BY RY CRIST
The Amazon likes to put it, the Echo is . is the biggest tech breakout in recent memory — a voice-activated, internet-connected “smart speaker” with a built-in virtual assistant named Alexa that can answer your questions, follow your instructions and . As
Now approaching its fourth year, the Echo and its multiple offshoots, including the mini-sized and the touchscreen-equipped , have found their way into millions of homes around the world. If they’ve found their way into yours and you don’t know what to do with them, or if you’re just curious about whether or not you should also buy in, then you, my friend, have come to the right post.
Alexa 101: What you should know about Amazon’s AI assistant
What is the Amazon Echo, and how does it work?
Let’s start at the beginning. Amazon introduced the Echo smart speaker at the end of 2014. It’s a standalone Bluetooth speaker with an array of “far-field” microphones that can hear you at a moderate distance plus a Wi-Fi connection to the Amazon cloud.
You wake the Echo up by saying “Alexa,” the name of Amazon’s virtual assistant ( to “Amazon,” “Echo” or “Computer,” if you like). Once the speaker hears the wake word, will light up blue to indicate that Alexa is actively listening for your . Say something like, “what’s the weather today,” and Alexa will answer your question — in this case, with a quick summary of the day’s forecast.
Here’s how that works: Whenever you ask Alexa a question or give her a command, the Echo records the audio and uploads the snippet to Amazon’s cloud servers. Those servers translate the audio into text, then figure out the best way for Alexa to answer. That info gets sent back to your Echo speaker, where Alexa translates the text back into a spoken response. All of this happens in about a second.
So, Alexa is always listening to me?
Sort of. The Echo is always listening for the wake word, but it only starts recording and transmitting audio once it thinks it hears it. Echo devices indicate this with that blue ring of light — when it lights up, that means Alexa is recording and uploading what it hears in order to figure out how to respond.
Amazon uses encryption to protect those audio snippets whenever Alexa uploads them, and it stores them in the Amazon servers so that you can play them back in the Alexa app to hear what Alexa heard and see what she thinks you asked. You can erase that backlog of audio snippets any time you like (), and you can also press a button to “mute” the microphone and keep the Echo from listening for the wake word at all. In that case, the Echo’s ring will turn red to indicate that Alexa is covering her ears.
OK. So what all can Alexa do?
There are countless ways to put Alexa to use, but here are the main ones:
for a complete rundown on everything you can ask Alexa.
for our top Alexa tips for music lovers.
Click here for CNET’s top-rated smart home gadgets that work with Alexa.
to learn how to set a recurring alarm on your Echo device.
to learn more about calling landlines and mobile numbers using Alexa.
for our regularly-updated list of the 50 most useful Alexa skills.
Oh, and if you need to buy something on Amazon, . Imagine that!
How many different kinds of Echo devices are there?
After the Echo became a clear hit with the mainstream, Amazon doubled down and began releasing a number of offshoot devices designed to broaden the appeal of Alexa’s voice interface. All of them offer the same Alexa features in different packages and with different features that might interest different kinds of people. Here’s a quick list:
Beyond those, you’ll also find Alexa in and — as well as a rapidly growing number of devices not made by Amazon. Amazon sees outside developers as a huge part of the Alexa strategy, and it’s making to make it as easy as possible for manufacturers to build Alexa into their devices.
Bottom line: Amazon doesn’t care which — just so long as you’re talking to Alexa.
What are the alternatives?
The Echo had the market to itself for about a year before any real competition showed up. But these days, the smart speaker category is about as crowded as it gets.
The closest competitor would be Google offers a smaller-sized version for $50 (£40 in the UK, AU$60 in Australia) called the . It also offers a king-sized version called the for $400 (£400 in the UK, AU$580 in Australia) that offers superior sound quality. Amazon doesn’t have anything that matches the Max speaker, at least not yet. ($130 in the US, £130 in the UK and AU$200 in Australia). Powered by the voice-activated Google Assistant — it comes . Like Amazon,
Apple does, though. Its Siri-activated , which costs $350 (£320 in the UK, AU$500 in Australia), also offers better sound than any Echo device, though the features and integrations feel narrower and less developed than what you’ll get with Amazon or Google.
Other notable competitors include from Harman Kardon, and also the abundance of third-party speakers that make use of Alexa or the Google Assistant to offer a fully developed voice interface. Most noteworthy among these: the $200 (£200 in the UK, AU$300 in Australia), which offers excellent sound quality and your choice of Alexa or the Google Assistant for voice controls.
What other features should I know about?
We’ve covered the basics, so let’s take a look at some of Alexa’s more advanced features and :
Voice recognition: You can train Alexa to recognize different voices, which lets her offer responses tailored to the individual user. You can also use this to keep your kids from making voice purchases — just know that . The Google Home lineup can distinguish between different voices, too, but the Apple HomePod cannot.
Routines: Arguably one of Alexa’s most useful features, Routines let you . For instance, saying “Alexa, good morning” could simultaneously turn several smart lights on while Alexa reads the day’s weather forecast. You can also create using the free online automation service , but they’ll each need to start with the word “trigger,” as in, “Alexa, trigger party mode.” The Google Home speakers have routine-like functionality, too — and like the Echo, they also let you craft custom voice controls using IFTTT. Plus, with Google home, no “trigger” word is necessary.
Drop in: If you like, you can to check in on you, or just use the feature from room to room. That’ll let your contacts listen and talk through your speaker (or view the camera feed if you’re using an Echo Show or an Echo Spot) without any input from you. Sounds creepy, yes, but it might make sense if you want to use an Echo device to keep an eye on a mischievous kid or an aging parent. Alexa to the other Echo devices under your roof — a useful way to tell the family that dinner’s ready.
Memory: Always forgetting birthdays or other little pieces of info? . For instance, just say, “Alexa, remember that Kevin’s shoe size is 8” and when it’s time to buy your kid new shoes, you can just ask, “Alexa, what is Kevin’s shoe size?” and she’ll remind you.
External speaker support: The entire lineup of Echo devices can connect to external speakers using Bluetooth or a 3.5mm auxiliary cable. That’s especially nice with the Echo Dot, which is a pretty puny speaker on its own. The Google Home and Google Home Mini don’t have an aux jack for corded connections with external speakers, but .
Smart entertainment controls: Entertainment is an ever-increasing point of focus for Alexa. Echo devices and , and we’re also seeing more and more content providers taking advantage of . That’s led to integrations with services like and that let you channel surf using your voice. More services like them are certain to follow suit.
Google isn’t far behind here. Its Home smart speakers can already sync up with Chromecast streamers , and Google recently added . Watch this space — the battle to win the couch potatoes over is just getting started.
Where can I buy one?
The easiest place to get one of Amazon’s Echo devices is from Amazon itself, but you’ll also find them like Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, Staples, Sears and Home Depot. Amazon is also selling them after it bought the chain .
Should I buy one?
If you’ve read this far, then you should certainly consider it. In-home voice control is evolving quickly, with new features and capabilities arriving week in and week out. That makes speakers like these a lot of fun to own — and with speakers available for just $50, £50 and AU$80 or less, Alexa’s barrier to entry is nice and low.
Of course, the same can be said of the equally cheap and comparably smart . And if you’re an Apple loyalist, then might have you tempted to splurge. If you need guidance on which voice assistant is right for you, can help you zero in on an answer. And as always, are here to help, too.