It’s been a few years now since smart speaker-digital assistant devices started infiltrating our homes. The devices have continued to improve and evolve, and they’ve been redesigned too. Amazon has been iterating constantly with its lineup of Echo devices: whether you want a small and simple Echo device like Echo Dot, a big, high quality sounding Echo Studio, one with a screen like Echo Show, or something Goldilocks would appreciate somewhere right in the middle, like the Original Amazon Echo, there is an Amazon device that will fit easily into your space. I recently had a chance to go back to basics and re-try the 3rd generation 2019 Amazon Echo in my home for a few weeks. Here’s what I learned.
What is Amazon Echo?
Let’s back up for a moment: what is the Echo and what can it do for you? Amazon Echo, like all other Echo devices connects you with Alexa—an intelligent cloud-based voice service/digital butler—to allow you to play music, make calls, set alarms and timers, ask questions, check your calendar, get news, weather, traffic, and sports scores, manage to-do and shopping lists, and control smart home devices.
You can even place Amazon.ca orders just by asking. As an aside, the original device is simply called the Echo, while other versions go by Dot, Studio and Show. Alexa is the name of the digital assistant who’s at your service 24/7.
At its core, Echo is a speaker; a 360 degree/omnidirectional speaker so you get audio in every direction, no matter where you place it. The speaker quality is quite good. Whether it’s podcasts or music, the speaker sounds clear and actually has pretty decent bass. For its size and price I think you’ll get a lot out of it.
What’s new with the 2019 3rd gen Amazon Echo?
What’s new this time? Primarily the speaker quality. New premium speakers powered by Dolby play 360° audio for crisp vocals and dynamic bass response. Now you can also personalize your listening experience by adjusting the equalizer settings. Or pair with a second Echo (3rd Gen) or Echo Plus (2nd Gen) for stereo sound. Unlike the Echo Plus, this version doesn’t have a built in smart home hub or temperature sensor.
How does Amazon Echo work?
Echo responds to the name of your digital assistant, Alexa. By summoning Alexa, you can then ask for whatever you need. The built in microphone (it used to be seven microphones, actually, but I notice that Amazon doesn’t tout that any more, probably due to people being freaked out about their Echo eavesdropping) is always listening and waiting for you to call on it, and it uses the speaker to respond to you. Echo is cloud connected so it will never run out of storage and never needs to have updates downloaded to it.
Alexa can even hear you and respond while music is playing.
Alexa is always getting smarter—the more you use Echo, the more Alexa adapts to your speech patterns, language, and preferences.
What can you do with Amazon Echo?
Personal digital assistants can do any number of tasks for you, all without ever having to pull out your smartphone or type on a keyboard:
• play music; whether you ask for a song, an artist, a genre or an album, Alexa can find it.
• play streaming music from services like Spotify
• adjust volume
• control your smart home devices (see more below)
• learn about new features: Just say. “Alexa, what new features do you have?”
• get current news, weather and traffic info
• have a book read aloud to you via Amazon’s Audible books-on-tape service (Does not appear to be available in Canada yet)
• convert recipes and measurements
• set timers and alarms
• make phone calls
• use multiple Echo devices as an intercom system
• read your calendar to you, even an Apple or Outlook calendar
• get nutrition information. “Alexa, how many calories in a hard boiled egg?”
• get guidance for a workout. After enabling the 7 Minute Workout skill, just say, “Alexa, Start 7 Minute Workout.”
• control your compatible TV
• play radio via Tune In radio
• integrate with IFTTT
• customize its look with add-on covers, skins and decals
Setting up Amazon Echo devices
Setting up an Amazon Echo has always been pretty easy, but Amazon has made it even more streamlined. Download the Alexa app, then plug Echo in and it will greet you with an audible tone and a voice message that asks you to follow the set-up instructions in the Amazon Alexa app.
Open the Alexa app; if you wait 5-10 seconds, you’ll get a pop up in the app which will prompt you to complete set up. You’ll login or register for an Amazon account and then connect to your home’s Wi-Fi network. If you already have an Echo device in the house, it will automatically connect the new device to the same network.
If you miss the pop up, here’s what to do:
Choose Devices from the bottom menu and click the “+” in the top right corner. Select Add Device and choose your type of Echo from the list, then the specific product. A light on the device will turn orange. Choose your language then the app will have you connect to Wi-Fi by going to your phone’s Wi-Fi settings, and linking up to the Echo.
How to set up Smart Home devices with Echo
I have several smart home devices I wanted to set up including Philips Hue Lights, a smart thermostat and robot vacuum. Before you do this, make sure your smart home devices are set up on their own, before you try to link them to Alexa.
You can add each brand either using the ‘Add Device’ method above, or by going to ‘Skills and Games’ in the hamburger menu on the left side. It’s a simple matter of linking the device to Alexa inside the app, and signing into your smart home accounts.
These days, in many cases, if you already have one brand device set up, like a Hue bulb, Alexa will ‘know’ you’re setting up a new device, or adding another Hue bulb and will automatically add it to your roster.
