In the fight between Google, Amazon and Apple to take control of your home, there are some clear battle-lines being drawn. Over the last week, I've been using The Amazon Echo - a cylindrical speaker and microphone array that responds to my voice to do all sorts of interesting things. Here's my journey so far and how it fits into my quest to assemble an array for smart home devices that will make my home operate more smoothly.
The Echo is an attractive device. Standing at just under 24cm with a diameter of a little over 8cm, the Echo is compact. It requires a power connection and that's it. It can discretely sit on a corner table - Amazon recommends that it's placed at least 20cm away from a wall - and sit quietly until it's called.
Now that Amazon's Echo has been launched locally, we have a full set of premium speakers that can be used as home assistants that can listen to our commands and pander to our beck and call. So, how does it stack up against Google's Home and the Apple HomePod, which hits the stores tomorrow? Let's take a look.
The installation process took about 10 minutes and required an Amazon account. Everything is handled through an app. Once the app is installed to your smartphone, you connect directly to the Echo and then connect it to your local Wi-Fi network.
I then had it scan for smart home devices I have and it instantly found the Belkin WeMo gear I have once I enabled Alexa support in the WeMo app. It also works with a bunch of other gear including Hue, TP-Link, Nest and others. As well as the WeMo products, I also connected the Echo to the Nanoleaf lights I tested recently.
I also wanted to connect the Echo to my Spotify account. You'll need a premium account for that to work. Spotify is added to the Alexa's repertoire of connected services as a "Skill". This is a connection to a service. For example, as the Alexa is signed in to my Amazon account, I can ask Alexa to read me a book from my Kindle collection, or play a song or playlist from Spotify.
Adding third-party skills was easy - it only took a few moments to add Spotify.
The Echo's seven microphone array was able to pick up my voice from several metres away without any problem. For example, while I was working, I was able to say "Alexa, play 80s music from Spotify" and she resounded prompts and the tunes started. When it was time for the music to stop, I simply called out "Alexa, stop" and the tunes stopped.
I could also ask Alexa to tell me today's news headlines, the weather forecast here and interstate as I was heading off for a work trip and more. I could also ask her to turn lights and other devices on and off if they were Alexa ready.
With Skills, I needed to be a little more specific in how I asked Alexa to work. For example, when i want to use Spotify, I have tell Alexa to use Spotify. If I'd just said, "Alexa, Play 80s music" I'd get nowhere.
There was one thing that was a little annoying. I asked Alexa for the weather in my suburb. But, as my suburb's name also exists in London, it picked the wrong one, telling me to expect snow! But when I asked for thew weather in Melbourne and Sydney, it chose the ones in Australia and not their international namesakes.
After just a week, I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of what I can do with Alexa.
As far as music playback goes the Echo is pretty good. Sound quality was very good to my ears. Compared to the similarly sized Sonos One (which will be getting Alexa support in a coming update) I thought the sound from the Echo had slightly stronger bass out of the box. But that's easily adjustable on the Sonos One using its EQ feature. Once I fiddled with that setting, there wasn't a massive difference to my ears. And given the Echo costs half the price it would make the decision difficult if you were after a single speaker.
The Sonos shines if you're looking for a multi-room setup.
As well as Spotify, the Echo supports iHeartRadio, TuneIn and Deezer.
Final thoughts and recommendation
I have to admit, when I started using the Amazon Echo with Alexa, I came in with a fair bit of scepticism. I really didn't think it could live up to all the claims and hype I'd read and heard. But the sound quality was solid, Alexa was able to answer most of my queries, and played nicely with supported smart home devices.
And, at just $149, it's priced well under the Apple HomePod and it's only slightly dearer than the Google Home. If you haven't yet committed to a smart home platform, then the Amazon Echo could be a great place to start.