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At one end of the intelligent audio spectrum is the gadget that hangs on to your every word, a vocal personal assistant role to which Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Android’s Google Now aspire. At the other end is the relatively single-minded wireless Internet speaker, such as the Play series from Sonos.

For all of its promise and posturing, Amazon’s entry – the sleek, silky-voiced Echo – is more speaker than savant. But damn, it sounds good.

EchocutawayI unpacked my Amazon Echo on Christmas Eve. Like many, I had signed up to receive a purchase “invitation” when the Echo was announced on Nov. 6, and finally was notified, six weeks later on Dec. 19, that I was among the chosen. It was in my hands four days later.

For the uninitiated, the Echo is one of a flurry of hardware devices that Amazon has rolled out in 2014. Echo is being offered to the public solely by invitation. It’s a strategy that I suspect that has a lot more to do with determining the demand on Amazon Web Services (Echo’s intelligent back end) and needed software tweaks than on any hardware shortages.

What $199 buys you is a modern, minimalist black cylinder, about nine inches tall and three inches in diameter, with a decent speaker, a bunch of noise-canceling listening microphones, and a few physical controls and ring of lights on its lid. It’s taller and narrower than a similarly priced, rectangular Sonos Play:1 speaker that I have in the same room.

Both the Echo list price and appearance are a cheat. Amazon Prime members can get the Echo for $99 (and considering that Prime membership alone is $99 per year, it’s a no-brainer to become one). Plus, the Echo is more than a simple Internet-enabled speaker, especially if you are a Prime member.

Unboxing

SleevelessBoxIf you buy someone an Echo as a gift, no worries if you don’t wrap it. Inside a standard tan cardboard shipping box is a plain black box in a black sleeve with nothing more than a UPC code and serial number on the bottom label. No packing slip, no product name. A subtly embossed “Amazon” appears only when you slide the black sleeve from the box.

Inside, on a bed of brilliant fire-orange cardboard (get it?) and carefully ensconced like a babe swaddled in cellophane is the Echo speaker, a remote with its magnetic holder, two Amazon Basics batteries, a power adapter and a slim set-up instruction card.

The entire feel is one of elegant, understated cool.

Setup

Setup is where I – and Amazon – made our first big mistake.

Well, actually it was our second. My first was that I neglected to immediately plug Echo in before starting setup (Echo, like a Sonos, requires constant wall power – it’s not battery operated). Easily remedied.

Echo's contents
Echo’s contents

“Hello. Your Amazon device is ready for setup,” Echo intoned in a smooth female voice over a deep bass note, as the ringed light on the edge of the lid turned a dark orange. “Just follow the instructions in your companion app.”

Which led to the second mistake. The day my Echo shipped, Amazon sent me an email with setup instructions and Echo tips. “Once you receive Echo, visit: www.amazon.com/echosetup,” the email helpfully began. “This will take you to the best app experience for your Echo. Opening the app will immediately start the setup process.”

The emailed instructions were somewhat different than those in the box, but I figured a printed folder couldn’t be more timely than an email, could it?

I should have gone with the folder. I clicked on the link in the email – on my laptop, with a keyboard useful for entering my long and complex WiFi password – and got caught in a loop of Echo’s web browser app setup (in my case, on Chrome) first connecting Echo’s WiFi to my device, then finding my WiFi networks, then failing after I entered my network password, then – verbally – admonishing me to visit Help in the “companion app.” But there is no help in the browser app.

Instead, I started over with the instructions on the folder which, after telling you to plug Echo in, clearly say, “Download the companion app to your phone or tablet. Start the process in your mobile browser at: www.amazon.com/alexasetup.” Trying again on my Android Google Nexus 5, setup was flawless.

echoappLessons learned: Only set up Echo from a mobile device, like a smartphone or tablet, that supports the full Echo app (Fire OS, Android and iOS do; Windows 7 laptops apparently don’t). And Amazon needs to be more clear in its email instructions.

The third mistake was one of fit and finish. The final step is to pair the included remote with Echo. That means inserting batteries. The battery compartment lever, however, wouldn’t yield to my thumbnail. Or a coin. Or a small screwdriver tip. It took a honking old-style wooden ruler to bend the battery compartment cover latch enough to open it. By that point, Echo had gone to sleep and the Android app was endlessly displaying a circling blue arrow. I rebooted my phone, and setup successfully completed.

At least I won’t have to worry about the batteries falling out.

Using Echo

Echo is controlled one of three ways: by voice to the speaker, by buttons or voice on the remote (it has an additional embedded microphone), and by touch on the Amazon Echo app. My test environment was a 600-square-foot open living and kitchen space with Echo at one end, and the remote, thanks to the unexpectedly useful magnetic holder, attached to the refrigerator at the other end.

Echo's lights fascinate cats
Echo’s lights fascinate cats

Considering that, at various times, the environment was filled with holiday guests and an overstimulated cat, it could have been a test to destruction. But Echo managed to understand most requests, even over the din of conversation, television and Sonos music, only occasionally responding with two descending notes (unmusically transcribed as a sad doo-doh) which I translated as Echo’s inability to parse a command.

Commands to Echo begin with “Alexa” (it can be changed to “Amazon” in the app, and other wake-word options are promised later). Alexa … excuse me, Echo … confirms she/it hears you when the lighted ring on the edge of the lid turns blue.

