The Amazon Echo is displayed at the Vivint booth echo user guide CES 2016 at the Sands Expo and Convention Center on January 7, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Of course, he didn’t do that. Likewise, the Amazon Echo isn’t just a speaker. But the Echo, backed by an artificial intelligence platform named Alexa, is much more than just another Bluetooth speaker.
With Alexa’s smarts, the device is also a personal assistant, a smart home controller and beyond. Whether you’ve already got an Echo or you’re considering a purchase, this in-depth guide will show you how to get the most out of this year’s surprise tech hit. Out of the box, the Amazon Echo isn’t a particularly astonishing device. It’s about the size of two Campbell’s Chunky soup cans stacked atop each other. Originally, the device also included a remote control with a microphone, but recent Echo shipments have lacked the accessory. Don’t sweat the loss — the Echo can hear you great even if you’re in the next room over, as long as you raise your voice. Setup is as easy as any connected device I’ve ever configured.
Simply plug in the speaker, download and open the Amazon Alexa app, and follow its prompts. Though it’s a Bluetooth speaker, Echo connects to your home’s Wi-Fi network to process voice commands over the Internet. The Echo’s accompanying app also requires you to log in via your Amazon user account. This links your speaker to all sorts of things you’ve bought through the years from the online retailer.
For instance, my Amazon Echo can access music and Kindle e-books I bought years ago — more on that later. In addition, you can use the app to change the Echo’s settings. There are two options in particular you’ll want to play with. This is the term that the speaker is listening to hear. Once it hears the wake word, the Echo will interpret whatever follows as a command. The second key option for the Echo is enabling a wake sound. This confirmation tone is played after the speaker hears the wake word, helping you see that the Echo is listening.
Whether you turn the wake sound on or off, a ring of blue light around the speaker’s top glows when the wake word is detected as well. The Echo is constantly on alert for its wake word. Once it hears that term, it records the chunk of audio immediately following. Through the Amazon Alexa app, users can see and hear a history of their commands. They can even be deleted, though you may not want to do that.
The more the Echo hears, the better it gets at interpreting voice patterns and idiosyncrasies. Voice-activated personal assistant technology might not be new, but Amazon’s approach differs from the competition. While Apple, Google, and Microsoft use their voice assistants to lock users into their various ecosystems, Amazon has a different endgame in mind — the online retailer wants its users to subscribe to Amazon Prime and make as many of their purchases through the site as possible. So Echo users can link the device to their Google Calendar, enabling the device to keep track of their appointments.
Alexa, what’s coming up on my Google Calendar? Similarly, the Echo fetches information on local businesses using Yelp. This feature is one of the many reasons to enter your address into the Amazon Alexa app — doing so means the Echo will tailor search results to your location. Privacy prudes, relax: If you’ve got an Amazon account, the company already has your address.
Alexa, what are the hours for the nearest pharmacy? The Echo doesn’t need outside help for every personal assistant feature. Timers and alarms are managed by the device and its app, for instance. The Echo’s to-do list feature lets users bark reminders at their speaker, which will remember them for you. There’s one other Echo feature that on-the-go users will find particularly helpful: Traffic updates.
If there’s a location you frequently visit, you can enter it into the Amazon Alexa app and ask the speaker for a traffic report whenever you’re headed out the door. Other platforms like Android and iOS have this capability, but they try to anticipate your commute based on your routine. In the 20th century, most homes had radios that people turned on to hear music, news, sports, and other audio. But that could be a drag, since you had to wait around for the information you were most interested in, like sports scores.
So these days, we use our phones to get info on demand. Still, hunting and pecking through phone menus to find this content can also be a time suck. But combining the phone-free interface of old school radio with the on-demand access of Internet-connected devices, the Echo is basically a home radio built for the 21st century. Start by telling the Amazon Alexa app what news sources you want to hear in the Settings menu. Ranging from CNN to TMZ, there are currently more than 10 options, with more content providers being added all the time. Flash Briefing will begin to play. It’s worth pausing here to explore what you can and cannot say to the Echo.
In other words, the Echo is really good at understanding the context of what you’re saying. I haven’t had to slow my speech, turn my head to the microphone, or talk overly loud to spur the device into action. But let’s get back to the device’s audio capabilities. You can ask it to play online radio or podcasts simply by requesting shows by their names. But with so much of the Internet’s content at its disposal, the Echo can get confused at times.