You can get a bit jaded writing about tech, but now and then something comes along that makes you think, "Yep, this feels like something really new." Amazon Echo, powered by it's satnav-voiced personal assistant-cum-DJ 'Alexa' is such a device.
Looked at from different angles, you could describe it as a Siri/Google knock-off, a Bluetooth speaker that you can speak to, or the world's best, and by far its most expensive, kitchen timer.
Taken as a whole, however, it seems like an early glimpse of the future. You can picture version 3 or 4 of this running the world. At the moment? Well, it's a very proficient wireless speaker/radio that also lets you make lists, and buy stuff in a slightly fiddly way from Amazon. And, as noted, it's an absolutely world class kitchen timer.
Buy Amazon Echo | £150
Buy Amazon Echo Dot | £50
It can also do a few other things that are useful, but it does them a little clonkily. It also does numerous things that are fun but essentially useless. Nonetheless, the promise of this thing is mouthwatering.
Too long, can't be bothered to read? Here's the headline verdict:
Amazon Echo is a fantastic, futuristic, AI personal assistant, shopper and DJ. It's very much a v1 product, and at present it only just does enough to justify itself, leaving the much cheaper Echo Dot looking like a better bet. However, the future possibilities of the way the software combines with services from Amazon and third parties are seemingly limitless.
Alexa, tell me what Amazon Echo is
The Echo is the larger of the devices shown here. It's a cylinder about the size of a medium sized bottle of milk. The thing that looks like a shaving from off the top of it is the Echo Dot, and I'll come to that eventually.
As you can see, Echo comes in white, or black, and it looks like a Bluetooth speaker because that, on one level, is what it is.
Normally at this point, I'd love to show you lots of loving detail shots, fetishistically pawing over all its ports and buttons and lights… But all I got is this.
That's the sum total of interesting details on the exterior of Echo: a mic mute and a button that looks mysterious, but turns out to be for turning off alarms, and for prodding Alexa awake if she's been ignoring you. Oh, and the whole device top rotates, to change the volume.
The reason for this sad lack of things to touch, fondle and press is that just about everything you do with Echo is via voice. You ask Alexa things; she replies. You order Alexa to do things, thus: "Alexa, set a timer for 15 minutes/play Adele/ask the Guardian for today's headlines". She agrees verbally to do so, then gets on with it.
Setup is incredibly easy. Just download the Android or iOS Alexa app, long press the mystery button to find your Wi-Fi and enter the password via the app. That's all it needs to be functional, although you should subsequently pair your Amazon, Spotify and Google calendar accounts, and choose your favourite news sources and sports team.
What you don't have to do is say things to it in a variety of voices, as you do with Siri. "It just works" straight away. Yes, obviously with people whom talk proper like what I do, but I haven't heard complaints that it can't understand Scotsmen or Apprentice candidates, so clearly we are talking genius-grade voice recognition tech, here.
Alexa, what can you do well?
Alexa is absolutely great at two things: setting kitchen timers and making shopping lists, to-do lists and other types of lists (with support for Todo-ist although not, curiously, Evernote. I mean, EVERYTHING supports Evernote. My bloody TOASTER supports Evernote. Anyway.)
As a kitchen timer, Echo is unsurpassed. Hands full/covered in oil? Doesn't matter, just tell Alexa to set a timer. Want to know how long's left? Ask her. Need to set another timer for the peas? She'll start as many as you like, all with numbers. The alarm sound is pleasing but unmissable, and can be silenced with a simple, "Alexa, stop".
The pic above shows the blue lights that appear around the rim of Alexa's, er, 'face' when she hears her name called. The one below shows the circling blue-and-white lights that chase around it as she has a bit of a think about what you've just asked her. Has she understood you? Can she do it?
Fortunately, the answers to the above questions are "Nearly always" and "Yes, so long as it's from quite a tightly defined list of possible options."
Alexa's voice recognition is better than Siri's or Google's, presumably because it has more and better mics, and possibly better software. She can hear you from a distance, and closer up, even over music, TV or cooking sounds.
