Reviewed: The Amazon Echo Dot

Voice assistants conquer our living rooms. In addition to Google Home the Amazon Echo is the first important product from the series of voice-controlled assistants, accompanied by its small sister device the Echo Dot. We spent some time using it will now review how well Alexa, the voice of the assistant, is executing our instructions in the Amazon echo test.
Rarely are the reactions to a new technical device are so ambivalent as to Amazon’s echo. While some are conjuring up the downfall of privacy through a gadget that is constantly listening around the living space, others see the dream of many sci-fi films become a reality: to command machines by language.

Although Apple has a voice assistant in the market with Siri, Microsoft with Cortana, and Google with its (recently renamed) Assistant, Amazon’s intelligent speaker acts like a device from the future. You speak with “her”, that is the Alexa named voice, very naturally and you receive information or it plays the music you asked for – in the ideal case. Guests, whom I had shown Echo for the first time, did not want to stop talking to Alexa and to explore the possibilities that the friendly voice of the electronic assistant has. Shortly thereafter followed however usually also the doubts: The concerns, Amazon would listen the whole time. An anxiety that is fueled by the form of the intelligent, robot-like loudspeaker and its acoustic but also optical feedback – with previous language assistants on smartphones or PCs, this concern was far less present, although the “danger” is theoretically absolutely the same.

The Hardware of the Amazon Echo Dot

To be able to communicate with Alexa, you need an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot. Even the latest generations of Fire tablets got the assistant since an update at the end of October, but because of the lack of localization and other ways of using a tablet it does not give you the same. In the US, the assistant is also installed on the Bluetooth speaker Amazon Tap and the latest version of the Fire TV Stick – the latter could soon be coming to other Countries too.

The Amazon Echo is a 360-degree loudspeaker that is slightly smaller than a standing kitchen roll, and must be constantly connected to power and the home WLAN to communicate with the Amazon servers. Seven microphones are installed on the top, so that speech can be understood from a distance, but also during loud noise. And she will! Even if Echo is playing music, Alexa understands the triggering command (“Alexa”) in almost all cases and immediately lowers the volume so that the rest of the command can be understood.

The sound quality of the Echo is quite well: Especially the bass is full, but can exceed at higher volume however. Through the audio broadcasting in all directions you have to do without stereo; Which lacks the ability to wirelessly couple multiple echos for stereo playback in the comparable competing product Google Home and various “non-smart” Bluetooth speakers. Nevertheless, a medium-sized room can be fairly well-lit.

The control elements on the echo are simple: With a wheel on the top, the volume can be changed manually. Otherwise, there is also an on / off button and one to disable the microphones. Important to know: Amazon assured, recordings would only be transferred to the server if the language assistant was activated: optically, this is represented by a bright blue circle, which makes Alexa in a certain way more lively.

If you already have a good sound system at home, you can access the compact and much more affordable Amazon Echo Dot. This is connected to an existing system via Bluetooth or cable. Alternatively, the Echo Dot has also built a small speaker whose acoustic quality is slightly above that of a good-sounding smartphone. The Echo Dot has buttons for louder and quieter at the top instead of a wheel button. Apart from that, the design is very similar to the much lower height, thanks to which the dot is reminiscent of a little buiscuit box. Both devices are available in white and black and fit well into most living environments thanks to the successful, unobtrusive design.

If there are several echoes and dots in the home or house as a whole, the only thing that theoretically responds is that one which is nearest to the commandor. We had placed in both devices at a distance of about two meters and in fact the more distant remained mostly mute – sometimes, however, nevertheless, both Alexas spoke up.

Setting up Amazon Echo

To get Alexa to talk, you first have to connect the echo with your own WLAN and Amazon account. This is possible via a smartphone app, but also via a PC via a web interface. The few steps are simple and theoretical in 5 to 10 minutes done. In practice I had some problems with setting it up with my Android smartphone, because this when connecting to the Echo several times lost the wireless connection – ultimately it helped to try it several times.
The app also lets you add Google calendars, the daily route to the office, news sources, and smart home devices. In addition, you can teach Alexa so-called skills – applications to expand the wizard’s versatility. There are not too many options here yet, but you can bet on these will increase in the close future.

