Want to bring the future into your home today? Get yourself an Amazon Echo, a connected servant that responds to your spoken commands.
I pre-ordered the original Amazon Echo with my own money in January of 2015, right when it was announced. It was finally delivered on May 15 of that year. Since I got it, it's lived on my kitchen island, the central community point of my house.
I consider it one of the best tech purchases I’ve ever made. Not because it’s indispensable (it isn’t, if I’m being honest), but because it’s just so fun to have around and enjoyable to use. And over time, it’s been getting better: even more delightful to use, and also more practical.
Today, there are other ways to get Alexa’s smarts in addition to the original Echo. We’ll explore those in a minute.
Echo is a voicebot. You talk to it, and it talks back and does stuff for you. When it first came out, you could ask it basic questions, like, “Alexa, what’s the weather forecast?” It’s also a good homework helper. "Alexa, spell ‘deciduous.’” It can play audio programs, too. “Alexa, play me the news." “Alexa, play Bruce Springsteen.” “Alexa, continue my audio book." (The Alexa service connects to Audible, which Amazon owns.)
In my kitchen, the Echo became instantly useful. It could do recipe conversions for me. “How many cups in a pint?" It’s a handy timer. “Set a timer for 12 minutes." It also did a good job of entertaining my nine-year-old when he was sitting in the kitchen with me. “Alexa, tell me a joke.” When the kid isn’t at the house, I can play music or books while I work. It’s a good companion.
The Alexa system can also be used to order products from Amazon. No surprise there. I haven’t done much of this, since I prefer to have a little more positive control over commerce; I use the Amazon Web site or mobile app for shopping. And except for groceries, who shops from the kitchen? But if you want to replenish items that you get from Amazon, it’s very good for that. “Alexa, order more dishwashing detergent.”
The big benefit of the Echo, compared to a similar voicebot on a smartphone, is that it’s always listening for its name to “wake up” and help. There’s no phone to fish out of your pocket and no button to press. You just say, “Alexa” (or “Echo,” or “Amazon” if you prefer), and it wakes up and listens for your command. I cannot stress how magical and convenient that is – even more so than Siri, another voicebot I use and enjoy.
For the first few months of my Alexa ownership, all was going well. And then Alexa got better.
Amazon has spent the last year aggressively improving the Alexa service by adding basic capabilities. Amazon has also been working with other companies to get them to add features to Alexa. Just in time for Mother’s Day, for example, Amazon announced an integration with 1-800-Flowers. So now you can say, according to Amazon, “Alexa, ask 1-800-Flowers to send Becky flowers,” and it will walk you through the rest of the transaction.
But the big and more interesting push Alexa is making is in home automation. Alexa now works with connected thermostats like the Nest (“Alexa, set my house temperature to 72 degrees") and with “smart home” devices like Philips Hue light bulbs and Samsung’s Smart Home system (“Alexa, turn on the bedroom light.”) I use both the Nest and Smart Home integrations, and they work very well.
Alexa even works with my Vivint alarm system. “Alexa, tell Vivint to arm my alarm.” (Since you don't want a burglar who's in your house to be able to disarm your system with a voice command, Alexa will only allow you to close, lock, and arm devices in a home. It will not open, unlock, or disarm anything.)
I will caution that getting up and running with smart home gadgets is not as easy as it could be. All these fancy gizmos have to be installed, configured, and connected to a network. Then you have to link your Alexa system into them. But if you like home DIY projects, it can be very rewarding to get automated lights and such to respond to your vocal commands.
Best for: General use in a shared space like a kitchen, playing music in a good-sized room.
Downsides: Expensive, tall, doesn’t connect to external speakers. Too big to be portable, and needs to be plugged in.
The original Echo is a great introductory voicebot for a shared space. Easy to set up and use, it will pump out good enough sound to entertain you, and it has all of the Echo’s best tricks. It has an amazing microphone that can accurately understand what you're saying from anywhere in the room. It works great as a kitchen helper, a homework aid, a controller for smart home devices, a Scrabble referee, and a personal shopping bot.
There's an optional voice remote available for the Echo. It has a microphone so you can send your Echo commands when you're out of its considerable voice range. It also has playback and volume controls. I have one and find it occasionally useful to control the Echo in the kitchen when I'm sitting in the dining room. However, shouting commands at the Echo like "Turn it up!" also works, so it's not a necessity.
