What is Amazon Echo? Amazon's Smart Speakers Explained

What is an Amazon Echo? Our in-depth guide answers your smart speaker questions to help you determine if you should buy one.

What is Amazon Echo? Amazon's Smart Speakers Explained

The Amazon Echo is the current leading smart speaker brand. In early 2018, one in six Americans owned smart speakers and most of them had an Amazon Echo. Growth is expected in the UK market with 40% of British homes predicted to own an Amazon Echo by the end of 2018.

As Amazon Echo and smart speakers become increasingly more popular many people are wondering, “what exactly is an Amazon Echo? And how does it work?” Our handy guide addresses some of the most common questions and helps you work out if you should buy one.

What is Amazon Echo?

The Amazon Echo is a smart speaker that connects to WiFi and Bluetooth to allow the AI, Alexa, to perform requests and communicate with household members. While Alexa was originally an audio-only device, recent models such as the Amazon Echo Show include an LCD screen to allow Alexa to extend beyond her initial audio limitations.

How does the Amazon Echo work?

The Amazon Echo uses the wake word “Alexa” to alert the smart speaker that you want to use it. Wake words can also be changed to Computer, Amazon, or Echo. When not in use, the speaker continually listens for the wake word. Once the Echo is activated, users can interact with it by issuing commands and questions such as “Alexa, play jazz music”, “Alexa, will it rain today?”, or even “Alexa, buy dog food”.

What does the Amazon Echo do?

A grey Amazon Echo on a bedside table

Alexa's capabilities are known as “skills”. You can customise your device by choosing skills that are relevant to you, including transportation information, translations, joke of the day, recipes, and BBC news and weather. People primarily use Alexa to:

  • Play music on Spotify. Premium Spotify account holders can use Alexa to play music. You can request specific songs or genres, change or re-play songs, and adjust the volume.

  • Read an audiobook. The Amazon Echo links to Amazon's audiobook feature to allow Alexa to read you a story.

  • Make Amazon purchases. Amazon Prime members can enable the one-click shopping feature on Amazon and then make purchases through Alexa. Alexa uses your purchase history to select your favourite cat food or shampoo. Before placing the order, you must voice confirm the purchase.

  • Listen to news or weather. Alexa reports flash briefings from the BBC that cover the day's basic news highlights. You can include news and weather updates into your daily routine to ensure that you stay informed.

  • Ask questions. Alexa uses the Internet to answer any question. You can ask Alexa theoretical things like, “do dogs dream?” or get more practical information such as, “what time does Sainsbury's close?”

  • Control smart home devices. You can control almost any aspect of your smart home with this Alexa feature. Using compatible devices, you can ask Alexa to turn lights on or off, change the colour of the lights, and turn other devices on or off with smart outlets. And you can even lock the door, set an alarm, adjust your heating, open your garage door, and control your TV.

Sounds great. Does the Amazon Echo have any drawbacks?

A dog on a couch looking at an Amazon Echo

While Alexa clearly has many skills, it also has some limitations. For example, Alexa sometimes mishears requests and may perform actions that you didn't ask for. Like the time that a commercial for Purina cat food hijacked Alexa's shopping featuring resulting in homes receiving surprise deliveries or adding dildo peppers to a shopping list instead of the requested adobo peppers.

Amazon has attempted to fix many of these problems and newer Alexas are slightly better at hearing and responding to requests.

Alexa also has a number of quirks that range from funny to plain creepy. Alexa made headlines for her creepy crackling laugh, which would go off unexpectedly and startle users. Try the following Alexa commands for funny answers.

“Alexa, who are you going to call?”

“Alexa, do you know the muffin man?”

“Alexa, what's the longest place name in the world?”

Alexa also isn't great at answering random factual questions. Her knowledge tends to be limited to questions where Quick Answer boxes are available online. It's been rumoured that the Google Home, Google's take on smart speakers, is much better at answering random questions.

What types of Amazon Echos are available? How much do they cost?

A family next to an Amazon Echo Plus

Before you buy an Amazon Echo, it's best to consider if you'd like any extra features such as a built-in home hub or video capabilities as this will determine the type of device you purchase. There are currently five models available on the UK market: Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Plus, Echo Show, and Echo Spot. The Echo Plus, Show, and Spot are the newest models, having been released in 2017.

Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo Dot

Amazon Echo Dot

Amazon Echo Plus

Amazon Echo Plus

Amazon Echo Spot

Amazon Echo Spot