Alexa – better then the rest

Out of the Box Akexa has the following Skills and Functions:

Playing music (“Alexa, play the Red Hot Chili Peppers”)
Playback of audiobooks purchased at Audible (“Alexa, play the audiobook” Meat is my vegetable “)”
Playback of news, weather and traffic information (“Alexa, what’s new?”, “Alexa, how is my way to work?”)
Control of smart home appliances, such as Philipps Hue lamps, home entertainment products or house control (“Alexa, lower the temperature in the bedroom to 18 degrees.”)
Shopping on the Amazon website (“Alexa, buy dog food”.)
Managing lists, tasks, and calendars (“Alexa, when is my next appointment?”
Timer and alarm functions (“Alexa, set the alarm clock at 7:00 o’clock”)
Answering knowledge questions (“Alexa, what is Mount Everest?”)
There are also some nice gimmicks integrated. If you greet the system with “Alexa, good morning”, she greets back and presents you sometimes a more or less interesting fact to the current day and makes a small, self-ironic joke. This gives the impression of having a “real” personality.

Good Morning. It is not only Friday but also only 2 days left till Christmas.

This is what Alexa answered on Good Morning today.

 
Speaking of “Alexa, tell me a joke” is mostly answered with a rather lame one – okay, now that is obligatory with all language assistants. If you are a bit rude to Alexa, and you say “Alexa, shut up”, she answers confidently with “Nanana, but that is not nice!” Yes, we have tried that out.

What Amazon has done perfectly and far better than any other competitor is the naturalness and humanity of its language assistant: Also the way in which you can talk with her is convincing: after the trigger word “Alexa” no break is necessary – you can give a command directly or ask a question. Alexa also understands dialects and speech colors. There is therefore no need to be aware of a clear debate. Unfortunately, the vocabulary of Alexa is still relatively limited at the moment: apart from the preformulated list of voice commands, there are some alternative formulations that are not understood yet – one gets the same answer: “This is one of the things I do not know . ”

An almost endless music library

Alexa is automatically connected to the Amazon Prime Music or Music Unlimited account. In principle, you just have to say: “Alexa, play (song) from (artist).” Local or network music can not be played by Alexa – a pity. Cool is the connection of TuneIn radio. It can also be used without an account, so echo becomes the world’s favorite: simply say “Alexa, play Radio FFN” and the channel is played, usually with a commercial spot in front. Also your Spotify and TuneIn accounts can be paired with Alexa and voice control. If you set up Spotify as the primary music service, you’ll save yourself the additional command “Play (song) at Spotify” – because Alexa does not make it reliable, but the “Spotify” suffix is still the most time. However, the speech recognition works surprisingly accurately, both in German and English titles.  It gets a bit difficult with Bands, Titles or Albums in other languages or with very complex words.
For example, Alexa has problems interpreting the “Play Music from the Shout Out Louds” command because the acoustically identical word “loud” is connected with the volume boost function. But we also noticed other oddities. If you tell Alexa to play a Beatles song, the same song of the blues cover “New Beatles” is played instead. And TuneIn was not allowed to be part of the radio station of the Berlin-based radio station. Instead, a station called “PowerRadio” is always played, although the command was correctly understood according to the Alexa app. These are children’s diseases of the echo, which are often also due to the incomplete interfaces to TuneIn and Spotify, and with upcoming software updates hopefully soon passé. And if Alexa does not want to play the desired Spotify music even after several attempts, still the “remote control” by smartphone helps – Practically, Echo and Echo Dot support the playback via Spotify Connect. You only need to select the desired music and change the playback device.