Getting started with an Echo device requires a few steps on a smartphone app (free). You must temporarily connect your phone to the Echo's own WiFi network, then punch in your home's WiFi password to get the Echo to connect to the Internet. After this, you can put your phone back on your own network. It's a simple process if you follow the instructions carefully, but you shouldn't rush it.
The Echo is also a great gift (for anyone who has an Amazon account). It's a delightful product to use, and set-up is not difficult. Highly recommended
Best for: Bedside or desktop use and connecting to external speakers. Least expensive Echo that’s always listening.
Downsides: Limited audio quality by itself. Must already have an Amazon Echo to order one.
The Echo Dot is everything the original Echo is, minus the original’s quality speaker. It does have a speaker, just not an especially good one. It’s a great starter Echo.
But the Dot can also connect to another speaker, either with a cord or over Bluetooth. The taller, more expensive Echo can’t do this. This connected speaker can be as high-end as you want, so for music junkies, a Dot with an external speaker could be a smarter choice than a standard Echo. It would take up more room and cost more, though.
Without an external speaker, it’s still a great Echo device, and it features the same amazing, all-hearing microphone as the original.
I find that the Echo Dot serves well as a clock radio in my bedroom. I've had one for a while and am accustomed to using it wake me up and lull me to sleep. (Hint: after asking the Dot to play a music playlist, say, "Set Sleep Timer to 20 minutes," and it will shut itself off at that time.) I've also connected some lights in the room to Smart Home plugs and use the Dot to turn them on and off. More recently, I connected the Dot to an old Bluetooth speaker (over a cord, for reliability). The extra hardware on my nightstand isn't attractive, but I appreciate the superior audio quality I now get.
The Echo Dot is a new product. It's strictly available to people who already have an Alexa device – an original Echo or a Fire TV. The only way to order it is to ask Alexa to "Order an Echo Dot." We'd recommend this Alexa product to almost anyone, and we look forward to the day when anyone can buy one.
Rafe Needleman has been testing and writing about business and technology products for over 20 years. He has evaluated hundreds of products as editor of CNET and reviews/editorial director of Yahoo Tech.
Best for: Playing your music on the go. Doesn’t have to be plugged in.
Downsides: Not always on. You have to press a button on the Tap to get it to listen. Requires WiFi connection, which may not be available when you’re out and about.
The Amazon Tap is not the same kind of general-purpose voicebot as the Echo or Echo Dot. But since the Alexa service will connect to several different music sources (like Amazon’s own, and Pandora, and Spotify), it’s a handy and enjoyable music appliance that doesn’t require you to fiddle with a phone or anything else when you want to play music. You can also beam music to it directly from your phone over Bluetooth, like any other modern portable speaker.
When you're not using it for music, the Tap can access Alexa’s standard features, so you can use it to answer questions, order groceries, turn on lights, and so forth. But because you have to press a button to get it to listen, it feels forced in that role.
Without the always-on microphone, the Tap isn’t nearly as magical as the Echo products. It’s a good (not great) portable speaker, though. It might be a handy thing to have around to play tunes on your porch.
Best for: If you want a good media player for your TV, this one measures up to competitors like Apple TV and Roku. Its Alexa features are a bonus. Another bonus: when plugged into a good audio system, it offers amazing sound quality.
Downsides: Like the Tap, it’s not always listening. It's not even close to portable since it has to plug into an HDMI port on a TV. Not all Alexa services are available on it. Differentiating between the Fire TV’s own voice interface and the Alexa service can be confusing.
Amazon’s Fire TV devices are, first and foremost, media players for your TV. They’re very good ones, too, and the available voice interface for the Fire TV makes finding shows and music easy. You just press the voice button and say “CSI,” or “Beyonce,” and you’ll get a show or a list of hits that you can easily select and play. When you do that, you’re not using Alexa.
Or you could say, “Alexa, play Beyonce,” or any other Alexa function. In this case, your requests would be sent to the Alexa service, but the output would be much the same. It’s less confusing than it sounds here, but it's not as clean as it could be.
One additional benefit of using Alexa on a Fire TV is that the output is displayed, not just spoken. If you say, “Alexa, what’s the weather?” you’ll get an on-screen report as well as a verbal one.
