Written by Camilla Shuckburgh

Amazon Echo review: why Alexa is more than just a smart speaker

Every six months or so I find myself longing for a new piece of tech to play with. This year was no different. I found myself researching pages-upon-pages of reviews for smart speakers – Amazon Echo and Google Home to be precise.

Now, naturally, I’d plum for the Google Home – let’s be honest, it looks nicer than the Echo and, well, it’s by Google. I’d expect Home to be up-to-speed and more advanced than the Amazon equivalent due to its access to more data than anything else on the planet. But data is only one part of the equation – being able to hear and understand you is the most important thing for a voice-only object and the Echo’s absolutely nailed it.

The Echo launched in the US two years ago and since then, Amazon have worked through some of their teething problems with a long list of performance enhancements and bug fixes, giving them a major competitive edge against the Google Home.

It seems like the latter just isn’t there yet in terms of performance. This made me sad. But I dusted myself off and decided to plum with the newly ios apps launched (but slight Pringle-tin-esque) Amazon Echo – or Alexa, as she likes to be called – rather than wait for the Home to be released in 2017.

Overall, I’m impressed and here’s why…

The Echo’s good for all those things that would usually make you reach straight for your mobile to check, sync, add, set, ask – and I’m all up for not being attached to my phone.

My top commands:

“Alexa, play…”

Playing my music via Spotify by genre or my playlists – it’s made me listen to a lot more music than I would do usually, which can only be a good thing.

“Alexa, add…”

Adding items to my shopping list / to do list – great for getting more organised and getting all those niggly things off your mental to-do list.

“Alexa, set timer for…”

Perfect for cooking – the kitchen seems to be the natural home for Alexa.

“Alexa, read The Guardian top stories…”

News and weather updates – although be warned, Alexa’s voice can become quite monotone after a while. Don’t get me wrong, she’s more human sounding then Siri, but still, there are limits

“Alexa, what am I doing today?”

Calendar updates – perfect in the morning to prepare myself mentally for the day ahead.
The quality of the speaker is good too, considering the cost of the unit. It’s no Sonos or Bose but is perfectly okay, and if you do have any of these, you can link from your Echo via Bluetooth.

It also uses far field voice technology so you don’t have to stand screaming “ALEXA” at the top of your lungs. She’s clever too – the more you use her, the better she becomes and constant software updates via The Cloud mean there’s no annoying updates to make manually.

But there are a few lows…

The Echo makes all the other non-voice-activated devices in your house seem pale in comparison. I’ve actually asked my coffee machine “Alexa, make a coffee” on a couple of occasions, and felt generally put upon when I’ve had to use a remote control with my finger, pfffft.

Although the Echo is impressive, there’s still some way to go in terms of the ‘skills’ available on the device within the UK market. Skills are basically the equivalent of apps. They customise your device with extra capabilities. For example, you can add the Uber skill to order a taxi or perhaps the Dominos skill to repeat your last pizza order.  Although, be wary of the Jamie Oliver cooking skill – it will annoy the hell out of you.

Final verdict

Basically, the Echo’s like a gateway drug to other smart home tech and I’m hooked. I’m already thinking about how I can adapt my home with more savvy technology (Phillips do a great line in smart lighting).

In a nutshell, the Echo is the best voice assistant-come-speaker you can buy in the UK at the moment.

If you want to give Alexa a whirl but don’t want to invest in the Echo, try her little sister Dot – at a third of the price (around £45-£50), it’s definitely worth the money…