For the content of responses, Echo relies on various sources. For audio and music (and here’s why you want to be a Prime member should you buy one) Echo will pull from any music you’ve purchased from, or uploaded to, Amazon Music, as well as more than one million tracks in Amazon Prime Music, and radio stations and podcasts from TuneIn and iHeartRadio.

App displays request history and more details
App displays request history and more details

If you don’t own a song and it can’t be streamed for free, Echo will helpfully play you a sample and ask if you want to buy it. At this point, it’s the only direct Amazon shopping available on Echo.

For information, Echo relies on Wikipedia, Accuweather, Bing and others. If it can’t articulate a brief response, you’ll hear, “Hmmm. I can’t find the answer to the question I heard. I’ve added a Bing search to the Echo app.” While I got rather tired of hearing “Bing” (and there appears to be no way to change the default search engine), the Echo app remembers your Echo requests onscreen – all of them – and lets you initiate a further search on your mobile device.

I found Echo’s ability to give me brief updates on weather (“Alexa, what’s the weather forecast?”) and news summaries from NPR or BBC (“Alexa, give me a news briefing”) useful. Echo’s voice commands also were far more convenient to use than, say, my Sonos app, to quickly play a specific music track – if the song was in Amazon Music or Prime Music.

Echo handles simple questions well.

“Alexa, how old are you?” I was released November 6, 2014.
“Alexa, do you know where I am?” You are .011 miles, 0.18 kilometers, north of the center of Seattle.
“Alexa, tell me a joke.” Excuse me waiter, this coffee tastes like mud. Yes sir, it’s fresh ground.

But for anything more complicated? My Star Trek-fan spouse asked it, “Alexa, who is James T. Kirk?,” then, “Alexa, who played James Kirk?” Doo-doh, both times. “Alexa, who is William Shatner?” got a complete answer, except Echo listed that Shatner was also a “singer.” (Okay, it’s true, he has sung.) Finally, “Alexa, do you like Star Trek?” I’m best with factual questions.

More music services are promised later, but in addition to playing Amazon-stored music, Echo is a decent Bluetooth speaker. Pairing with my Google Nexus 5 was painless, and I immediately was able to stream a Marketplace podcast and the Rhapsody service from my phone. While that’s not as good as having the services integrated into Echo’s voice commands, it’s an acceptable workaround, despite the extra step.

Echo’s app also has shopping list and to-do list functions, and you can add items to them verbally, then review them on your mobile device. But these are severely limited in usefulness. They are simple lists that can’t be exported to fully featured apps like Remember the Milk or Evernote. Echo’s timer and alarm functions are probably more useful.

Creep Factor

Echo knows where you live, obviously, because it links to your Amazon.com account with your address (you can change the ZIP code in the Echo app). That’s how Alexa knows how to read you the right weather forecast. Or, when I said, “Alexa, play NPR,” it immediately started up local KUOW-FM Seattle.

Echo's app retains your recorded commands
Echo’s app retains your recorded commands

But I was unaware that Echo doesn’t merely keep a text history of your requests in the Echo app, a history that can be deleted. It also records your actual voice when you make the request, then stores the recording.

When trying out the to-do list, I noticed one item had been incorrectly transcribed in the app as Calling. Selecting it, I saw the option Echo heard: calling. Tapping it again, I heard my own voice saying, “GeekWire column.”

Holy crap.

Now, this was indeed helpful. I could see how it will continue to be helpful to be able to hear what you actually said for making sense of a badly transcribed to-do or shopping list item.

But then I noticed my Echo app history has voice recordings of all of my requests. Every. Single. One.

If I were slightly more paranoid, I would immediately slap the physical microphone-off button on top of Echo and leave its seven microphones muted until I needed to use it. But that defeats the convenience of having an always-on audio virtual assistant. And fitting both it and me with tin-foil hats is even weirder.

Amazon should be (and may be, somewhere on its site) very clear about who has access to the text history and voice recordings, how long they’re maintained, and whether one or both can be turned off and not just deleted after the fact.

Bottom Line

If you need a single-room streaming audio solution, Amazon Echo is a success. It supports both WiFi (for Internet sources) and Bluetooth (for mobile device sources), smoothly. The speaker itself is decent quality, not up to the level of a similarly sized Sonos Play: 1 but definitely a cut above many Bluetooth speakers. The sole qualification is the limited number of Internet music sources it currently directly supports: Amazon (your Amazon Music library and Prime Music), iHeartRadio and TuneIn.

Control via voice, remote or app is straightforward and seamless across devices. Echo’s Alexa is easy on the ears, responds quickly with impressive accuracy, seems to understand any human, and rarely interrupts – though can be interrupted with updated or sequential requests.

The price, for Amazon Prime members at $99, is a great deal – if you can get an invitation to purchase.

Echo is less successful as a true voice-activated, voice-response personal assistant. While news, weather and other fact-based information services work well (and being able to display more information on a smartphone or tablet screen is a nifty extension), more personal services – such as to-do lists and shopping – are implemented either clumsily or creepily. That makes Echo more novelty than must-have as a personal assistant. It’s optimized, for now, for voice-controlled music and other audio playback.

I suppose that’s for the best. “Alexa, how about a nice game of global thermonuclear war?”

Doo-doh.

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