Perhaps more importantly, because Echo is always there in the room, rather than being in your pocket, you just feel more inclined to talk to Alexa. She's always listening for her name, then starts listening 'properly' as soon as she hears it.
Unless, of course, you're a conspiracy theorist, in which case she's listening to you all the time, spying on you. Yes, even when you're on the toilet. If you are such a person, I reckon give Echo a wide berth.
Now, the first thing my boyfriend said to Alexa was, "Buy me a puppy," to which she rather alarmingly said, "Yes".
However, it turned out that she'd just added it to a shopping list, accessible in the app or To-doist, instead of having one immediately pulled out of the puppy pound in an Amazon mega-warehouse, and forced into a cardboard box, for delivery by drone. I do assume that's what'll happen by about Echo 3.0, though.
That didn't really diminish the magic of being able to speak to an inanimate object and have it immediately understand and respond to you, though.
Alexa, how about some music?
Alexa is HIGHLY proficient as a DJ, so long as you have either Spotify (the Evernote of music services, except Echo actually does support this one) or Amazon Prime Music.
You can ask for music by artist, playlist, album or song titles. You can skip tracks and change the volume. You can also tell Alexa you like a track - including on radio stations played through Echo - presumably making it more likely to appear again in the future, or that you hate it, so you need never be afflicted with Mumford and Sons again.
You can also ask for Amazon 'stations' for artists, and get things that are a bit like what you originally asked for, sort of.
It's not as if searching music manually via your phone is a Labour of Hercules, and you do also get the usual main problem with this kind of online service: the volume and bitrate/audio quality goes up and down like a loose person's undergarments. Even so, it's a largely fantastic service, delivering the music you want with the mere bark of your voice.
That's hardly the end of Alexa's aural talents, though. She can also play music and news radio stations via TuneInn or RadioPlayer.
You want more tailored news? Alexa can serve up news reports from audio sources such as Radio 4, BBC World Service, Sky, podcasts and audio reports from the Guardian, Economist and others.
She can also robotically read out headlines and stories from The Guardian, Telegraph and Mail (all sociopolitical boxes ticked there, then). Although her cadence and slightly alien pronounciation make this something of a chore, it could be a godsend for anyone suffering from poor eyesight, illiteracy or an inability to multi-task reading a paper/phone screen and eating muesli.
As a final audio option, you can just use Echo as a Bluetooth speaker, pairing as you would with any other.
Audio is proficient across voice and music. Sure, you could certainly get a better speaker for £150, but but even something like Monitor Audio's S150 isn't going to put Echo to shame. Also, take it from me, the S150 is SHIT as a kitchen timer. Echo wipes the floor with it there.
You could reasonably ask why, if it has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, you can't just pair it with another speaker. Or maybe there could be an audio out? Well… there isn't. Suck it up.
Alexa, are you telling me that's all you can do?
"I'm sorry, I don't understand the question." No, actually, Alexa and Echo can do a number of other things but I'd consider all of them, at present, to be side benefits to its audio, list-making and kitchen-timing attributes.
First and, Amazon no doubt hopes, foremost, Amazon Prime members really can now order things (though not puppies). You just bark, "Order toilet paper/dishwasher tablets/Lego/Kalashnikov AK-47" and they'll all be delivered the very next day, apart from the last one.
This is only possible because of Amazon's sheer size, but that wealth of available product also causes immediate problems.
Many home staples are listed on Amazon dozens if not hundreds of times, but Alexa will only give you the top search result for, for instance, "dishwasher tablets".
You can then say "yes" or "no" to her suggestion. Opt for the latter and you'll be given one more suggestion, then dispatched to the Alexa and Amazon shopping apps for a more in-depth investigation.
Further exciting Alexa action comes in the form of yet another way to turn on your Hue bulbs, as well as Hive and Nest's respective suites of compatible smart gizmos.
For basic control, this is quite handy. You'll need to give every smart bulb, smart plug and smart whatever else its own name - and remember it - so I don't see this supplanting smartphone control any time soon, but for basic lights on/lights off, turn the heating up/turn the heating off type actions it's good.
