Amazon Echo Review — Your Family’s Personal Assistant

PRICE $180

Speaker and remote respond to plain English
Voice control initiates music, weather, traffic, and more
Voice-command access to music by artist, song, or radio station
Shopping list and reminders transfer to companion mobile app
Best used with Amazon Prime membership
Tendency to push Amazon products

The most useful gadget since the invention of the remote control.

When Amazon first made the Echo available to a limited number of Amazon Prime users, it seemed like a novelty device possibly destined to end up in the Land of Forgotten Gadgets. Instead, this voice-controlled Bluetooth speaker has become the device I wouldn’t want to live without. Along with playing music from my phones, the Echo has features that include everything from reciting the weather report, local traffic, and sports scores, to looking up definitions of a word, finding answers to trivia questions, doing simple math, creating a shopping list, listing calendar appointments, working as a kitchen timer, reading Audible books aloud, controlling lights, and more.

The Echo is a first-of-its-kind of device. While it is a decent Bluetooth speaker, it has a built-in microphone as well as a remote control with a mic that accepts voice-commands. During setup, I was presented the option of a wake word—either “Amazon” or “Alexa.” I opted for the more personable Alexa, and she has become a part of the family. Alexa lives on a counter in the kitchen—where she (I mean “it”) is most useful. While cooking, I don’t have to stop what I’m doing to call out “Alexa, set a timer for 3 minutes.” When I’ve run out of eggs I can simply say “Alexa, add eggs to the shopping list.”

The shopping list appears in the Amazon Echo app for Fire HDX, Android and iPhones, so it’s available when you go to the store. It updates in real time, so if someone at home adds to the shopping list, you’ll see it show up on your phone while at the store. Amazon is not shy about integration with its Marketplace and has made it possible for Amazon Prime subscribers to buy items directly using the Echo, or reorder items that were previously bought from them online (it will use the default payment and prior shipping information).

Amazon has now added home control to the Echo, beginning with voice-controlled lights using the Wemo or Philips Hue light-control systems (powered by a Zigbee certified hub). The lights need to be named; then the Echo discovers and connects to them using the Echo companion mobile app. Lights can be turned off or on by telling Alexa which light to control.

Using the IFTTT (If This Then That) app, (now simply called “IF”), the Echo’s home control capabilities expand further. IF offers “recipes,” basically strings of commands, created by users to integrate different devices. One available recipe states: IF the Echo alarm goes off, THEN the lights turn on. Another recipe: IF you add an item to a shopping list on the Echo, THEN the item is copied to a reminder list on the iPhone. There are a number of recipes for the Echo including one that will change the color of the Philips Hue lights each time a new song plays and one that lets you control a Nest thermostat by voice using the Echo.

While the initial Amazon Echo offering shipped with a remote control, the now publicly available model does not include it. A remote is available for purchase from Amazon for $30. The Echo’s remote control sticks to a magnetized cradle that can be attached to the refrigerator door. The remote is used to control playback of music, podcast, or books, to give commands to Alexa—start a timer, control lights—or to repeat anything you tell it to say. The “Simon Says” feature will repeat whatever you say into the remote control after saying “Simon Says.” This sounds silly, but it has been useful: “Simon Says, Please bring up a glass of water when you come upstairs,” or “John, don’t eat the raspberries, they’re for dessert.”


Jonasandezekiel's picture

One of the things I HATE about my echo is that it is utterly clueless when it comes to understanding my requests for radio stations on iheart or tunein. It always picks the wrong one, and I need several attempts to get what I want. The alarm could be a little louder as well. Overall it's a success but bugs still exist.