Whipping your phone out and barking orders at it is all well and good as long as you’re on the move.
But what if you’re curled up on the living room couch and just need to put on some music or dim the lights without moving an inch? Enter, Alexa: Amazon’s dutiful AI butler residing within the Echo range of smart speakers.
You’ve only just gotten accustomed to talking to your phone so shouting at a speaker to get things done has got to feel ridiculous, right? Well, you’d be surprised.
First off, there’s no need to shout. At Alexa, or otherwise. Unless you see someone garnish a pizza with pineapple. In which case, by all means. Throw in a piledriver while you’re at it.
Amazon’s Echo range of smart speakers, which includes the Dot, Echo (2nd gen) and Echo Plus all have excellent hearing skills courtesy of the seven far-field mics built in. But we’ll dive deep into its tech bits later.
Amazon’s smart speakers are hooked into the web, so they can do a lot more than simply control your music. Whenever an Echo device hears you ask for ‘Alexa’ an LED ring on the top flashes blue and does its best to follow your orders.
That could be anything, from playing music from TuneIn, Saavn or Amazon Prime Music, answering simple questions or reading out Wikipedia pages, to telling awful dad jokes, setting timers or recording hands-free lists.
Plug it in, download the iOS / Android app and you’ll be up and running in moments. Right out of the box, the speech recognition is shockingly adept at picking up all kinds of Indian accents. It’s all so quick - no faffing with a phone to look up who won the day’s cricket match and so on. We have with us the Echo Plus that sits right at the top of Amazon’s Echo range packing all bells and whistles. So let’s find out if it’s the queen of our castle…
Confused by what’s available in Echo-land? Here’s your quick guide:
Amazon Echo Plus (₹14,999)
The best sound quality, plus a built-in smart home hub which makes it easier to connect connected kit. Looks like a tube of Pringles.
Amazon Echo (2nd-gen) (₹9,999)
Improved sound quality over the 1st-gen model (Amazon says), plus a new, more compact design and variety of finishes. Much cheaper than before, too.
Amazon Echo Dot (₹4,499)
You’ll need to hook it up to another speaker if you want top-notch music, but it otherwise does everything the 2nd-gen Echo does.
Design and build: Hiding in plain sight
Smooth, sleek and with only the tiniest of Amazon logos, Echo’s industrial look is truly inconspicuous - more so in its stealthy matte black avatar, like a ninja lurking in the shadows. That’s the idea, really: it should lurk on a table or countertop, listening to everything anyone says without becoming the centre of attention. Marks an eerie resemblance to our own social behaviour at parties. Until the shots roll out, of course. But that’s besides the point.
Not that we have any friends named Alexa, but assuming one did come visiting, you could simply tap the mute button on top - it’ll turn the LEDs around the twisting, volume controlling top rim red and stop it interrupting your conversations. There’s an ‘action’ button up top, too, in case you want to wake Alexa without speaking - but really, why would you?
The Plus has razor sharp ears that are pretty reliable, even over music, so you don’t need to yell to catch Alexa’s attention. As with the 2nd-gen Echo and the Dot, it has a 3.5mm audio-out socket, meaning you can plug it into external speakers if the Plus’ audio quality isn’t hot enough for you. Internally, it’s a different matter: the Plus has a speaker set-up consisting of a 2.5in woofer and 0.8in tweeter. It has seven microphones, arranged such that the Echo will more easily here you from across the room or when there’s background noise.
Smart home skills: hub-a-dub-dub
Here’s what really sets the Echo Plus apart from its cheaper sibling: a built-in ZigBee smart home hub. Whereas other Echo devices hook up to your existing connected lights, security cams and whatnot, the Plus has its own dedicated smart home hub, meaning it can control them all itself.
This means that you can buy a Philips Hue lightbulb and connect it directly to the Echo Plus - rather than having to buy Philips’ own Hue hub for extra dosh. That’s really when you get a taste of Alexa’s full potential. Switching lights on / off by simply talking to Alexa is ridiculously addictive as is adjusting colour and intensity. Prepare for one of two consequences: either you’ll melt that ATM card replacing all your lights with Hue bulbs, or (the cheaper of two options) you’ll curse at your existing switches under your breath every time you get up to use them.
This also means you can directly control smart home devices you’ve directly connected to the Echo Plus using the Alexa app. You won’t get the same level of control that you’d get via the device’s own app, mind. In everyday use, we found that even basic level of control can more than suffice for your daily needs.
Sound quality: applaud to the echo
Here’s where a lot of the extra cash you spend on the Echo Plus really goes: its internal speaker. It’s really impressive. The bass it puts out packs a satisfying thump, and it’s just a well-rounded sound overall. It’s the best sounding Echo of the lot, one that won’t sound out of place on a kitchen table or study desk. Of course, you can always hook it up to speakers of your choice via AUX or Bluetooth. But for most people, this unit should do just fine all by itself.
Alexa Skills: smarter than a fifth grader
Alexa’s always surfing the interwebs, way more than your average teen. This means she’s constantly learning, unlike aforementioned teen who’s probably lost a few brain cells to Kamlesh memes. Point being, of Alexa’s over 20K skills globally, over 10K have already hit our shores with a constantly expanding library. More skills mean more utility, and that’s a massively impressive number from the get-go. But that isn’t the most impressive thing on Alexa’s resume. No Sir. What really makes our jaws drop is how finely tuned she is for all kinds of Indian accents. Not only does she pick up commands from various Indian folk without a hitch, she even responds with accurate phonetics based on the word and its origins. Considering the variety of languages and accents we possess, for an American-born AI that isn’t just amazing. That’s just plain sorcery right there.
Of her many tricks, multi-room music is a potentially neat addition, albeit one that's come to all Echo devices via the Alexa app, rather than just the Plus. What you can do with it is group two or more speakers together, then ask Alexa to play music on that group - for instance "Alexa, play folk rock downstairs".
You can also group smart home devices - making it easy to turn on a light and plug at the same time, for instance, either via the app or by asking Alexa. Routines, meanwhile, are a bit like IFTTT recipes. Alright, a lot like them - you create a sequence of smart home events you can trigger with a word or two, for instance you could say "Alexa, good morning" and have Alexa turn on the lights and aircon, then give you the weather forecast, tell you how traffic is and read you the news headlines. It works really well and is super-simple to set-up.
And of course you get all of the other standard Echo skills here: ordering pizza, adding calendar appointments, setting alarms and, increasingly, playing games and quizzes. Voice purchases is another neat skill, letting you instantly place an order via Amazon shopping.
Amazon Echo Plus Verdict
Not only is the Echo Plus smart enough to run your entire home purely on voice, it’s also the best sounding Echo ever. For being the most expensive model in the range, it’s also surprisingly well within reach for a lot of folk. Others can always dip their feet in the Echo ecosystem for as little as less under 5K with the Echo Dot.
Smart speakers around are sparse, at least for now. Your choices for powerful home-controlling devices are few and far between. More so, if you look for one with skills and services as deeply integrated to cater to our unique requirements as the Echo. All of which makes the Echo Plus an absolute revolution. Potential threats are incoming, but Alexa has a massive head start over anything on the horizon, and from the looks of it, she’ll be a lot more Indian by the time that happens. Even more than she already is.