Review: Amazon Echo is finally available to all

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Gizmag reviews the Amazon Echo, a device that combines a speaker with an intelligent virtual assistant(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

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Amazon Echo, the company's desktop, voice-activated personal assistant became available to the general public for the first time on Tuesday. Gizmag has been spending the past month with Echo and we've found it to be an exciting new product with plenty of potential and no real peers at the moment, but is it really ready for prime time?

The hardest part of reviewing the Amazon Echo is first trying to figure out what it is – a desktop personal assistant? A voice-activated streaming audio system? Connected smart home hub? Basically it's a beta version of a new product category: a smart Bluetooth speaker that can do a little bit of all of the above.

Here's the basic concept: Take an attractive, cylindrical Bluetooth speaker, add a handful of top-notch microphones and a Siri-like voice interface capable of performing an ever-expanding menu of tasks from playing music to ordering products, looking up facts, news, weather and sports, managing your calendar, reading audiobooks and controlling certain smarthome appliances.

The result is a new type of product that, at the moment, seems similar in terms of its overall utility to the early smartwatches on the market now. That is to say that it is certainly useful and makes our day a little easier and more interesting every now and then, but we also can go a day or more at a time and forget that it exists.

Over the course of a month with Echo, it's spent most of its time functioning as a smart stereo or Bluetooth speaker, kicking out some jams from Pandora, Amazon Prime Music or whatever is playing on our connected phone or tablet. We can control the music volume, skip tracks and issue thumbs up or thumbs down ratings all via quick voice commands rather than having to stop working and flip through apps.

Inside Echo is a 2.5-inch woofer and a 2.0-inch tweeter that put out deep bass and high fidelity audio to rival most "dumb" Bluetooth speakers in the same price range. The 360-degree audio provided enough volume to fill a room without distorting in each situation we tried it in.

It's just as easy to interrupt the music to ask Echo to look up something on Wikipedia, check news headlines, to-do lists, our Google Calendar and hear "Alexa" (the standard name Amazon has given to the voice of Echo) read your custom "flash briefing" of breaking news. For the kids, Echo doles out an almost endless and irritating supply of bad puns when asked to tell a joke.

If most of your experience using voice recognition systems has been with Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana or Google Now on smartphones or tablets, you'll be pleasantly surprised by Echo's ability to hear and understand just about any voice right out of the box without training (although the training is recommended to improve the software, it's light years beyond smaller devices with fewer microphones). Most impressive is Echo's ability to hear commands even when it's playing music at maximum volume.

Whenever Echo has more information than it can practically convey through sound, like full Wikipedia articles, photos or alternate product lists, it will refer you to a companion Echo app that can also control Echo via your mobile device or the web.

Echo also comes with a remote to control the device when you're just a little too far away, there's too much background noise or you just don't want to shout across the room. The remote has its own microphone, so speaking into it is just the same as talking to Echo on your desk. One great feature is "Simon says," which tells Echo to repeat whatever you say. When used with the remote, it's great for playing practical jokes on unsuspecting kids, the tech-paranoid or Luddites.

An interesting added feature for the hack-minded is the ability to use Echo in conjunction with IFTTT. The Amazon Alexa channel on IFTTT allows for integrating Echo with Evernote, Gmail, Twitter and a host of other services, although in very limited ways. Most of the IFTTT hacks involve taking over Echo's native shopping or to-do lists and using them for other purposes. For example you might set IFTTT to send every item put on Echo's to-do list in a text message to a pre-determined recipient.

While these IFTTT hacks are neat on one hand, they also serve as a rather glaring admission of Echo's shortcomings on the other. Echo is missing the ability to interact directly with a number of key platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and many others. We presumed that this was the key reason for Echo's limited, invitation-only roll out over the past half-year.

During the time since Echo was originally unveiled, Amazon has slowly but consistently added integration with more services, including Google Calendar, Audible and Belkin WeMo and Philips Hue devices. The obvious assumption was that more services would continue to be added and Echo would eventually be opened up to the public once it had reached a critical tipping point of overall utility. With today's announcement that Echo is finally available without an invite, it seems Amazon feels it has found a key shortcut in reaching this point by adding IFTTT.

The problem is that using IFTTT hacks that require extra setup and using the platform's native commands to execute other commands (say, telling Alexa to put something on your to-do list when you really want to send a text message) runs counter to the very premise of a voice-activated assistant designed to recognize natural language.

Part of the issue with Echo's limited functionality is that it's not fully open to developers. At the moment, the Echo software development kit is in a private beta. How much Amazon opens up Echo to developers and encourages them to get on board the platform will be key to its future success, but it's tough to predict how this will go. (UPDATE: On Thursday, Amazon announced it would soon make a free software development kit called "Alexa Skills Kit" available to third-party developers to create new ways to use Alexa, the software platform behind Echo, and Echo itself.)

It's also unfortunate that Echo lacks a rechargeable battery, meaning that you'll need to find a convenient spot near an outlet anytime you want to move it from the office to the kitchen to the patio to wherever. It would be so much easier to be able to just grab Echo and go, then recharge it each night next to your phone. Our guess is that adding a sufficient battery may have been a deal-breaker for Echo in the areas of size, weight or price.

If you consider yourself an early adopter, you're likely to enjoy integrating Amazon Echo into your life as there's truly nothing else out there right now just like it and it has the potential to really increase productivity for the right kind of user.

The regular consumer, however, is likely to find that Echo mostly seems to just duplicate a lot of the functionality of Siri or Google Now, at least for the moment. As Amazon continues to add new features and compatible services to Echo, it could become more clearly valuable to non-power users.

Right now, Amazon is selling Echo in the U.S. for $179.99, with shipments to start on July 14.

Product page: Amazon

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