Is the Amazon Echo all talk?

The new wireless speaker can play music and answer questions, but its people skills need some polish

Published: December 19, 2014 06:00 AM

Amazon Echo

Every once in a while, a gadget comes along that is so interesting, people forget to ask what it’s for. The latest fascinating, yet slightly mystifying electronic device to fit this description is the Amazon Echo, which was announced with little fanfare in early November. Amazon allowed customers to sign up for an “invitation” to purchase the $199 device (a $99 introductory offer is currently available to Amazon Prime members). Consumer Reports got two of the hard-to-come-by devices last week. One Amazon Echo went straight to our audio labs, and the other has been living with my family and me.

The black, cylindrical Echo is ostensibly a wireless speaker that connects to the Internet—specifically, the intimidatingly large part of the Internet that comprises Amazon’s Web Services. Like wireless speakers from companies such as BoseJBLSony, and others, the Echo can play music from smart phones, tablets and computers via Bluetooth. It can also stream from Amazon Music and third-party sources such as TuneIn and iHeartRadio. But the Echo also has a capability found on no other wireless speaker: It is equipped with an array of seven microphones so that it can listen to, and attempt to answer, any question you ask it.

Check our reviews of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth speaker systems for test results on the latest devices.

A voice-recognition system that answers spoken questions is not entirely new. Siri has been built into the Apple iPhone since 2011; Google first integrated Google Now into its Android operating system in 2012; and Microsoft introduced Cortana earlier this year. Yet somehow the Echo feels like a completely different technology.

That’s because Echo is not a portable product; it doesn’t even have an integrated battery. It’s designed to live in the home. It is always on and always listening for its wake word; currently, the Echo can be set to respond to either “Alexa” (a reference to the Ancient Library of Alexandria), or “Amazon” (a reference to, well, Amazon). Whenever you say the wake word, a blue light ring on top of the device lights up and literally points in your direction as if to say “Hey, you. What do you want?”

Depending on how you look at it, a device that stands sentinel in your living room awaiting instruction could be either profoundly useful or profoundly creepy. Since the Echo’s introduction, some commentators have expressed fears that the device might be able to listen to all of your private conversations and send them back to Amazon for analysis. Amazon told us that the Echo uses on-device keyword spotting to listen for its wake word and is not streaming your conversations back to the mothership. Could the Echo one day be reconfigured or hacked to turn on its microphones all the time? Perhaps, but the modern home has several devices with on-board microphones (computers, cell phones, video game consoles, even some TVs) that are only one instruction away from broadcasting your conversations out to the Internet. Nevertheless, Amazon was obviously aware of this concern when it designed the Echo. There are only two buttons on the device, and one of them turns the microphones off.

Amazon's Echo has two buttons, one of which turns off the microphones.

Preliminary performance

It’s hard to tell whether the Echo’s primary function is that of a speaker or an informational device. Consumer Reports’ audio testers found its audio performance to be adequate but not outstanding. The sound is fairly clear but shy on bass, and a bit thin and dry. It should be suitable for a small- to medium-sized room, but it gets harsh-sounding at louder volumes.

The Echo's voice recognition is impressive and likely to get even better over time. Since every bit of the voice analysis aside from the wake word is done on Amazon’s servers, the company can continue to refine its results as more people use the technology, just as Apple and Google have done over the years with Siri and Google Now. In my experience, Echo’s response time was faster than that of Siri and Google Now.

Obviously, any device’s performance using a cloud-based service is dependent upon your network and Internet connection, but typically, Echo was able to begin answering questions within two to three seconds of me asking them. Asking the same questions of Siri on an iPhone 6 over the same network connection, I got results within four to six seconds.

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Inconsistent results

Understanding your questions is one thing; delivering useful results is quite another. And on that front, the Amazon Echo is oddly inconsistent. It is very good at answering strictly informational questions of the “What is the weather?” and What is the capital of North Dakota?” variety. In fact, it’s tapped into Wikipedia, so you can get a brief description on millions of topics. That makes the Echo a great argument ender (“See, I told you Pluto isn’t officially a planet!”), but it doesn’t do a great job at answering questions that are uniquely relevant to you.

Unlike Siri, Google Now, and Cortana, which are deeply tied into the calendar, messaging, and calling functionality of your smart phone, Echo knows surprisingly little about you and your world. Ask it whether there is traffic on your way to work, and it comes up blank. Want to hear your upcoming appointments? No dice. In fact, the device doesn’t even know where you are until you enter a ZIP code in the Echo companion app.

Unbelievably, the Echo isn’t even directly tied into your Amazon account in a meaningful way. You can purchase music directly through the device, but if you tell it you want to buy, say, 10 pounds of hot dogs—which Amazon does sell, by the way—it will add that to a shopping list in the companion app. It won’t, however, add it to your actual Amazon shopping cart or Wish List. The Echo couldn’t even answer a question about when my next Amazon delivery would arrive. To be sure, the company took a lot of flak for making its Fire Phone into a glorified Amazon storefront, but the Echo could benefit from a little more integration.

The good news for the Amazon Echo is that it should only improve with time. Since the Echo’s intelligence is in Amazon’s cloud, the company can add content and functionality without having to make significant changes to the hardware itself. In fact, Amazon informed me that it is actively adding sports data (currently a black hole of content for the device), and there are all sorts of possibilities in terms of home control that the Echo could deliver on if it were just a bit smarter and better connected. Until then, I’ll have to keep thinking up trivia questions to ask it.

Glenn Derene

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