Digital assistants are the next big thing in home technology. Google was first out of the gate with its Home device (read my review and how-to here) and now Amazon’s popular Echo is available.
What is Amazon Echo?
Echo and the smaller Dot connect to Alexa—an intelligent cloud-based voice service—to allow you to play music, make calls, set alarms and timers, ask questions, check your calendar, get 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 device is called the Echo, and Alexa is the name of the digital assistant that’s at your service 24/7.
At it’s core, Echo is a speaker; a 360 degree/omnidirectional speaker so you get audio in every direction, no matter where you place it.
What is Amazon Echo Dot?
Amazon Echo Dot is a smaller version of the Echo. It provides all the same functions as the Echo but with a much smaller footprint, and a much smaller speaker. Dot is designed almost as more of a satellite device to the Echo; think of it as a smaller cousin perfect for bedrooms or small spaces. (Using the Aux jack, you can also plug in a higher quality speaker if you need more power, but are on a budget)
How does Amazon Echo work?
Echo and Dot respond to the name of the digital assistant, Alexa. By summoning Alexa, you can then ask for whatever you need. The built in microphone (seven microphones, actually) is always listening and waiting for you to call on it, and it uses the speaker to respond to you. It’s cloud connected so it will never run out of storage. 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. And because Echo is always on and cloud connected, updates to the system happen automatically.
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
- check on your FitBit stats. (Does not appear to be available in Canada yet)
- 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
What’s the difference between Amazon Echo and Dot?
In a word: size. Echo is a more full size speaker while Dot is about a fifth the size. For the most part they can execute all the same tasks, however, so your choice will come down to how much room you have and how much speaker power you want.
Setting up Echo devices
Setting up Echo is pretty easy. Plug it 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.
I had the Echo set up quickly and easily and moved on to the Dot. Since I had once device already, the process was slightly different:
Select Set Up New Device and choose Dot from the list. A light on the Dot 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 Dot.
Setting up Smart Home devices with Echo
I have several smart home devices I wanted to set up. I wouldn’t say the set up process is intuitive but it is easy once you know what to do. It also appears to be a bit different the first time you do it, compared to when you add devices later on.
To get started select Smart Home from the hamburger menu in the top left corner. You can ask Alexa to discover smart home devices, but if this is the first light you’re setting up, she likely won’t find any. At this point click “Get Help Connecting” and then “Enable Smart Home Skills“.
That page will take you to a list of Echo compatible apps and devices. Select your current smart home device(s) from the list and then you’ll need to sign into each device’s account to get them linked.
Once they’re linked you think they’d work and you would be able to see them in your app to control them. Not so. There’s one more step; you’ll need to ask Alexa to “Discover devices” again. She will do a scan of your room and then automatically add the lights you already have set up and installed into the app. At this point you can go into the Group function and group your lights together so you can control them by room name.
I did have difficulty adding some common names, like Living Room and Office. The app told me these names were already taken even though they didn’t appear in the list and I wasn’t using them already (this was my first day with the system). I imagine this might be because these names are already being used in those individual smart home apps? Either way it was a bit confusing. I got around this by using the word “livingroom“ instead of Living Room (2 words).
Once you’ve added that first smart home device, the set up is much easier and more intuitive because there’s already something in the Smart Home section of the app. If you have some lights set up, scroll down through your lights/devices and select Your Smart Home Skills, then Enable Smart Home Skills.
I found that Alexa easily controlled the lights; even immediately after they were set up. There was no waiting. The connection was responsive and accurate.
I did struggle with adding LIFX lightbulbs. I was able to add two of my four bulbs easily. But I was unable to control them. I could see them in the app and turn them on and off by pressing the button inside the app, but Alexa kept telling me when I asked for voice control that she could not find LIFX lights. I got around this by creating a group for the two particular lightbulbs I was trying to control called “living room lamp”. Once the two bulbs were under that banner it worked like a charm. maybe Alexa wasn’t understanding the word, “LIFX”?
Adding a single new light is much easier with Echo than in Google Home.
In Google Home you have to disconnect an entire group of lightbulbs in one product line and then reconnect them if you add a single new bulb. With Alexa you can just go in and add bulbs one by one.
Using Echo devices as an intercom
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. Here’s how to do it:
Open the Alexa app on Android or iOS and tap the Conversations icon (the text bubble in the middle at the bottom of the app) 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 Echo to Dot for example, as long as both are set up, you should be able to ‘Drop In’ (Amazon’s term fro device-to-device calling) from one to the other.
Using this feature isn’t exactly intuitive. To make a call or use the intercom, tap the Conversations bubble (the cartoon talk bubble in the bottom centre of the app) and then tap the blue bar at the top of the screen that says Drop In. Here you’ll be able to select which device you want to drop in on specifically.
You can also just ask Alexa to Drop In on a device.
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.
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 Conversations 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.
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” 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 control your Nest thermostat, play white noise or soothing nature sounds, provide details about flights and delays from Air Canada 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
Using Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo speaker sound quality
I’d say the sound quality of the Echo speaker is just fine. It’s not as good as something like a Sonos, but in my opinion, its primary function is to be a digital assistant, not a finely tuned audio device. Music sounds good, but audiophiles will likely feel something is lacking. Fortunately, you can connect Echo to a better quality speaker if you like, using the Aux jack.
Alexa’s hearing ability
Alexa initially seemed to have trouble hearing me and wasn’t responding unless I shouted her name a couple of times. I will say though that after a few days, she seemed to learn my voice and my husband’s well, and shouting and repeating wasn’t necessary. She was listening and hearing us perfectly and responding instantly.
Add Apple Calendar
A feature I really appreciated was the ability to add my Apple (and Google or Microsoft) calendar so I could get appointments and info from the Echo (Google Home only lets you use Google calendars).
To do this, go to the hamburger menu in the Alexa app, and scroll down to Calendar. Link your Apple iCloud calendar and that’s it. Not only could I get your appointment info, any appointments I asked Alexa to add showed up in my iPhone in seconds.
Buy stuff on Amazon.ca
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 Amazon Echo & Dot
Overall I think the Echo is a good device. Once it starts to learn your voice and your requests, it does indeed respond better. I will say, Alexa has a very cold and robotic voice compared to Google’s Assistant and Siri. But maybe she’ll adapt.
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 Google Home does.
I think it’s far easier to set up additional smart home devices in the Echo than it is with Google Home. It’s easy to add a single new light, whereas with Google Home you need to uninstall and reinstall a whole lighting line to add one new bulb.
The speaker quality is good, and just fine for this application.
Overall, I think Echo is a good device. But it does indeed do a bit more than Google Home. When you factor in price (Echo is $99 and Home is $179), Amazon Echo is indeed the superior pick.