Amazon Echo review: Alexa! You're getting better though you're still kind of dumb

Amazon's personal AI is a brilliantly frustrating mix of variable voice recognition, flashes of genius, great music playback, kitchen timing and ordering dishwasher tablets

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For

  • Great music and list making
  • You can shop through it
  • Best. Kitchen timer. Ever

Against

  • Only middling as a speaker
  • Lots of clonky apps
  • Echo Dot is better value

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' was such a device.

Six months on, Alexa feels like part of the family. A slightly deaf member of the family, with cognitive issues. But a part of the family nonetheless.

As with Google Home, the frustration of Echo comes from the gap between what I feel like it ought to be able to do, and the reality. So the best way to approach it is with low expectations, I guess.

Have you ever used Siri or, even better, a voice-controlled car/satnav interface? If you have, and approach Echo thinking it's like that – "Well, this probably won't even hear me, and it's going to be hugely frustrating" – you'll be impressed at just how good it is at hearing and responding to you.

If, however, you think it's going to be like an AI from a sci-fi movie who you can just talk to like a human, and who will anticipate your needs, you are going to be sorely disappointed. 

If I'm honest, that isn't just when it's brand new. The suggestion has always been that Echo learns as it goes along, and gets better at understanding your requests. I think this is flatly untrue. Alexa is still as good at understanding me now as it was when I first started using the Echo and a pair of Echo Dots.

Where Echo has improved is in terms of its feature set, which has grown continuously thanks to diligent support from Amazon and a growing arsenal of third-party apps or 'Skills' that let you do everything from ordering an Uber to receiving hypnotherapy.

However, you can buy an Echo and barely concern yourself with its apps and AI and futuristic cleverness. It's also a brilliant music and radio delivery device (although not, ironically, a particularly amazing speaker) and by far the world's best kitchen timer.

Echo seems like an early glimpse of the future. You can picture version 3 or 4 of this running the world. 

At the moment, I wouldn't trust it to run a bath – well, it's got no arms, for a start – but Echo is a very proficient wireless speaker/radio with some useful organisational skills (and Skills).

Too long, can't be bothered to read? Here's the headline verdict:

Amazon Echo is an AI personal assistant that will help you shop, manage smart home devices, and act as a DJ and news aggregator. 

It's still very much a v1 product, but it does enough to justify itself, although in my view the much cheaper and smaller Echo Dot, plugged into a decent speaker, is a better bet. 

Because of the way Amazon has opened Echo up to third parties, its possibilities are theoretically limitless. 

However, whatever Alexa ends up being able to do, I am pretty sure it will always be a chore getting her to perform tasks, because of the inherent limitations of her ability to understand human speech. 

Alexa is an ultra-versatile genius, but she's also as dumb as a box of spanners.

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, which is reviewed here.

As you can see, Echo comes in white, or black, and it looks like a portable speaker because that is partly 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 high-level voice recognition tech, here.

Actually, one group who do seem to struggle are people from the north east of England, but this should improve over time as Alexa learns the ways of the Geordie and beams them back to her home planet (the cloud).

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 by default, but with the option of adding names as well: "Alexa set a timer for pasta for 10 minutes." 

The alarm sound is pleasing but unmissable, and can be silenced with a simple, "Alexa, stop".

Since a recent update you can also ask her for reminders. "Alexa remind me to pick up the dry cleaning at 3pm", that sort of thing.

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?

The answer to those questions is not straightforward, unfortunately.

Echo's voice recognition is better than Siri's or Google's, presumably because it has more and better mics, and possibly better software. 

It can hear you from a distance, and also hear you over background TV or cooking sounds and even over the sound of loud music issuing from her own loudspeaker, although you sometimes will need to move closer and/or shout.

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.

What becomes apparent over time is that Alexa is not very consistent, and there are obvious limits to how she can understand you.

This manifests itself in several ways. Most simply, she requires you to say "Alexa" at the start of every command. So you can't say "Alexa, skip this track" and then, "And this one" or "skip again".

Many instructions, especially around smart home control require very specific wording. For instance if you have named your Philips Hue lights "front room" that is what you must call them. You can't use synonyms such as 'lounge'. If you're in the front room, logically, you should be able to just say, "Alexa, turn on the lights". But you can't.

Dig deeper and you hit further frustrations. It used to be an absolute nightmare changing the colour of bulbs but Amazon, to its credit has fixed this.

But while you can now say "Alexa make the front room blue", you can't ask it to "turn the front room blue" or "set the front room to blue". 

Alexa, how about some music?

Alexa is HIGHLY proficient as a DJ, so long as you have either Spotify, Amazon Prime Music (a more limited selection, free to Prime subscribers) or Amazon Music Unlimited, which is its full-on Spotify rival.

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 by 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. The recommendations engine isn't amazing.

Although searching for playlists, genres and artists is generally okay, you really start to run into problems if you want specific albums or tracks. Presumably that's because Alexa is searching a database of millions of titles, many of which sound similar if not identical. 

It can become incredibly frustrating repeating a track title like you're talking to an elderly relative, and if you want an album title that is also a song – most David Bowie albums from Aladdin Sane onwards, for instance – you will of course have to remember to say "play the album Station to Station". 

The thing is, it's not as if searching music manually via your phone is a Labour of Hercules. Alexa's struggles with parsing track titles is a real problem. 

I accept, however, that many users will be perfectly happy saying "Alexa, play 80s music" or "Play Adele" and won't be too bothered about the shortcomings with more specific requests. 

Music playback is also not the end of Alexa's aural talents. She can 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 pronunciation 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 Echo isn't actively bad. I'd say it's way better sonically than Google Home, although that lets you Chromecast to more proficient audio devices.

You could reasonably ask why, if Echo has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, it too can't just be paired with another speaker. Well, I dunno, but it can't. Maybe an analogue audio out? No, there isn't one of those, either. Although there is on the Echo Dot…

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 can now order shopping. Although in truth, most users will find it's only really handy for re-ordering things.

Simply 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.

Except of course it's not that simple. Many home staples are listed on Amazon dozens if not hundreds of times, but Alexa will only give you the top search result for each

So ask for "dishwasher tablets" and it will suggest a pack of 90 Finish tablets, or 70 Fairy Platinum. If you want any other brand or quantity, you'll have to go online as usual. 

Voice purchases are protected by a PIN, set in the app.

Where Alexa is more useful, in theory, is re-ordering products, as that removes the problem of too much choice. Anything Prime-eligible that you've ordered from Amazon online or via Alexa can be re-ordered with a command.

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, and the more obscure likes of Kasa and Belkin.

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 then, more to the point, remember it. 

That's why 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 perfect. However, you will also note that the control panel allows you to flag up commands she has misheard.

This supposedly allows Alexa to understand you better and better as she's getting to know you but, as I mentioned before, I am not at all convinced this is really the case.

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.

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.

Echo is great for normal people, however. Mums, dads, kids. 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 successors 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 a 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. If you already have a Bluetooth or other speaker, with a line in, I would definitely recommend the much cheaper Echo Dot over this – you'll end up with the same features, with better sound quality, for a third of the price.

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 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!" . There are many of these Easter eggs and Amazon keeps adding them, because people love 'em.

Finally, and I'm sorry it's barely been touched on here, Alexa could be a fantastic assistant to the elderly and people with certain disabilities. I'm not sure why Amazon doesn't play this up more.