But not all Alexa functions work on the Fire TV. When I tried, “Alexa, play Mark Knopfler on Spotify,” on the Fire TV, it told me that Spotify wasn’t available on my Alexa device. (The command works just fine on the Echo, Echo Dot, and Amazon Tap.) Fortunately, a Spotify app is available as an app on the Fire TV itself, and you can access it by saying “Spotify” without invoking Alexa. This must be remembered if you want to get this media on your TV using Alexa. Other Alexa functions that don’t work on the Fire TV include alarms and timers, accessing movie show times, and a few other things.
In other words, it's a nice bonus that the Fire TV has Alexa in it, but it feels tacked-on.
Not all Amazon Echos are made by Amazon. The new Triby, made by Invoxia, puts the Alexa service inside a chunky slab that’s designed for kids and the family. It has magnets so it can be attached to your fridge. It also acts as a speakerphone for your iPhone or Android device. It has an additional voice calling feature that connects the Triby with smartphones for free calls, and it has a way to send doodles from smartphones to the Triby’s own screen. Amazon has made the Alexa "cloud" service available to developers and manufacturers, so we should expect more hardware products like the Triby in the future.
You can also get Alexa in your iPhone using the new Lexi app. It can’t access the Alexa media services: it won’t play music (neither Spotify, Pandora, nor Amazon music), and it has a few other issues, but you can use it to shop on Amazon, ask Alexa questions, and control the lights in your house. If you’re going to pull out your phone to access a voicebot, you might be better off using Siri or Google Now for most functions. However, if Alexa devices are already in your world, this $5 app is a really nice accessory.
The original Amazon Echo is simply delightful. It does extremely cool things, it's useful, and it's fun to use. It looks good, sounds good, and fits into the family lifestyle very well.
If you want a portable version of the Amazon Echo, check out the Amazon Tap. It lacks the magical, "always-listening" microphone, but it's a lot easier to move around, and it has a decent speaker.
At a compelling price, the Echo Dot is a great starter product for getting into Alexa’s world. It's also the best bet for audiophiles, as you can connect it to a high-quality speaker. However, it's only available for sale to people who already have another Alexa product.
The least expensive Alexa product is the Fire TV with Voice Remote. Like the Dot, it can play back high-quality audio if you run it through an AV system. But it has limited features compared to the Echo models, and like the Tap, it only listens to your commands when you press a button.
One of the big fears people have about Alexa is that it has an always-listening microphone. The Echo and Echo Dot are always on, always listening to the room. But they’re not – we are told – recording what you say or sending your every word to Amazon. Rather, these products listen for their specific “wake word" – either "Alexa," "Amazon," or "Echo," depending on how you set the option. Only when they hear a wake word do they record what you say, send the audio over the Internet to Amazon, and send your result back to you. Still, if you're worried about having a microphone connected to Amazon in, say, your bedroom, you might want to consider an Echo Tap, which doesn’t listen until you press its button.
Also, according to a friend whose wife is named Alexis, if you or someone you live with has a name that’s similar to Alexa, your Echo will, comically, never shut up. Unless you use the “Echo” or “Amazon” wake word instead.
I’ve also found that using Alexa as a grocery shopping list can be frustrating. Yes, you can easily add an item to your list by saying something like, “Alexa, add milk to shopping list,” but the Alexa companion smartphone app doesn’t do as good a job of managing shopping lists as a dedicated app like GroceryIQ. However, if you want Amazon to deliver your groceries to you, then the shopping list function combined with Amazon Fresh could be a great set-up.
And if you have more than one Alexa unit in your house, be aware that they operate independently of each other, sometimes to amusing and unexpected results. While I was testing the Fire TV, for example, I said, “Alexa, play Johnny Cash,” and the Echo in the kitchen overheard me. It started playing a different song than the Fire TV in my living room. At some point, we expect that Alexa devices will synchronize with each other, like Sonos speakers do, and like the recently announced Google Home devices are supposed to. Until then, if you have multiple Alexas in earshot of one another, keep your voice down when making commands or use different wake words for each device.
Finally, there’s a slight flaw in the whole concept of voicebots, and it’s this: You don’t know what they can do. There’s no menu system. When Amazon adds a new service to Alexa, like the 1-800-Flowers, the casual user has no way of knowing it. You can always ask Alexa what’s new by saying, “Alexa, what can you do?" Amazon does send out a weekly newsletter telling people about its new skills, but absent that, you might never know what cool new tricks your Echo device can pull off.