Top positive review
Alexa, buy me another Echo
30 July 2018
I've been in the market for a good quality wireless speaker at the right price for some time, but have struggled to find one that I was happy with. Then the Echo came up as half price on Prime Day so I decided to take the plunge. I hadn't opted for one before as I saw it more as a gimmick and didn't want my three daughters screaming 'Alexa' over each other, vying for its attention. I was also hoping that Apple might make Siri useful at some point, but that's a different issue altogether.
The Echo looks and feels good and sits innocuously wherever I place it, blending in to the room. Setup was really easy, plug in, wait a moment and connect to wifi via the Alexa app on my phone, then it was ready to use, from box to shelf in no time at all; but how would I use it?
Music: I wanted a wireless speaker to play music on, either from Spotify or via internet radio. The great thing about the Echo is it did both right out of the box. "Alexa, play Diana Vickers* Spotify" and the music started. No loading it on my phone and then sending it to a wireless speaker like I'd had to do in the past. "Alexa, play Kerrang Radio" and after a few seconds of verbal instructions on came the radio (the instructions only play the first time you use a radio station). Too loud? Just say "Alexa, volume three" and the volume is set, you can specify anything from one to 10.
Smart home: It's great to be able to turn lights on or off, or dim the bulbs with an app, but even better when Alexa can do it for you. Is this the ultimate in laziness? I don't think so, but it may well be the ultimate in convenience. "Alexa, set living room lights to 25%" and you're ready to settle in for your favorite film. "Alexa, turn the TV on" and it happens.
Routines: Why ask Alexa to do everything individually when you can program it to run lots of things at once. "Alexa, start Netflix mode**" and the TV comes on, lights are dimmed all in one go. I like, "Alexa, goodnight." The TV is then powered off, lights are switched off and the stairs and bedroom lights switched on, so no more fumbling around in the dark trying to find a light switch.
Bedtime: Talking of saying goodnight, you can ask Alexa to play relaxing music, then say, "Alexa, stop in 20 minutes" safe in the knowledge that you can fall asleep and the music will stop on its own.
News: Now there's no need to load your favourite news app in the morning, switch on the TV or grab a newspaper. Just tell the Alexa app which news feeds you're interested in then ask Alexa what's in the news. You can get real voice recordings from news providers such as Sky News or The Telegraph, BBC etc and if the provider doesn't give a voice news update, Alexa will read the text update to you. You can even play with making your own news feed from any RSS/JSON feed on the internet, meaning Alexa can read out your favourite blog posts to you too.
Games: Did I mention I have three daughters? Alexa comes with a host of games you can play. Just search for games skills on the Alexa app, switch them on and ask Alexa to play the game. Music trivia and rock, paper, scissors are popular in my house at the moment.
There's much more Alexa can help you with too, such as setting reminders/alarms, building shopping lists or giving you weather and traffic updates.
There are a few things that could be better, but they're not big enough to warrant a drop in the five star rating. You can build your own Alexa skills using a simple web interface, but it only works when Alexa is set to 'US English', at which point the Echo starts listening for American words and pronunciations and doesn't recognise some British English words (and especially names). Also having to use the Alexa app to switch on a new skill is a pain.
So how impressed was I with my new Echo? I bought a second one the next day and now have an Echo in my living room and one in the bedroom. Music syncing is excellent between the two, meaning you can listen to streaming music or radio on both at the same time. You can also use your Alexa app to control your Echos and 'announce' messages. "Alexa, turn Echo volume to 10 and announce 'dinner is ready'". No more chasing the kids around the house to get them to the dinner table, let your Echo do it for you!
My first Echo was 'new' and my second was 'refurbished', although to look at, I can't tell which is which and I can't remember which I kept downstairs and which is upstairs, so a big thumbs up for the refurbished Echo too.
*I didn't actually play Diana Vickers!