We’ve seen new Alexa-powered devices from Amazon, and Alexa is being added to everything from driving assistant apps to smart light switches. The original $179.99 Amazon Echo speaker, however, is still going strong.
Compare Similar Products
As a speaker, The Echo $179.99 at Amazon isn’t perfect, but it’s perfectly functional. But what’s more compelling is that Amazon is continually expanding Alexa’s abilities with new features being added all the time, both with first-party services as well as third-party “skills.”
Because Alexa is always getting better, so is the Echo. It’s a better product today than it was a couple of years ago, and the same is likely to be true of it next year. And even up against the new Google Assistant-powered Google Home$129.00 at Best Buy, Alexa remains the voice assistant to beat. As such, the Amazon Echo earns our Editors’ Choice.
The Echo measures 9.25 inches high and 3.27 inches around. It might be a little tall for some bookshelves, though we can imagine it fitting just about anywhere else in your home just fine. It’s basically a plain black or white tube that won’t clash with your home decor, but it also won’t stand out as a design piece. The Google Home, by comparison, is a bit smaller, at 5.62 by 3.79 inches, and more visually interesting, thanks to its gourd-like shape and fabric base with various color options.
The lower half of the Echo is covered in tiny circular perforations, with a gray Amazon logo at the very bottom. The top half is completely unadorned, save for the volume ring, which occupies the uppermost half-inch of the device. The ring twists left or right to control volume, though you can also control that by voice or with the optional remote control.
On the very top of the Echo you’ll find two buttons: one that turns the microphone off, and a multipurpose Action button. A sleek translucent panel lining the perimeter is a ring that lights up when you’re controlling the speaker. It sits right next to an array of seven microphones.
One of the coolest parts about the light ring is that when you’re talking, the cluster of lights nearest the microphone that picks up your voice will light up, meaning the light typically responds in your direction (though this wasn’t always true when we tested in a smaller room with a lot of echo). You don’t even notice it at first, but it helps add a human element to the device.
You can purchase an optional microphone-equipped remote ($29.99) similar to the one that comes with the Fire TV Stick$39.99 at Amazon. It measures 5.5 by 1.5 by 0.5 inches (HWD) and has a rubberized, grippy feel. If you’re in a noisy environment, you can hold down the Microphone button at the top of remote and speak to the Echo, rather than shouting across the room.
The remote also lets you control volume and playback on any music you’re listening to through the Echo companion app with physical buttons. It comes with a magnetic holster that lets you securely attach it wherever you think you’ll use it the most. Without the remote, the Echo’s built-in microphone works very well for far-field voice recognition, even when music is playing.
Setup and App
Setting up the Echo is very simple, with instructions spelled out clearly in Amazon’s documentation: Plug in the Echo, download the Echo app, and follow the app’s instructions from there. The Echo app is available for Android and iOS smartphones and tablets. You can also access the app via the Web from a supported browser. You don’t actually need your mobile device or computer on-hand for the Echo to connect to the cloud after initial setup; after it’s hooked into your Wi-Fi, it’s good to go.
The app displays a history of all of the questions you ask Alexa, letting you scroll down through weather reports, music, measurement conversions, and anything else you throw at it. You can tap on the results of any request to get more information, like a detailed weather report from AccuWeather or a Bing search for additional answers to your question. It looks and feels similar to the Google Now screen on stock Android phones.
Tapping the menu icon on the top left opens the sidebar, which lets you access specific Alexa functions like Music & Books, Shopping & To-do Lists, Timers & Alarms, Smart Home, and Skills (third-party Alexa features you can individually activate). The menu also lets you change Alexa settings and check all Alexa devices currently linked to your account. Alexa command history tracks across all linked devices, including the Echo.
Once you’re set up, you can start talking to Alexa. It sounds less robotic than Apple’s Siri, but nowhere near as fluid and natural as the OS voiced by Scarlett Johansson in Her. You can’t change the voice, but it’s fairly agreeable.
The Echo uses on-device keyword spotting to detect a wake word, so as soon as you say “Alexa,” or one of three other words you can choose from, the light turns on and the Echo springs into action.
Out of the box, voice recognition is pretty fantastic. We didn’t have trouble with Alexa misunderstanding anything, and the voice services should get even better over time, as the Echo uses your own voice recordings to improve its results. Or you can do it yourself by using Voice Training in the Echo app.
In addition to the commands you learn in the introductory video and Things To Try, Amazon includes a handy, bookmark-size, double-sided list of things you can ask Alexa. The topics range from everything in the app, such as alarms, lists, and music, to facts, weather, and general commands like “Repeat,” “Stop,” and “Cancel.” The app features additional suggestions of voice commands to try, and several new features have been added to the Echo since its launch.
Alexa had no trouble telling us the New York weather forecast for the day or weekend, as well for other cities around the world. You don’t need to wait for Alexa to catch up either; you can pretty much just say “Alexa, what’s the weather?” without skipping a beat.
Alexa can also tell you if there are any traffic problems in your commute once you enter your work location in the app, and can bring up sports scores and schedules. Other things Alexa has no trouble with: state capitals, word definitions, holidays, and measurements.