The Echo can also bolt on new abilities by activating "Skills" (apps, essentially) from the Alexa app. These veer wildly from the fairly useful - ordering an Uber to your home, re-ordering meals you've previously had from Just Eat, getting someone to come pick up your laundry - to the perhaps slightly more questionable ("Alexa, toss a coin", "Alexa, what is House Baratheon?", "Alexa, tell me today's yoga position").
That's because Alexa's 'Skills' are really 'apps', from an 'app store'. And as we know, in any app store on a new platform, to get to the merest morsel of wheat, one must have many cubic feet of one-star-rated chaff forced down one's gullet. It'll get better, no doubt.
Alexa, what's your app like?
I'm glad you asked me that, and here are some handy screen shots to give you an idea. From left to right we have Alexa's main control panel, the Alexa app store (sorry, list of 'all skills') and a shopping list compiled over ten minutes of rooting around the kitchenette before heading out to Morrisson's.
As you can see from the presence of a "small top (sic) of Philadelphia", Alexa's voice recognition is not quite perfect. However, you will also note that the control panel allows you to flag up commands she has misheard.
This allows Alexa to understand you better and better as she's getting to know you, getting to know all about you. I spoke to someone from Hive who, as a UK launch partner, has had his Echo for nearly a year and he describes its understanding as 'uncanny' at this point.
The app also lets you flag up your favoured news sources and sports teams, so long as your favourite sports team is one of a short list of major Premier League or NFL football squads.
Personally, I wanted regular robotic updates on the England cricket team. Well, that was tough luck on me.
Amazon Echo: verdict
So, what have we learned after that rather exhausting run-through of Alexa's talents?
As a pure lump of hardware and software, Echo is really impressive, but I don't see it being a massive hit with techies as such because you too rapidly run into the limits of what Alexa can do, and that's frustrating, because you can immediately picture so much more that it could do.
Perhas paradoxically, Echo is going to be just great for your mum or your kids, though. Its limited range of abilities is so instinctively easy to control. Children in particular will soon see talking to tech as completely normal, in a way that my generation never will.
By the time they're all grown up, I can easily picture one of Alexa's grandchildren running entire households, serving up media of all forms, calling in shopping staples before they run out, and everything else to order.
By that point, presumably Amazon will own all the parts of the Earth not run by the Chinese or under 50 feet of irradiated water.
At the moment, it's an absolutely fantastic kitchen timer that's also a proficient music player and a way receiving, in audio form, real-time info - news, weather, sport, shopping, traffic - that you would normally get via your mobile, laptop or TV. Is that worth 150 quid? Maybe, maybe not.
Furthermore, although they're beyond the scope of this review, there are certain social questions to ask about Echo ownership. I'm not exactly an avid Noam Chomsky fan, but many will quite reasonably question the wisdom and wider implications of Alexa's presence.
With Echo, you are, in effect, inviting a Trojan horse for Amazon's shops and media stores into your home, to listen to you, and then sell you more stuff.
And Alexa could be quite effective as a sales person. She's a little prim, sure, but has just enough of a personality to not be creepy, without getting anywhere near Siri's grating approximation of "sass".
Ever so infrequently, she'll answer a standard question with a slight variation ("Why yes, I'd be DELIGHTED to do that") and on one occasion in my flat, the sound of a load of pans being dropped actually led to an exclamation of "What a commotion!" - an Easter egg, of sorts.
Despite or because of its flaws, Echo beats HTC Vive, another frustrating but in some ways brilliant device, to be my most exciting techy thing of 2016. Quite the accolade.
So why's it only got 3 stars, then? Well, reader, scroll all the way back to the top of the article and there cast your eyes upon the Amazon Echo Dot.
Dot is £100 cheaper than the Echo proper and does exactly the same job, but it has a 3.5mm audio output, so you can attach it to a better sounding speaker, which I'm assuming many people reading this will have.
Unfortunately, my Dot has only just arrived so I haven't been able to check that it 'listens' as well as the full-size Echo. If it does, it seems like the obvious device to go for. That doesn't mean the Echo is bad though. On the contrary, it's a beautiful thing and quite possibly a vision of all our tomorrows.
Buy Amazon Echo | £150
Buy Amazon Echo Dot | £50