First of all, some basics. Echo is about 10 inches tall and looks a bit like a fat Pringles tube. It comes in 2 colours, black or white, and has the ubiquitous blue light like a LED halo around the top of the tube. Cost? £150. Unless you pre-ordered on Amazon Prime a few weeks ago (like yours truly) and got it for £99. It has a series of 7 nifty built-in microphones that use a technology called ‘Far-Field Voice Recognition’. I’ve no idea how it works but all that I can tell you that it really does work from quite far afield and even when it’s playing music. The set-up was an absolute doddle. Just download the compatible app, follow the instructions et voila it’s all connected in less than a minute.
So what exactly does it do?
At its most basic, it’s a decent quality Bluetooth speaker. But, Echo’s party trick is that it links to your home wi-fi network to become a voice activated virtual assistant called Alexa, enabling you to access information straight from the internet plus control compatible smart devices in your home just by using voice commands.
You wake up the device simply by saying ‘Alexa’ and the cool circle of blue light immediately illuminates. You then just add a request. Such as? Well, pretty much anything. Like what’s the weather going to be like today? What time does the Celtic vs Manchester City game kick off tonight? Does my bum look big in these jeans? Alexa answered the first two questions instantaneously, but was rather flummoxed by the final query and responded with “I’m not sure I understand what you mean”. Maybe she was just being polite?
Beyond just answering my pointless questions, Alexa is a pretty smart lady. Want to play your favourite playlist from Spotify? Easy. Just ask her to shuffle your ’80’s Rock Tunes’ and she dutifully complies. Add a 6 pack of toilet rolls onto your shopping list? Done. Sync a meeting with your Google Calendar? Just ask.
And now we are really getting started with her skills.
It seems that Alexa can also control any connected devices in your home such as your central heating, lighting, plugs, door locks or electrical appliances. Now you will need to upgrade your infrastructure with one of the many systems available on the market right now (whether that be Nest, Phillips Hue, Samsung SmartThings etc.). I haven’t actually got any of these systems in place as yet so I can’t tell you with any surety if they are worth the investment or whether they work well, but give me a few weeks and I will let you know…
It seems that Alexa is also continually learning and adding new skills to her ever-expanding repertoire. She can already detect different voices and can be trained to understand different regional accents (she quickly learned my Mancunian twang). And on the horizon? You will be able to order a huge range of goods and services directly from Alexa just by asking her. Alexa will even remember what you have ordered previously and remind you if you need to replenish. The e-commerce possibilities are endless.
After just a few hours of playing around with the Echo, are there any faults? So far, there appears to be just the one. Our youngest daughter is called Alexa. This gets very confusing when we are admonishing her for not eating her greens and they simultaneously reply “I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”
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