At its simplest, the £50/$50 Amazon Echo Auto puts Alexa in your car. Some newer vehicles already have the Amazon voice assistant plumbed into their own infotainment systems, and there are ways to use Alexa from a smartphone too. But if you want to keep things simple while bringing Alexa control to an older vehicle with limited interior tech, the Echo Auto could be for you.
Because Alexa works in a very similar way no matter what Echo device you speak to, the Echo Auto can be used to play music, make calls, receive driving directions, dial into digital radio, and even control your smart home devices while out on the road, just like the Echo you have at home.
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Alexa is also ready to answer your general knowledge questions, helping to settle any and all road trip disputes.
Amazon Echo Auto: Hardware and design
One of the smallest Alexa devices to date, the Echo Auto is around the size of a couple of matchboxes. It comes with a dock that attaches magnetically to the Echo Auto itself, then grips to your car’s interior air vents.
Despite its compact size, the Echo Auto has both micro USB (for power) and 3.5mm auxiliary (for audio) ports, as well as Bluetooth, eight microphones, a status light, and a pair of buttons for summoning Alexa and muting the microphones.
The dock holds onto the Echo Auto nice and securely, while not taking up too much space on your dashboard. That said, if you drive a smaller vehicle or already have a smartphone holder mounted to another air vent, the Echo Auto might start to make the cabin feel cluttered. Especially when the USB cable has to dangle down to an available port.
We found the Echo Auto doesn’t have to be sat in its dock to function. The microphone array is so good at hearing your voice, you can tuck the Echo Auto away out of view, if such a place is available in your car. It won’t hear you from the glovebox, of course, but hiding it in a cup holder doesn’t seem to negatively affect Alexa’s ability to hear you.
The status light works just like those of other Echo devices. It shines orange during the setup process, red if there’s a problem (or when the microphones are muted) and blue to show when Alexa is listening and/or processing a response.
As well as the air vent mount, Amazon includes micro USB and 3.5mm auxiliary cables in the box, plus a lighter socket adaptor with a pair of USB inputs. That way, you can use a single 12V socket to power the Echo Auto and charge your smartphone or another device at the same time.
Amazon Echo Auto: Setup and performance
Setting up the Echo Auto is much like other Echo devices, but with reminders from the Alexa smartphone app to only do so while parked. The Echo is powered with an included USB cable, which can be plugged into your car’s USB port or the 12V lighter socket via the included adapter.
It is then a case of adding the Echo Auto to the Alexa smartphone app. This process includes establishing a data connection between your smartphone and the Echo Auto, then ensuring your phone is connected to the car via Bluetooth.
This is because the Echo Auto is fed data from your phone’s internet connection, and your phone sends audio (Alexa’s voice and music played by the assistant) to the car over Bluetooth. If that data connection to your phone fails, due to driving through an area with patchy 4G coverage, then Alexa becomes unresponsive and streaming music stops.
We were immediately impressed by how well the Echo Auto heard our voice while driving, and how quickly Alexa responded to requests. We also have Apple CarPlay and found that Alexa through the Echo Auto was far quicker to respond, and more reliably so, than Siri through the CarPlay of an iPhone hooked up via USB.
Interestingly, we were able to have both systems running at the same time, with the same iPhone providing digital radio through CarPlay and Alexa’s voice through the Echo Auto.
The reliability and speed with which it hears and responds is undoubtedly one of the Echo Auto’s greatest strengths.
Amazon Echo Auto: Software and features
But hearing you and responding quickly can only get the Echo Auto so far. To be worth buying it also needs to offer a solid range of features, and for this, your mileage may vary. The simple stuff – checking the time and weather forecast, looking up information online and playing music – is handled perfectly. It really works just like any Alexa device you have at home, and can even control your smart home devices – such as garden and driveway lights – from afar.
Although not a requirement, you can also use the Echo Auto in conjunction with the Alexa smartphone app, which has an Auto mode that makes its interface larger, simpler and safer to glance at while driving.
Navigation isn’t quite so seamless, as Alexa informs you about having to tap a notification on your smartphone before opening your mapping app of choice.
In other words, you can’t navigate by only listening to Alexa; you have to mount your smartphone somewhere safe and legal on the windscreen or dashboard too, then tap the notification to open the map app. At least when the app opens Alexa has already set up navigation for the destination you asked for.
On some occasions, Alexa failed to determine our location. Upon asking: “Alexa, where is the nearest petrol station?” the assistant said: “I can’t get your exact location. What’s the city?”
When told the city is London, Alexa served up three suggestions, but all were the central London headquarters of oil companies, not petrol stations, and there was no way to ask Alexa to navigate to any of them. Giving the location as Wandsworth instead of London produced the location of a BP station 1.8 miles away, with the option to be navigated there with a tap of the phone notification. Much better.
Not knowing our location was a fairly common problem. Asking Alexa to navigate to any major town or city in the UK was no trouble, with accurate directions appearing on our phone. But stating a postcode or a smaller town caused Alexa to say it couldn't get the exact location. This is usually solved by granting the Alexa app constant access to your phone's locational data, but we appreciate that some users won't want to do that.
Even with that switched on, Alexa will occasionally fail to understand the destination.
These are the kinds of misunderstandings frequent Alexa users will be familiar with. But to fail in somewhat comedic fashion at home is one thing; to fail when a driver is asking for directions – a fundamental part of what the Echo Auto is trying to be – is quite another.
It’s a shame, because the device’s ability to hear clearly and respond quickly should give it the stable foundations on which to build an impressive and highly useful infotainment system for cars that lack their own. The Echo Auto could still be that, and there are times when it works perfectly, but gaps in its intelligence can be frustrating.
Amazon Echo Auto: Verdict
The Echo Auto is an easy device to like but a difficult one to love. The setup process is quick and simple, the hardware feels well made and is surprisingly compact, and the way it brings Alexa to almost any car is admirable. For drivers of older vehicles without connected services like a voice assistant, music streaming and digital radio, the £50 Echo Auto has a lot going for it.
The microphone array does a fantastic job of hearing your voice, even with the windows down on a noisy road or over loud music, and when Alexa understands correctly it makes for a useful road trip companion. Playing music and radio stations is as simple as speaking to an Echo smart speaker at home, and controlling smart home devices from the road – checking lights are on or off, for example – is convenient for smart home power users.
But it isn’t a perfect device, and occasional location issues detract from what is otherwise a good product. Hopefully, Amazon can improve how the Echo Auto handles navigation requests with a future update to Alexa.