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Friday, December 9, 2016


WE’VE ALWAYS FOUND that the problem with mobile voice assistants, such as Siri and Google Now, is that you feel a bit of an idiot using them in public. Using voice control in the comfort of your own home is a different thing entirely, but it’s not always very convenient. Step forwards the Echo, a cylindrical speaker powered by Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa. Designed to sit in your house, listening for input, it’s an always-on assistant. Think of it, if you will, as the equivalent of the computer in Star Trek.

The Echo immediately feels a lot more natural to use than the likes of Siri, as you don’t have to do anything special to get it to listen. Rather, you speak the keyword, Alexa, and then ask your query using natural language. With seven microphones (six around the top and one in the middle) and Amazon’s far-field voice recognition, Echo can cut through most household noise and recognise commands. Loud music and a TV turned way up can confuse the Echo but, for the most part, it picked up our voice from anywhere in our room.

The quality of the microphones means that you can place the unobtrusive Echo cylinder wherever you want it. It’s available in black or white, so you can choose the model that best suits your home.

Out of the box, Alexa works like other voice assistants, answering simple questions. For example, if you’re cooking, you can ask what 3oz is in grams. You can do basic things, such as set an alarm, ask the time, find out what the weather will be like, set reminders and add items to a shopping list (viewable through the companion app).

Alexa responds well to all of these commands, and we didn’t have to repeat ourselves often or change the phrasing to make it understand. Even better, the English voice sounds incredibly natural, just like a real person speaking: it’s ahead of Siri and Google Now, both of which have the air of the mechanical about them. The result is that we felt comfortable talking to Alexa, as we didn’t even think twice about using it.

Echo and Alexa are also expandable via the Skills add-ons, which you add using the mobile app or website. Skills are Alexa’s version of apps, adding new voice commands to Echo. They range from user-written apps to those from big companies.

For example, Just Eat lets you re-order previous meals and check your delivery, once you’ve hooked Alexa up to your account. With the Telegraph News and Guardian Skills, you can get Alexa to read the latest news headlines. The downside with Skills is that the voice controls aren’t always that obvious. With the Telegraph, for instance, you have to say, “Alexa, open the Telegraph”, rather than something a bit more natural, such as, “Alexa, give me the latest headlines”.

Quality, particularly with the user-written apps, varies wildly. We like the Tube Status Skill, which tells you how a line is currently running, but there’s a lot of pointless dross to flick through before you find something you’d actually want to use; who wants spoken juggling instructions? Part of the issue is that there are a lot of US-based Skills, which just don’t apply to the UK. Finding out if ‘diapers’ are on sale at Walmart, for example, isn’t particularly useful.

This is early days for Echo in the UK, and we fully expect the list of Skills to improve over time. Even so, at the moment, Echo proved itself to be very useful.

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