Inside the Alexa app you can organize rooms, name groupings and otherwise manage how your devices work together.
Using Echo devices as an intercom: how to use Amazon Drop In
A neat feature of the Echo devices is the ability to use them as in-home intercoms between rooms. You can speak from your phone to an Echo device, or from Echo to Echo. You can call or Drop in. Calling lets the other person decide whether to respond to your call, while Drop In lets you open a two-way conversation any time you want.
Here’s how to do it:
Open the Alexa app on Android or iOS and tap the Communicate icon (the text bubble in the middle at the bottom of the app). The first time you use this you may need to and follow the on-screen prompts, such as entering your first and last name, as well as your mobile number.
Once this is enabled you’ll need to add contacts if you want to use the Echo as a phone. Otherwise, if you want to call from an Echo to another Echo or Dot for example, as long as both are set up, you should be able to use ‘Drop In’ (Amazon’s term for device-to-device calling) from one to the other.
From the app, choose Drop In, then select the device you want to talk to. It will ring to the other device so someone knows there’s a Drop IN request, but they don’t need to answer it. I find you need to use very specific wording to get this to connect via voice commands. For starters my Dot device was initially named “Roger’s office“ but it seemed that Alexa kept thinking since it was a person’s name she needed to look up my contacts list for a call. Nothing would work.
When I renamed the Dot “The Office“ things seem to work better. However whenever I asked Alexa to connect, “Drop in to the Office,” with the word “to“ she would not be able to connect. When I said instead “Drop in The Office“ that seem to work.
How to call other cities on Echo
You can also use your Echo devices to make calls to Echo devices in other locations.
To make a call from your Echo device, just ask Alexa to call the person or contact you want to reach by name.You will first need to make sure they’ve been added as contacts in the Alexa app, which you can do by clicking the human silhouette inside the Communicate page.
You can specify which contact information Alexa should use, depending on the options you have saved in your phone’s contacts list. Or, if you know the number you want to dial, say each digit (including the area code).
This is convenient for making free calls to relatives, if they also have an Echo. As I don’t know anyone else outside my city with an Echo, I was unable to test this feature.
How to rename your Amazon Echo assistant
If you don’t like using the name Alexa, you can change it… sort of. There’s a limited amount options but you can change ‘Alexa” to “Amazon” “Computer” or “Echo”.
Open the Alexa app on your smartphone or tablet, go to Settings, then click on your particular Echo and select “wake word”. In here you can also enable audio feedback – an audible “bloop” – so when you say its name, you know it’s heard you.
Alexa has Skills
You can add all kinds of skills to your Echo device. You can have Alexa play white noise or soothing nature sounds, provide details about flights and delays from Air Canada or give you quizzes from favourite radio programs and plenty more. Surf the Skills section of the app to find options that work for you.
How to set up Alexa skills
You’ll need to enable skills before you can use them. You can enable skills by asking Alexa to do so, through the mobile app, or in your web browser when you’re signed in to your Amazon account. After that, you have to ask Alexa to “talk to” each Skill, or have ask it something directly. “Eg. Alexa, ask Air Canada to check flight status of AC870.”
What devices work with Amazon Echo? There’s a full array of smart home devices that work with Echo:
• August smart locks
• Philips Hue Lights
• LIFX smart lights
• Nest & Ecobee thermostats
• Nanoleaf lights
Buy stuff on Amazon.ca using your voice
You can ask Alexa to re-order things you need. To do this, you’ll need to ensure 1-click payments are enabled in your Amazon.ca account. You can also add a 4 digit pin to prevent the kids from ordering stuff without your permission.
By saying, “Alexa, buy parchment paper,” she’ll find the top search hit from Amazon.ca, and tell you the price, then ask if you want it. If you say no, she’ll offer you another choice until you tell her to stop.
While she didn’t specify whether the purchase was Prime-ready, both things I bought from her were (I checked on the app before I finalized the purchase to be sure), so maybe she’s smart enough to know that’s should be the default.
Overall review of new 2019 Amazon Echo
Overall I think the Echo is a great device. It can control almost any smart home gadget you could want, and once it starts to learn your voice and your requests, it does indeed respond better. I will say, early versions of Alexa had a very cold and robotic voice compared to Google’s Assistant and Siri. But Alexa has evolved and now speaks much more naturally.
I feel like there’s a bit more you can do with the Echo over Google Home, like use the device as an intercom, a phone between devices (yes you can make calls to landline numbers on Google Home using Wi-Fi too) and it’s possible to add Apple and other calendars to Echo. Throw in the fact you can also reorder stuff from Amazon.ca and you’re getting a lot of services in one device. Otherwise, many of the basic tasks Echo can do are identical to what something like a Google Home does.
The speaker quality is quite good, and just fine for this application, and of course you do have the option of upgrading…
Overall, I think Echo is a great device and it is now available for about $79 (on sale) or 99CAD.
An Echo is easily one of the most useful gadgets you can add to your home, particularly when paired with smart home gadgets.