Tuesday, March 1, 2016


Your on-demand concierge.




By now the world knows of Siri, Apple’s gal Friday for iPhones and iPads that seeks out answers to virtually any question you may have. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had someone like her that could actually do things for us? Well Amazon has created Alexa, a voice service, IPA, Intelligent Personal Assistant, to play music, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, regulate your climate control and even order pizza plus much more on your command.

In 2014 Amazon introduced ECHO on a limited basis, a hands-free speaker system you control with your voice. I was one of the fortunate few to receive an early version whose pre-release name was Project D. It’s cylindrically shaped, about 9.25” tall with a diameter of 3.25”, powered by house current and interfaces with the Internet via Wi-Fi. It’s been designed to produce crisp sound with a dynamic bass response that’s accomplished with the use of its dual downward firing speakers that produce a 360° omni-directional effect. 

Like Apple’s Siri, ECHO’s Alexa responds to your voice command. ECHO’s voice recognition is so good that when an Amazon ECHO commercial appears on TV with a demo command, she responds to it. There is a “Mic Off” button that prevents any transmission of sound or your commands from being sent to Alexa. Contrary to popular belief, Alexa can only respond when spoken to by name. Previous questions and responses can be deleted by going to the “Manage my device” tab in the user profile found on the app should you have any concerns.

So what can it do? From an entertainment standpoint it has access to such services as Amazon’s Primemusic, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Spotify, Amazonmusic and Tunein, a service much like iHeartradio, featuring access to thousands of radio stations worldwide. (Note that some services are subscription based.) All you do is say what you want and it goes to it. You can even specify certain artist’s music in Amazon’s library and it will play a number of their tunes. If you’re an Amazon Prime member the selection is greatly expanded. If you want to know today’s weather in any city, just ask. It’s that simple and quick to the request! Echo now supports shared Google Calendars, so you can hear events from additional calendars you subscribe to such as a spouse's calendar, school schedules, or holidays. 
She’s also an alarm clock and timer.

(TIP: Amazon Prime is an annual service that not only expands the capabilities of ECHO, but also offers thousands of FREE movies accessible on your TV. It also provides FREE shipping of most items sold on Amazon. The annual subscription for Prime membership is $99. http://amzn.to/1U5F07x )

ECHO also works with devices from WeMo, Philips Hue, SmartThings, Insteon, Ecobee and Wink just to mention a few, These devices can control items in your home such as lights, TV’s, heaters, thermostats and small appliances. The list is endless and being expanded frequently. Alexa can read some Kindle Books out loud too. You can even order pizza from Domino’s, order a ride from Uber, place orders with Amazon, add to a shopping list and obtain TV show schedules and movie show times at theaters near you. Alexa truly becomes your concierge.

(TIP: AMAZON ECHO, a 2016 User Guide and manual available from Amazon. While not required to operate, it is a useful publication that can help you get the best out of your ECHO. http://amzn.to/1PKcKlC )

ECHO works well, and is feature packed. What a great aid for the brain injured, blind and the rest of us! ECHO is constantly being upgraded. It does require a smartphone or iPad and the use of a FREE app downloadable from the Apple App store, Google Play for Android, or Amazon. Once loaded on your smartphone or iPad you can activate and even control ECHO from afar.

(TIP: You can also access Alexa on your Wi-Fi enabled computer. To do so, open Safari, Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, or Internet Explorer (10 or higher) on your computer, and then go to: https://alexa.amazon.com )

In the near future a “portable” model, code named “FOX”, at a lower price point, will be offered. Portable does not mean something that works while you’re on the go, but rather a device that’s easily transported from place-to-place. It still requires an available Wi-Fi connection to function since it does not work with cell data. Currently, ECHO is a one-of-a-kind device since it goes way beyond Siri’s capabilities. It can’t be purchased outside the United States, however, the U. S. model will work on a somewhat limited basis worldwide.

(TIP: The earlier ECHO units were supplied with a remote control. This is no longer the case. Amazon does list one as an option, but availability and pricing are undetermined at this time with no product re-release projected.  While the remote offers most functions of the voice control in a manual mode, it is handy for quick control of the volume. More importantly, it has a built-in microphone that serves to overcome ambient noise and also extends the range of the voice command feature. It uses Bluetooth for connectivity. Let’s hope it returns as a reasonably priced option.)


MSRP:  $179.99

For more information go to: http://amzn.to/20M07kD

Graphic credits: Amazon

Bob Skidmore is a freelance writer, who may be contacted at bob.thegadgeteer.skidmore@gmail.com, or followed at twitter.com/bskidmore for the latest gadget industry news. He does not represent, or endorse any of the products he reviews and his opinions are solely his points of view and not those of the manufacturer. The manufacturer generally supplies products and press releases at no cost for the articles and no other compensation is received. THE GADGETEER is highly selective as to products he feels worthy of review so as not to waste the reader’s time, thus the reason for many superior ratings.