Since Christmas, I’ve been playing with Amazon Echo – specifically the Amazon Echo Dot units. Put simply, the Amazon Echo is a voice activated ‘assistant’, designed to help you in around the home.

Small – but powerful

The Echo Dot is TINY (8.3cm x 3.2cm). Around the size of Hockey puck and is available in either Black or White. On the back there is a Micro USB connector (for power) and a 3.5mm AUX jack to connect to an external speaker. On top you have 7 microphones around the edge, and 4 buttons – Microphone On/Off, Action Button, Volume Up and Down.

The Top of the Amazon Echo Dot
The Top of the Amazon Echo Dot

You can switch the ‘Always On’ Microphones off with the button on the top, despite the fact the unit is ‘listening’ it doesn’t record audio until you say the wake word. So your conversations aren’t being transmitted to Amazon for them to hear. The Echo Dot can also connect via Bluetooth to external speakers if you want a higher quality of sound. The Echo doesn’t have this facility, because the Echo already has a good speaker inbuilt.




I was slightly concerned that the speaker in the Echo Dot would be a bit ropey, but it’s not bad at all. You certainly couldn’t run a party through them, but for a few tunes as you get dressed it’s pretty good. I would opt for the flexibility of the Bluetooth connectivity and Audio Out of the Echo Dots over the speaker of the Echo.

Configuring your Echo

You configure the Amazon Echo units with the ‘Alexa’ App on your phone. It walks you through the process of connecting to your WiFi. You can also set up your home location (for weather updates), and your work location for commute updates. It’s super simple!

You can also set up links to your calendar, and pick a music service – if you’ve got Amazon Prime you get the Amazon Prime Music. You can also use your Spotify account, or the TuneIn service too. We’re a Spotify household, and it works beautifully with it.

How does it work?

When you utter the ‘Wake Word’ – either Alexa, Amazon, Echo, or Computer it springs into life and tries to assist you.

So, you can try things such as ‘Alexa, Set a timer for 15 minutes’ or ‘Alexa, How’s the Weather today?’ and she’ll happily oblige. We’ve got four Echo Dot units located around the flat, and she can ‘hear’ you throughout. Whilst several of them might ‘wake’ with the wake word, the one nearest will action your command. Generally, it works well. If you’re in the bedroom, and ask the bedroom Echo take wake you at 7am – it will chime at 7am. Rather than them ALL ringing at 7am.

Sometimes though, they don’t entirely work in harmony. There have been an odd occasion where the kitchen Echo Dot doesn’t hear my request for the timer (despite being in the kitchen), but the Living Room one does. Also the Music playback is limited to the Echo Dot you’ve asked for it on. If you want a Pop playlist in the lounge, it will be isolated there, you can’t ask it to move into another room, or link up. I imagine this MIGHT be added in a future update.

Amazon Echo has the Skills

You can also install ‘Skills’ to your Echo to increase the functionality. These are essentially ‘apps’ that work in your Amazon Echo. You can install a ‘Just Eat’ skill and ask it to re-order your last Chinese takeaway. You could install the ‘Uber’ skill and ask Alexa to order you an Uber. I like the Jamie Oliver skill, where you can ask for a recipe – with specific ingredients, or say a vegetarian one, and Jamie Oliver himself will rattle off some ideas. When you find one you like, the recipe is emailed to you.

J particularly likes the ‘Bedtime Story’ skill, where asking ‘Alexa, tell bedtime story to James’ – she’ll read a short story to James with him in it.

Great for Home Automation

If you’ve got any ‘Smart Home’ toys, like Philips Hue lights, Nest heating, or a Harmony Hub Remote for example – the Echo Dot is fantastic. A holla of ‘Alexa, switch on the Bedroom Lights’, or ‘Alexa, turn the heating to 20 degrees’ will do what you asked. It might be a bit lazy, but if you get into bed and realise you’ve left a light on downstairs – it’s helpful. There are an increasing number of Smart Home skills coming to Alexa, so if it’s not supported right now – I imagine it won’t be far off!

Echo Dot and the family

Because the voice detection is SO good – even small people can use it. I always enjoy seeing my two using new tech. However, J marching into the Living Room at 7am and shouting –

‘LEXA!! PLAY WHO LET THE DOGS OUT!’

And Alexa obliging with the Baha Men barking almost instantly, it can be a little annoying. It’s not the end of the world, but if your kid has a favourite song, they’ll quickly learn how it plays. It’s not all bad – the way the Echo Dot works can be very helpful working with your Family. The ‘Shopping List’ functionality is a great example of this. You can ask Alexa to add various items to the Shopping List. The list is visible to both me and Miss A on our separate phones, and individual Amazon accounts. That ‘Do we need anything from the shops?’ question is answered by looking within the Alexa App.

This is just the beginning…

There is very little in the way of ‘software’ on the Echo, and most of the voice and data processing is done online. This means that it’s easy for Amazon to add more skills and services. They are, pretty much every week there are new features being added. The Echo units are selling extremely well, and Amazon seem committed to expanding the functionality of them. I wasn’t sure if the Echo would bring much to our household, but these little ‘Dots’ really have. They work well, and are great value for money.

 

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