It’s sixty years since the smooth tones of Captain Kirk’s computer on Star Trek captured the imagination of a generation and hinted at a future that few thought would materialise. Over the last few years though, with the advent of smartphone based digital assistants, the future has edged closer. Google, Microsoft, Apple and recently Samsung have all invested time and research in to bringing us an assistant that’s always at hand. It was a surprise then, when the company who revolutionised bookselling launched their Echo smart home assistant in 2015.
There are now four types of Amazon Echo and the Dot is the lowest priced and physically smallest of the family. The Echo arrives in a small box and opening it up reveals just small this gadget is. It measured just over three inches across, and is barely over an inch tall. The small circular device is light at around 160 grams and included in the box there’s just the power cable and mains plug.After plugging in the device, I downloaded the free Amazon Alexa app for iOS and started the set-up process. The app finds the Echo and then there’s a quick pairing process to get the Echo added to your home network. Once set-up, the Echo is ready to respond to your spoken questions and requests.
The personality of the Echo is female, and she’s a confidently spoken lady called Alexa. The Dot has a few wake-word so, you when you say ‘Alexa’, the Dot’s lights pulse blue to let you know she’s listening and you continue to speak your question.
There’s a learning routine which Alexa will talk you through where it will ask you to speak phrases so it learns how you pronounce specific words. That learning practice is worthwhile doing immediately despite the temptation to start asking Alexa who won obscure sports games decades ago.
Once you’re up and running Alexa can very quickly become part of your daily life. There are built in radio news services from the likes of BBC and CNN that provide content for what Alexa calls your daily briefing. The Echo uses Wikipedia as a database for facts, and you can ask Alexa anything that you might have looked up on Wikipedia. It doesn’t read you the full article, but a short, salient digest of a person or place that you ask about.
As well as getting an instant spoken answer to casual everyday queries, the Echo does a lot more. You can link your smartphone calendar to the Echo and ask Alexa what appointments you have today. TuneIn radio is built in, and you can just ask Alexa to instantly play one of thousands of radio stations from around the world, or play music from your Amazon library. While you watch TV, you can ask Alexa to put something on your shopping or to do list and it will appear on the Alexa app, ideal for shopping notes.
The real power of the Echo Dot is as a smart-home hub. I asked Alexa to find new smart devices and within a minute all of my compatible smart-home gadgets appeared in the Alexa app. Now, when I want to turn on the kitchen lights or switch on the TV, I ask Alexa to do it.
Most new smart-home devices like Philips Hue bulbs and WeMo power sockets are compatible with the Echo and the integration is seamless.The audio output, particularly for music, of the Dot isn’t outstanding. However, it is designed to be linked to an external speaker or HiFi system. There’s a 3.5mm socket to connect a wired speaker and it pairs wirelessly with Bluetooth speakers.