As a species we’re very particular about who, and what, we talk to.
We’ll happily talk to each other, animals and to ourselves.
We will even give an encouraging word of advice to our rusting Land Rover as it desperately tries to carry 8 people and their respective camping gear up a Welsh hill.
With a gentle pat on the dashboard we remove all the awkwardness of talking to a large diesel engine and transform it into a dear and trusted friend.
Gadgets however, we won’t talk to. They’re lifeless objects, never surviving long enough to warrant the anthropomorphism that the Land Rover does and never failing miserably enough that they need a good shouting at.
It is the last, impenetrable barrier of entry that has stopped us from living out the “Star Trek” fantasy.
That’s not to say that people haven’t tried. Cars tried it first, and failed because they didn’t work. Then phones tried it and they too failed because they also didn’t work.
The technology was a barrier for one thing - it simply wasn’t good enough. Then there was the crushing social awkwardness that had been drilled into us ever since we saw people wandering down the High Street bellowing into their invisible handsfree headsets.
Yet despite everything, the tech companies valiantly fought on. Siri was born and then Google’s voice assistant and finally, Amazon unveiled Alexa.
This long introduction might seem quite over the top, but to understand why Amazon Echo is so good, you have to understand just how truly awful voice recognition software was in the past.
Amazon Echo is not awful, it’s initially terrifying, then surprising and finally deeply rewarding.
As a piece of hardware Echo is nothing more than an extremely complex walkie talkie. It’s covered in sensitive omnidirectional mics, contains a powerful speaker and then a control dial which lets you change the volume.
The cheaper Echo Dot forgoes the room-filling speaker instead opting for just the essentials needed to let you talk to it. It comes with additional ports that then let you hook it up to a speaker or Bluetooth speaker of your choice.
What truly makes Amazon Echo powerful is Alexa, the AI-assistant that Amazon has squeezed inside.
Alexa is a cloud-based artificial intelligence that can answer questions, learn to control third-party applications and generally do your bidding.
What really sets Alexa apart from rival services is its sheer conversational ability. Alexa is one of the few systems where you can talk to it as though you would a normal human being.
Want to listen to Radio 1? Simply say at a normal volume: “Alexa play Radio 1”
It will then immediately know you mean BBC Radio 1, will find a live stream of it from TuneIn and then play it automatically.
Want a roundup of the day’s news? Simply ask: “Alexa what’s the news?”, it will then pull through a Sky News flash briefing followed by Alexa giving you the local weather or the rest of the day.
Many many services can do all this, what sets Alexa and Echo apart form the competition is the way in which you ask for it. You don’t need to pause after saying the words “Alexa”, just say it in a flowing continuous sentence as you would a human being.
It is this spoken fluidity that gives Alexa the upper edge, you don’t need to think through how you’ll ask a particular question. You might even ask it differently, it doesn’t matter Alexa knows you’re after the same result and provides it regardless.
What pushes Echo to the next level is turning it into a remote for your smart home.
We connected Alexa up to our British Gas Hive system and immediately it became the go-to remote control for everything from the lights to the heating.
Commands can be as simple as: “Alexa turn the bedside lamp on”, or “Alexa it’s cold, turn the heating up”
For those of you worried about privacy Echo won’t be recording all your conversations, just the requests. A glowing ring of light indicates when it’s recording as well.
If that’s still not enough comfort then there’s a mute button on top which Amazon claims will physically sever the power to the mics, a drastic but necessary approach which means that even if Amazon isn’t listening, no-one else can either.
Who should buy Amazon Echo?
Echo works best when you have other gadgets that it can utilise such as Hive, Nest or Philips Hue. On its own its an incredibly smart speaker, paired with these other gadgets though and it becomes the fully fledged conduit to your home. It’s also really good at doing homework. Alexa really is the first gadget we actually felt comfortable talking to.
Who shouldn’t buy Amazon Echo?
Echo isn’t a necessity. It’s not like your lights won’t turn on without it. Instead it’s a glue that can bind multiple smart home products together and create one unified system. It’s important to consider if Echo and Alexa on its own is enough to justify having it, for some it won’t be. For others Echo Dot might be the solution.
Amazon Echo is available now to buy for £149.99, Echo Dot is available for £49.99
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