All About Alexa
Amazon has been steadily upgrading Alexa since the Echo first launched. It’s packed with music, smart home, and information features. You can ask simple questions and get answers, like converting fluid ounces to cups. Alexa can set timers and alarms by voice; all you need to do is say, “Alexa, set timer for 60 minutes,” or “Alexa, set alarm for 6:40 a.m.”
You can also ask Alexa to add items to shopping and to-do lists, which are automatically added to the Echo app. Of course, you can also use Alexa to buy products right from Amazon. Google Assistant has the same functionality in this regard, letting you ask for information and perform very simple tasks.
Alexa syncs with your Amazon music library and, if you have Amazon Prime, all of Prime Music. You can also play music from iHeartRadio, Pandora, Spotify, and TuneIn, though you need to manually link your accounts to Alexa through the app. You can even have Alexa read you books, either in text-to-speech mode for any Kindle titles you own, or Audible audiobook playback. Google Home only works with Google Play Music, Pandora, Spotify, and oddly enough YouTube.
Voice control aside for a moment, the Echo also functions as a typical Bluetooth speaker. The Google Home, on the other hands, lacks Bluetooth. It only works as a Wi-Fi speaker you can cast to like a Google Chromecast Audio$35.00 at Best Buy, making it a bit less versatile.
If you use any home automation devices like smart lights or thermostats, you can likely use the Echo to control them. Alexa supports If This Then That (IFTTT), Belkin WeMo, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, and Wink, to name some of the big ones, with 66 smart home skills from various manufacturers available at the time of writing.
If you have a Logitech Harmony Elite$298.00 at Amazon, you can even control your home theater through Alexa (not to mention the extensive list of products the Harmony platform can control). Google Home only supports Nest, Philips, and Samsung direct control, though it can also use IFTTT recipes.
Alexa supports thousands of third-party skills (voice apps) beyond just smart home support. You can order a pizza from Dominos or coffee (to pick up) from Starbucks, get news directly from the NPR Hourly News Summary, play your favorite podcasts, walk through relaxing breathing exercises, and even get obscure facts about Pokemon.
These skills need to be found in the app or on the Web and individually enabled, but the sheer amount and variety is truly impressive, as is the fact that more are being added regularly. This is the biggest advantage the Echo has over Google Home, because anyone can make skills for Alexa, while Google Assistant doesn’t have an API for third parties to develop new features for it at all. Google may have come late to the party, but it isn’t making it easy for developers to catch up.
Alexa isn’t quite as smart as Siri when handling personal information. It can tell you what’s on your Google Calendar schedule and add events, but it can’t read your email or text messages or send any to other people. The Google Home shares these limitations, which is surprising, given that it’s a Google product.
The Echo doesn’t have a built-in battery, so even though it’s small, it’s not exactly portable. Sure, you can just pull the power adapter out of the wall and plug it in somewhere else, but this, coupled with the optional remote, Amazon is sending a clear message that the Echo is meant to remain stationary. Want a portable, battery-powered version? Get the Amazon Tap$129.99 at Amazon.
Let’s not forget, the Amazon Echo is first and foremost a speaker. And as far as speakers go, it’s fine. We tested it side-by-side against the Bose SoundLink Color$129.00 at Dell, an Editors’ Choice for midrange Bluetooth speakers. There’s no question the SoundLink Color is a better speaker than the Echo, as it provides deep bass without distortion, two things the Echo struggles with. Compared with Google Home, the Echo gets a bit louder, but Google Home produces a slightly richer, fuller sound.
On tracks with heavy sub-bass content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the Echo lacks any resonant low end, and starts to distort as you approach maximum volume. Dialing back the volume helps cut the distortion, but the Echo still lacks any substantial low end presence.
On the positive side, the high end is crisp, and there’s just enough bass that music never sounds cold. Most of the tracks we listened to, from Ani DiFranco’s acoustic “Garden of Simple” to D’Angelo’s jazzy “Ain’t That Easy,” felt warm, with enough volume to fill a modest-sized room with sound.
If you’re primarily looking for a speaker, the Echo does a decent job, but for $179.99, it’s competing against options with significantly more power and better sound quality, not to mention built-in batteries. And in that case, you’re better off with the Ultimate Ears UE Boom 2. Heck, you can even plug it into an Echo Dot$49.99 at Amazon for superior audio performance and Alexa.
If you’re just looking for a speaker, chances are you wouldn’t have read this far. Sure, there’s really nothing you can do with the Amazon Echo that you can’t do with the smartphone in your pocket or the smartwatch on your wrist. Yet there’s something here that feels infinitely more approachable than a phone or watch.
Ultimately, this is a battle of voice assistants far more than it is of hardware. The Google Home has a different look and a slightly warmer sound signature that might appeal to you, but Google Assistant just can’t compete with Alexa’s superior library of skills.
If you don’t love the look or sound of the Echo, there are plenty of Alexa-powered alternatives coming down the pike (and they’re not all speakers). But we like the way it looks and sounds, and coupled with the steady flow of updates that Amazon keeps pushing out, the Echo has become a far better device today than we ever would have imagined two years ago. That makes it worthy of our Editors’ Choice.