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I’ll admit I’m a gadget fan and when I heard the Amazon Echo was being released in the UK, I was immediately interested.  For me, the idea of voice activated tech is good fun but what really interested me is the potential for a smart home.  So when the Black Friday sale came up and there was a discount from the device, I thought I would give it a go.  But was it a good gadget to invest in?

What is the Amazon Echo?

In case you have managed to dodge the advertising for the Amazon Echo on the TV and the big banner ads when you visit Amazon, let me tell you a little about what the gadget is.  Amazon themselves describe it as a ‘hands-free speaker that you control with your voice’ that connects to different services to play music, give the latest news headlines or sports stories and even tell you the day’s weather.

The device looks suitably futuristic – it is a black column that flashes with bright blue and turquoise lights when you mention the activation word.  This can be ‘Alexa’ or ‘Echo’ and when the system hears the word, it illuminates and is ready for your commands.  The system uses seven microphones alongside beam forming technology so it can hear you across the room and offers a 360-degree sound output so there are no dead zones – this means you can stand it almost anywhere.

Playing music

One of the instant attractions for me was playing music and accessing playlists containing random songs to stop the old ‘what shall we listen to’ debate that often happens when everyone likes different types of music in a house.   You can tell Alexa (we stuck with that name) to play a certain song, artist or even a genre of music.  This mean that over Christmas we had an inevitable playlist of Christmas favourites for Mum to enjoy.

When you are listening to the music you can simply say ‘Alexa, skip’ to go onto the next song.  If you have had enough then ‘Alexa stop’ will stop the playback.  You can also turn the volume up or down although I recommend using a number.  The volume runs from one to ten so I normally say ‘Alexa volume 4’ to turn it up a little, for example.  The sound does vary with the song just like when you are playing your music on iTunes and you go from an old recording to a new one.

A note on volume – watch out if you try volume 10 as Alexa doesn’t seem to be able to hear you over the noise!  Have the app handy so you can turn it down if this happens.

The device also connected to Spotify if you have a premium account and TuneIn for radio stations.  You can access the Amazon Music and upgrade to a special Echo package that is around £4 a month to access all their songs through the device.  This goes up to around £8 a month to also be able to access the songs through a smartphone or laptop, similar to Spotify Premium.  If you use Spotify with the device, you can control volume, songs and everything through the Spotify app on your desktop or phone as well as by voice activated controls – very handy if you aren’t sure what you want to listen to or want to play an existing playlist you have on the site.

Working the device

While the voice activated side of things is the obvious main way to operate the Amazon Echo, it does come with a downloadable app for smartphones and also an app that can be accessed through laptops and desktops.  As mentioned, when the volume got too loud for Alexa to hear the request to turn it down, the app was an easy way to simply lower the volume.

It is also quite handy for things such as seeing what the song playing is – you know the situation where you recognise the song but can’t place it?  The app has a list of the songs playing and played that you can view.  And you can skip, forward or rewind songs on the app too.

The app is also the way you access the Skills and set up connections such as to a Google calendar or other common apps.

Amazon Echo and Skills

What really sold me on the idea of the Amazon Echo was what they call Skills – these are the additional capabilities you can add to the AI to enable it to do different things.  While there aren’t loads for the UK at the moment, I think this will be a major growth area in 2017 and allow the Echo to act as a smart home hub and personal assistant.

Examples of the Skills available including connecting to National Rail for train times, using the Just Eat takeaway system to reorder your favourite meal and book an Uber ride.  Recently, the automation app IFTTT was also added to the range of Skills so you can do things like add an item to an online To-Do list or to your Google calendar once you set it up.

There are already several coordination’s with smart home devices and this is the other reason I think the Amazon Echo is a worthwhile investment.  You can already use it with smart devices such as heating systems, lights and even TVs from brands such as Philips Hue, Hive and WeMo with more to follow.

AI in your living room

While part of me is a little creeped out by the ‘always on’ nature of the AI that makes all these things possible, there’s no doubt that it is the way that things are headed and will soon be a normal part of life.  Just like in science fiction movies, talking to your home, telling your kettle to boil or asking the heating system to turn up because you are cold will become normal – and the Amazon Echo is liable to one of the devices that makes this all happen.

And above all, it’s good fun.  My husband insists on asking Alexa how she is and similar funny questions, to which she always has polite and appropriate replies.  She can now tell jokes – and they aren’t bad!  As the AI learns over time, there’s no doubt that eventually, Alexa will become like a member of the family with her own personality and quirks.  Although hopefully, not the kind that involve sending devices to murder us all in our sleep or take over the nearest weapons facility…