Amazon’s Echo smart devices are more than just audio speakers
You are back home after a busy day at work, and want to unwind by listening to some music. You say, “Alexa, play some relaxing music,” and you’ll automatically hear some neat music curation from the Amazon Echo speaker sitting on the table. You have some meetings lined up the next morning, and need to wake up earlier than usual. What do you do? You just say, “Alexa, set an alarm for 6am tomorrow.” Echo, a line-up of smart speakers made by Amazon, is powered by the Artificial Intelligent (AI) virtual assistant Alexa. You can use voice commands to set reminders and alarms, play music, get the latest news and weather updates, sports scores, calendar and more. This is a case of hardware and software working together.
The Echo line-up includes the Echo Dot (Rs3,149), the Echo (Rs6,999) and Echo Plus (Rs10,499). The wake word—a word used to initiate communication with Amazon Echo devices—is Alexa, and as soon as it detects this, the circular LED lights on the speaker come on to indicate that it is listening. “Alexa, play some new trance music”, “Alexa, how is the weather today?”, “Alexa, switch on the lights” and “Alexa, what is my sports update?” are just some examples of how you can interact with it.
The set-up is fairly simple. Fire up the Alexa app on your phone, and once it detects the Echo speaker, follow the on-screen steps to connect with the Wi-Fi. Once this is done, Echo speakers will no longer rely on your phone for functionality. Though you can still use the app to tweak settings, set up a multi-room audio set-up and more, you just need to talk to the speaker directly for most tasks.
The Echo Dot is the smallest speaker of the three. It’s ideal as a bedside essential, to check the weather and news, your agenda for the day, or book an Ola cab. It has an aux-out port which lets you hook it up to a larger speaker, just in case you want to use this as a music playback device at some point.
The mid-range Echo speaker is available in black, grey or white fabric wrapping. It has a 0.6-inch tweeter and a 2.5-inch woofer, and while we were testing it, Amazon rolled out the software update (version 592452420) that automatically downloads and installs once you’ve set up the Echo, significantly improving the bass and overall sound vibrancy.
The top-of-the-line Echo Plus, which has a larger 0.8-inch tweeter and a 2.5-inch woofer, is the ideal choice if music-streaming quality plays an important part in your life.
If you want it to play music, Alexa will search through the Amazon Prime Music library. You can ask for a specific song, artist, album or any genre of music too. Most of the time, Alexa was able to understand the requests for Indian music. But it didn’t always play the latest songs from playlists, for instance, when we said “Alexa, play the latest Bollywood music.” A dedicated Prime Music app, coming soon, should make the music-streaming experience even better.
In India, the Echo speakers can plug in to your Saavn app account. If you want to listen to radio stations, Alexa will tap into the vast database of global radio stations of the TuneIn app.
App developers are already queuing up to offer support for the Alexa platform. In the Alexa app, you will find a feature known as Skills, which allows you to use third-party apps. Popular apps such as Ola, Zomato, Urban Clap, Uber, Byjus and more are available. Once you enable them, you will be able to give commands to Echo speakers to book a cab, understand how to solve a chemistry equation and change the room lighting colour to suit the mood.
If you are using the Echo Plus speaker, managing smarthome products that run on the Zigbee standard becomes easier—the Echo Plus has a built-in hub that can be used to control smart lighting (Philips Hue and TP-Link), smart plugs (Oakter and D-Link) and more. For instance, you simply screw a Philips Hue smart bulb into a lighting fixture and say, “Alexa, detect my devices”—and it will. Most smart gadgets come with their own hubs that enable the smart features (such as the hub with the Philips Hue bulbs), but you wouldn’t need to set up those hubs because the Echo Plus has that capability built in. However, the Echo and the Echo Dot do not have hub functionality built in; they still have voice-based control.
With the feature known as Routines, you can set a particular phrase, and as soon as Alexa hears it, a set of tasks will be completed. For instance, “Alexa, good morning,” can be configured to automatically relay the day’s weather forecast and switch on the smart lighting, for instance.
Each Echo speaker has seven microphones. We noticed that even if there is significant ambient noise, with multiple people speaking simultaneously, the Echo speakers were able to zone in on the specific voice that said “Alexa”, and latch on to understand the subsequent request most times. Amazon has worked hard to ensure that Alexa is adept at understanding diverse Indian accents and pronunciation, and it shows. Perhaps the only rough edge is the rather terse-sounding female voice—for instance, when it says “Goodnight”, that sounds more like someone scolding you for having the temerity to stay awake so late.
What about privacy issues? Is Alexa listening to everything you say? The Echo speakers only register and stream your voice to the cloud for processing when you use the default wake word “Alexa”. This is when Echo speakers start listening to what you say, analyse it and provide a contextual response. So, if you ask “Alexa, what’s the weather in New Delhi today?”, you will get your answer, and then Echo will stop processing till you say “Alexa” again. You will find the history of every query in the Alexa app, and these can be deleted individually.
Amazon took time to get the Alexa-powered Echo speakers to India, but it was worth the wait. The virtual assistant understands Indian voices, popular apps are plugging into the service and the Prime Music streaming service is arriving soon—all this makes for a rather well-rounded product