Multiroom playback is not supported by Echo: At the same time, only one echo can be triggered at any time, whether by app or voice command. This is a pity: if you make your entire house Alexa-capable, it would still offer music from the kitchen to the bathroom, living room, or dining room streamen or at least from one to the next room to be transferred. Home, Echo’s counterpart of Google, has got these features on board, thanks to the Google Cast protocol.

Weather, traffic, news and shopping on Amazon

Alexa keeps you up-to-date: By voice command, there are weather and traffic info for your own location, but also up-to-date news. From where these are obtained, you can choose from a longer list of offered news sources, among others the Tagesschau In 100 seconds, the current German radio news and the current mirror-online headlines read by Alexa. While the weather forecasts are very practical and understandable and almost remind you of the weather report from the television, I found the traffic information quite useless: instead of informing about current traffic jams, Alexa simply explains which streets are the shortest to the office It makes more sense to start Google Maps directly in the car.

Next, you can create shopping lists and to-do lists, enter calendar events and let you know about upcoming events – unfortunately, the latter is currently only available with a Google Calendar.

If you are already in the Amazon universe, you can use Alexa of course also for Online Shoppinh. If you look for specific books or CDs, you usually get several titles from which you can find the right one. If you are looking for a product category, such as shampoo, the wizard suggests only the most popular product on Amazon. Afterwards you have to confirm the purchase and enter a security code to prevent unauthorized shopping. This hardly offers a real advantage compared to the app , since the whole takes longer and the visual overview of the whole sort is missing. At best, if you know exactly what you want, this way of shopping saves your time.

Last but not least, Alexa also serves as an encyclopedia:  the device can quote from Wikipedia, spell words, convert values and solve invoices. There is also an answer to simple questions: When asked about the US president – right after the election – the assistant responded impressively to Barack Obama and mentioned his successor, Donald Trump. But Alexa is not omniscient and does not recognize any connections. For example, it is not possible to ask for the German chancellor and then for her age – here you have to ask explicitly about the age of Angela Merkel, so Alexa knows who yours is Question.

Skills: Alexa learns

All that Alexa can not do today, she could still learn in the future, theoretically . Amazon offers an ever-growing catalog of so-called skills to applications to access other services and functions. In principle, every manufacturer who wants to have his device controlled by a voice command must develop his own skill. I expect a lot of development and the Alexa ecosystem to grow soon. If the control of the Smart TV or the connected audio system is no longer a problem, Alexa is even more useful.

Conclusion: Amazon Echo Dot

Anyone who expects an omniscient personal assistant, who fulfills a lot of tasks in everyday life and takes away workload, will currently still be disappointed with the Echo and Echo Dot. But if you however want a voice-controlled music player with a quintessage of personality, you will have great pleasure in the device. Once again, it is said at this point to the salvation of Alexa that it is at the moment a very early product, which is also constantly improved with increasing usability. The hardware is right, the potential is there, now Amazon only has to stay with the development on it.

You get used to Alexa quickly. Even if children ‘s diseases are often still clearly visible, and some commands are given three times, which is simply annoying, Alexa is almost magical at the moments when she is working properly: thanks to the tremendous voice recognition and authentic voic of its Assistants. In addition, the small gags come on the edge – yes it is almost so, as of there lived a small personality in the speaker.
Finally Alexa offers enormous potential for the future. And since you can expect Amazon to work on the device in the next few years, probably already now speaks not much against a purchase, apart from perhaps the quite high purchase price of 180 euros. The Echo Dot, on the other hand, offers a very favorable option (60 euros), its sound system or its entire house to the service. There remain only the concerns of one or the other, the whole time be overheard. My thoughts on this: If someone is concerned about it, he could just as well listen and watch over our smartphones or laptops – Amazon echo is no more or less dangerous.

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Founder and Editor in Chief of the Acme Blog. Loves Photograhy, Gadgets, Movies and Restaurants aside from Cars.

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