I fell in love with Alexa at first sight. Unlike other Amazon products, the Echo feels like a premium device, an elegant, weighty black cylinder framed at its nape by a ring of light to indicate interaction. Unlike so many smart home devices on the market, it looks the type of item that would fit in nicely with the design of a meticulously planned family home.
It was an incredibly easy process to connect the Echo up to the network, although some workaround involving the creation of a US iTunes account was required to download the app onto my UK phone. To optimise its effectiveness, you can run through a series of optional exercises to train Alexa – the voice recognition software – to understand better the tone and cadence of your voice. Once set up, the device sits quietly until you need to activate it by calling its name.
A modern day boombox
For playing streaming services and connecting to radio, the Echo works a treat. Once connected to my Spotify account, I was able to quickly switch between various playlists, adjust the volume, start and stop and even skip tracks using only voice recognition. It also provided connected well with TuneIn, allowing me to pick from a variety of radio stations.
For all that this is a giant leap forwards in terms of music control, there were drawbacks. Alexa struggled to understand certain band names – Bon Iver proved a particular challenge – and lengthy or slightly complicated voice commands tended to be misunderstood.
Misgivings and minutiae
Unfortunately, there are a lot of small frustrations that come from using the Amazon Echo. The voice recognition system is dependent on commands being given in a particular way, so you find yourself modifying your vocabulary somewhat in order to make certain actions happen. While it is reasonably good at dealing with new accents, it misunderstands fairly regularly when placed in a loud, noisy environment: hardly ideal for active households where several interactions might be taking place in the same room.
Update: an updated version of the Amazon Echo will be available in the UK, Germany and Austria from 28th September 2016, which should solve many of the timezone-based bugs that have plagued early adopters shipping units over from the States.
A smart product, not a smart hub
The Echo will connect to Samsung SmartThings, Wink, Insteon and Philips Hue, but won’t sort out your Lutron, Crestron or Sonos unless you set it up to communicate with them through Wink or SmartThings. This is an annoyingly complicated process that will be beyond the average homeowner – but Amazon has promised an increased network of technology partners, so watch this space in this regard. For now, however, it is less a smart control system and more a very clever speaker.
Despite its flaws, the Amazon Echo is still by far the best device of its kind on the market. Voice control is definitely the future for audio systems and Amazon, with the Echo, has set an early pace for others to match. It’s a long way from perfect, but it is still a device that can improve the way you engage with your music at home. Considering the current state of the smart home market, this is by no means an insignificant achievement.