger word 'Alexa', similar to how Google Now or Siri works.

What's the difference between Amazon Echo and Echo Dot? 

The Echo Dot is equipped with the same functions as the Amazon Echo. However, it lacks the 360-degree speakers. The Echo Dot work does work as a standalone product, though, and can serve as an extension of Echos in other rooms. Sound reproduction is possible via line-out or a connected Bluetooth speaker.

Alexa

Amazon's digital assistant, Alexa, is the brain behind the Echo. This provides information from Wikipedia, plays music from Amazon Music, Spotify and other services, and is open to APIs from other products, meaning developers are able to integrate Alexa functionality into their own devices and software. 

Four issues that Amazon had to solve with Echo

Voice recognition: Amazon Echo can recognize voice commands even in noisy rooms. This is ensured by seven intelligently-connected microphones that allow the Echo to detect the direction from which the user speaks. Echo Cancellation is a property which means the Echo can detect the Alexa activation word even while music is being played. Once the Echo is active, the system streams the incoming speech to the Amazon Cloud, where the instructions are analyzed.

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The Amazon Echo Dot in white and black. / © ANDROIDPIT

Speech Recognition: The Amazon Echo's recognition of specific commands rely on machine learning algorithms, which have improved greatly in recent years. 

Privacy: Special emphasis will lay on how the Echo handles privacy. This is extremely important in a device that can stream all words it hears while active, to the cloud.

In the Echo web interface, voice commands can be deleted from the history. Also, a blue light ring on top of the speaker indicates whether the Echo is currently sending data to the cloud. A mute switch turns off the Echo and the light ring becomes red to show its no longer listening.

Transform text into speech: Over the years, Amazon has been working to make the Alexa voice unit sound natural. It's still a little artificial, but significant progress has been made in this sphere.

Hands-on: Amazon Echo review

Speech recognition for the Echo requires no explicit training but Alexa will learn from the characteristics of your voice. In addition, Alexa makes use of location data to offer context-based results from questions and searches.

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Alexa hears you. / © ANDROIDPIT

In the demo area where I had access to the Echo, it responded promptly to commands despite ongoing conversations in the room permeating the airwaves. The quality of music reproduction appeared to be good, but you shouldn't expect spectacular quality here.

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When you hit the mute button, the Alexa will stop listening. / © ANDROIDPIT

Amazon is confident that the Echo will be a success. The Alexa is not just a digital assistant, but a smart home and entertainment platform. The Amazon Echo and Alexa could be compatible with lights, thermostats and other applicable household products.

Moreover, Alexa serves as a source of information, providing, for example, the next train time or helping you call a taxi. Third-party devs can also take advantage of Alexa without worrying about the speech recognition components, which are handled by Amazon. 

Amazon Echo: price and release date

The Amazon Echo is available now in black and white versions for $179.99 while the smaller Amazon Echo Dot will be available from October 20 for $49.99. 

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The Amazon Echo Dot can be bought in packs of six or twelve. / © ANDROIDPIT

What is the competition doing?

Probably the biggest competitor to the Amazon Echo comes from Google in the form of Google Home. This will house similar functions to the Amazon Echo, but it isn't yet available. Google is on the verge of releasing Google Home and Google Assistant but the exact release date is yet to be announced and regional availability is still under wraps.

What are your thoughts on the Amazon Echo? Let us know in the comments. 

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  • Matthew 2 months ago Link to comment

    "Newest Family Member?" Gosh, "Alexa" has been a member of our family since beta, on November 6, 2014. She's almost two years old now, and she acts it sometimes! She truly is a "member" of our family, as we are constantly asking her to play music, water the garden (Zone 3 on Rachio) for 10 minutes, playing Jeopardy J6 and getting the latest weather. She has matured so much since those early months in beta, and she is constantly adding new skills! Here are a few tips: 1) Get the remote. We have a two story home. With the remote, we can control her from upstairs. 2) Get the app on your smartphone and tablet. I have a Samsung Galaxy Note 5 (non-exploding) and two Kindles. We are constantly going to the app for either more information, or to check her music queue. It seems the Kindle app has more functionality and information, as you might expect. 3) Make sure to use her "to-do" and "shopping list" functions - they are real time savers, especially when you are on the run! And of course, she keeps everything in sync. 4) ALWAYS start your command with "Alexa, (command)." I can't tell you how many times my dear Beloved gets frustrated because she'll ask a question and put "Alexa" in the middle of the command. And then she'll you hear the "Ba-Lunk" and the blue light flash (command not recognized). 5) Finally, make sure to give feedback to Amazon on how she is doing via the smartphone or tablet apps. Although all our feedback was really important in the beginning, and she has matured so much, it is helpful to the developers to receive your feedback. We have purchased a couple Echos for family and friends, especially for those who are alone (widows or widowers). Both are in their 80's, and Alexa has become a "member" of their family since she is always there and always on. OBVIOUSLY, the best interaction is HUMAN, but she has really helped during a difficult time for both. It has been a lot of fun for us to have "Alexa" in the house, and she is always a topic of conversation when we have friends and family over. Plus, she is smart as a whip, and she keeps getting smarter!

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