You’re probably familiar with Siri and Cortana, the intelligent personal assistants developed by Apple and Microsoft, which are integrated into their software. Amazon Echo is an “externalized” voice control and a personal assistant which offers a 360-degree speaker. Just put it somewhere on the desk and your friends will think it’s a simple speaker connected to your PC.
This awesome device that is 23.5cm tall and is shaped like a cylinder is activated when you call it “Alexa”. This is like a wake word and if you don’t like it, you are can change it. But, basically, it’s named Amazon Echo, because it was developed by a team of geniuses who spent four years in the Lab126 offices from Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Mass. Initially, it was codenamed “Doppler” and “Project D”, and was available to Amazon Prime members, who got it through an invitation, but it was released worldwide on June 23. Its price is $179.99 and can be purchased from the official Amazon store.
In this article, we’ll refer to “her” as Alexa and we’ll tell you more about its design and features. As we were saying, she has a cylindrical shape and can be mistaken for a portable speaker or a dehumidifier. It has a diameter of 83cm and has a top ring that you’ll rotate when you want to raise or lower volume, and since we’re analyzing its exterior, let’s continue with the components you’ll find on top of the device: an action button, a microphone off button and the 7-microphone array. Under the blue light ring was placed the volume ring and below it, hidden inside, there’s a reflex port which enhances the woofer’s output to deliver deeper sounds without distorting. Located in the middle is the 2.5inches woofer which delivers deep bass response and toward the bottom is a hidden 2inche tweeter which hits the high notes. Alexa comes with a remote control with a built-in microphone and music playback and volume controls (if you don’t want to use the physical volume ring), but the package also includes a power adapter for outlets.
The hardware that keeps Alexa alive consists from a Texas Instruments DM3725 ARM Cortex-A8 processor which is backed by 256MB of LPDDR1 RAM and it offers an internal memory of 4GB. It supports dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4 and it needs to be connected to the wireless network non stop, so you can talk to her and give her voice commands.
As for the sound quality, let’s say that if you live in an apartment with a small room or a spacious living room, you’ll need to set the volume level above 7 for the smaller space, or above 9-10 for the larger room. Alexa will have a hard time understanding voice commands if you’re setting the volume between 4 and 6. Alexa’s voice seems natural because it results from speech-unit selection technology and since there’s a text-to-speech (TTS) engine with sophisticated natural language processing algorithms built into it, you will get high speech accuracy.
Alexa has music-playing capabilities and you will have access to TuneIn, iHeartRadio, Pandora and Amazon Prime Music, but for this one you must be a Prime subscriber. So, if you want to hear a particular song on one of these radios, just ask Alexa to play band X on the radio X. If you can’t find a song on one of the music services, you’ll get a sample from the Amazon Music Store. Then, you can decide if you want to buy the song or the album, then ask Alexa to perform this action and you will need to confirm the price.
In case you already bought songs from other services and you don’t want to re-buy them, you will be allowed to import 250 songs from your personal collection, to the cloud, and for free, then listen to your playlist whenever you want, using Alexa.
Sometimes, you can have conversations with Alexa and feel like you’re part of a Sci-Fi movie. If you ask her to give you details about an item by formulating the question after this format: “Alexa, tell me about…” or “Alexa, what is a…”, you’ll get the same answer, because she will recognize the word and will access the database to get information about it.
Unfortunately, you can’t ask Alexa complicated questions such as who’s the best player from a certain soccer team, because she won’t know what to answer. Another downside is the lack of integration with the cell phone’s contacts and the calendar, because Siri and Cortana can send voice messages to your friends or to add an event on your calendar, or modify your schedule, but most likely, Amazon will add these options in the future and she will become smarter.
Amazon will release new software to improve Alexa, the bugs will slowly disappear and the functionality will be enhanced.