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Amazon Echo review: Betcha can't buy just one of these voice-activated connected-home controllers

Michael Brown | Aug. 3, 2015
Amazon's Echo is the best voice-controlled product that I've seen at the consumer level. It's versatile, powerful, and amazingly quick to recognize your speech and then do something, whether that's answering a trivia question, playing music, giving you the weather forecast, or controlling your home's lighting.

Amazon Echo

Amazon's Echo is the best voice-controlled product that I've seen at the consumer level. It's versatile, powerful, and amazingly quick to recognize your speech and then do something, whether that's answering a trivia question, playing music, giving you the weather forecast, or controlling your home's lighting.

And those are just a few of the things the Echo can do; it's capable of many other functions: Alarm clock, kitchen timer, shopping-list manager, news and sports-scores reporter, and more. But what will really blow your mind is just how fast the Echo will recognize your speech and then act.

As with much of Amazon's hardware, you'll get the most benefit from the Echo if you subscribe to Amazon services, especially Amazon Prime. Once it's linked to your account, you can have it play audiobooks using Audible, play music from your Amazon Prime music library, and even order products based on voice commands.

The device can be programmed to respond to one of two "wake-up" names, "Alexa" (the default) or "Amazon." Each request must be preceded by the wake-up name (or a touch of a button on top of the cylinder), but your commands can be either simple or surprisingly complex. If you just want to listen to music, for example, say "Alexa, play music." Within seconds (six or fewer in my tests, including the time during which the Echo verbally acknowledges your command), the Echo will be playing music from your Amazon Prime subscription or your Amazon Music library. But the Echo can respond to more complex requests, too. The fact that Alexa is a cloud-based voice-recognition service makes the Echo's responsiveness all the more remarkable.

I got the best results when I used keywords, such as "play" (for music) or "turn on" (to control connected devices), but commands such as "Alexa, I wanna hear Pink Floyd" and "Alexa, I want the kitchen light on" worked, too. I never found it necessary to speak in overly simplistic phrases or even to speak slowly. In fact, I was stunned by how fast I could speak and still have the Echo recognize my sentences--even when I uttered them while it was playing music or responding to an earlier question or instruction.

Ask for a genre of music, such as "Alexa, play folk music," and the Echo will respond--in a female voice that you can hardly tell is synthesized--"Folk music" and immediately begin playing a song in that genre. Not familiar with the song that's playing, ask the Echo "Alexa, what song is this?" ("Alexa, what's the name of this song" also works, as does "Alexa, name that tune.") The Echo will respond with the name of the song, the artist, and the name of the album it's from. Want to hear a specific artist? Say "Alexa, play Dire Straits," and the Echo will respond "Shuffling Dire Straits, from Prime Music."

 

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