Amazon Echo Builds a Virtual Assistant Into a Home, Office Speaker

 
 
By Don Reisinger  |  Posted 2015-08-24
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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    Amazon Echo Builds a Virtual Assistant Into a Home, Office Speaker
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    Amazon Echo Builds a Virtual Assistant Into a Home, Office Speaker

    Amazon's Echo—a free-standing speaker that's connected to the Internet—not only can answer questions, but can also play music and switch on lights.
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    Echo Responds to All Kinds of Voice Commands
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    Echo Responds to All Kinds of Voice Commands

    The feature that means the most to Echo's functionality is voice commands. The device is always listening to its surroundings, and with a simple voice command, users can do a variety of things, such as play music, set timers, set alarms or retrieve articles from Wikipedia. The idea for Echo is to be there when users need it and respond accordingly.
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    Why the Design Matters
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    Why the Design Matters

    The Echo is a slender, cylindrical device that can fit in any room or office as unobtrusively as a stereo speaker. But it does a lot more that project sound—its design include seven microphones that listen to voice commands in 360 degrees. But like any stereo accessory, it comes with enhanced noise cancellation, a subwoofer and a speaker, all packed into its design.
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    There's a Remote for Multi-Room Use
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    There's a Remote for Multi-Room Use

    One of the nicer things about Echo is that it works in multiple rooms. So, while Echo may be connected in one room, users can carry around a remote built by Amazon that has a microphone. When users are in another room, they can communicate with Echo and send it commands through the voice-enabled remote.
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    Alexa Is Like Cortana and Lives in the Cloud
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    Alexa Is Like Cortana and Lives in the Cloud

    The software that lives inside of Echo is called Alexa. Yes, like Cortana and Siri, Amazon has decided to give its smart assistant software a feminine name. And like those platforms, the software is capable of interpreting commands and responding with relevant answers. Alexa, which lives on Amazon's cloud infrastructure, is designed to become more adept at understanding voice commands, vocabulary and personal preferences as it becomes more familiar with user behaviors.
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    Support for a Wide Array of Platforms
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    Support for a Wide Array of Platforms

    To its credit, Amazon hasn't forced Echo owners to only use its own platforms. Instead, the company's device accesses music libraries or audio books from iTunes, Audible and Pandora, as well retrieves news updates and audio streams from local radio stations, ESPN and other sources.
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    Amazon Is Always Updating Echo
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    Amazon Is Always Updating Echo

    While it may be nice to see all of those software platforms running on Echo, expect even more to do so. Amazon says that it's continually updating Echo—either through its cloud platform via Alexa or by supporting additional applications. That's good news for Echo owners who may eventually like to see support for other services, including the recently launched Apple Music.
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    It Acts as a Solid Speaker
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    It Acts as a Solid Speaker

    Since it supports Pandora and other audio platforms, Echo needs to deliver good-quality sound—and it does. The hardware comes with a 2.5-inch woofer and a 2-inch speaker. While that may not be enough to overwhelm people, it's sufficient for most uses, like listening to music or filling a room with text from an audiobook.
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    Get All of Your Questions Answered
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    Get All of Your Questions Answered

    For Echo to live up to its charge of being a hardware-based assistant, it needs to answer questions. The device achieves that by allowing users to ask Alexa questions and have her seek out answers from services such as Wikipedia. The software also allows for simple definitions and answers to "common questions."
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    It Controls Your Inner Space at Home
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    It Controls Your Inner Space at Home

    Smart home integration could be the secret feature that ultimately makes Echo popular among the more tech-savvy crowd. The device includes support for smart devices from Wink, WeMo, Philips Hue and several other smart home platforms. Thanks to that support, users can tell Echo to "turn off the lights" or other functions and it'll send the command to the connected products. It's a neat function that keeps users sitting on the couch rather than getting up to turn off the lights.
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    The Price Isn't High for What You Get
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    The Price Isn't High for What You Get

    Although it suffered from some availability problems at the onset, the Amazon Echo is now available to ship immediately. The device is available for $180 and is the top-seller in Amazon's Home Audio Speakers business. Overall, it provides a solid value for all users.
 

Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana and Google Now are currently the leading virtual personal assistant products. But Amazon is getting into the race with its own personal assistant, called Amazon Echo. This digital assistant is interesting for a variety of reasons. For one, it's a smart home device that can be used for a variety of tasks. Plus, the device can be useful in the office as well, thanks to its ability to listen to simple questions and respond with answers. But its biggest difference is the fact that it isn't an app that's made to run on smartphones or PCs. It runs on a free-standing speaker that's connected to the Internet. For home use, it can respond to voice commands to play music, switch on lights or control smart devices. Whether Echo will ultimately succeed as a personal assistant remains to be seen. But what is clear is that the device has all the features that a person would want to make their lives just a little easier and more productive. Read on to find out more about Amazon Echo and the features that make it a desirable assistant to have around the home or office.

 
 
 
 
 
Don Reisinger is a freelance technology columnist. He started writing about technology for Ziff-Davis' Gearlog.com. Since then, he has written extremely popular columns for CNET.com, Computerworld, InformationWeek, and others. He has appeared numerous times on national television to share his expertise with viewers. You can follow his every move at http://twitter.com/donreisinger.
 
 
 
 
 
 

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