Smart speakers tend to be single-unit wireless speakers that have artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities from Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft or Samsung built into them.
They are usually available in the form of voice-controlled personal assistants. Two of the most popular assistants are Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Google Assistant. While Apple’s hugely popular Siri powers the HomePod speaker, Samsung recently announced that its own Bixby-powered smart speaker is under development, which will be launched later this year.
A smart speaker acts like your very own JARVIS – a highly advanced AI developed by Tony Stark in Iron Man movies.
You can command your smart speaker to play a song or playlist, set a timer, control your AV system. You can even ask it to control the lights in room, ask for the weather report, check the traffic, book an Uber or create a to-do list. In fact, you even ask it to tell you a joke – isn’t it convenient?
Lets take a closer look at Amazon Echo
When Amazon unveiled its Echo speaker with Alexa voice-control in 2016, we came one step closer in realising our sci-fi dreams of controlling the tech in our lives by simple voice commands.
The most crucial difference between the older Amazon Alexa-Echo and the 2nd-generation speaker is the design. The 2nd-gen Amazon Echo is shorter and has an appealing look with a metallic or wood finish. It is such it’ll easily blend with most interior designs.
But, its design is not the only thing that has received an update, Alexa has also gained new skills and routines as well as improved voice recognition and understanding.
Design and features
The 2nd generation Amazon Echo is smaller and wider than the previous version and has a sturdier footprint. All its controls are housed at the top, including a pair of volume buttons and a mute button that restricts Alexa from hearing anything. There is one more button to call Alexa, if you do not want to say its name out loud.
Weighing 821 grams, the second-generation Amazon Echo measures 148 x 88 x 88mm as compared to the original’s 235 x 84 x 84mm. For outputs, there is one charging port and one 3.5mm audio port on the back.
The set-up is a breeze, but you must have Amazon Alexa app and a steady Wi-Fi connection. The speaker guides you to install Echo on to your network. Browse to Settings and then tap set-up a new device. Now, all you have to do is to choose the right Echo for installation and follow the setup instructions.
You can ask Echo to play a song or a playlist. You can ask it to set a timer while baking a soufflé. You can control your AV system. And a hell lot of other things. But, if you want your Echo to sing (and it does sing, just ask it) you’ll need to go to the Skill set and modify the Echo to work for you. Just go to the All Skills version of the app where thousands of skills are available – of which only a small fraction can be worth using – but it all depends on what other smart things you’ve around the house.
In our Alexa experience, we tested Echo with the following Skills – Amazon Music, Saavn, Goibibo, Zomato and Google Calendar. Overall, the Echo glided well, however, at times it got confused. If you ask for a flight fare between two cities, for instance Delhi and Bengaluru, the Alexa will ask you the date of your travel and will tell you the most economical fare, the airline, the time it departs and the total duration of flight. And yes, we did say – ‘Hey, Alexa, can you book the ticket’. She simply replied that facility is not yet available, but it’ll be soon. To use Zomato, you have to first link the account.
Since most of the people will use the Echo for music streaming, we ask Alexa to play songs from Maroon 5, and she did. Yes, it’s that easy, no more browsing through app and then streaming. Alexa does it all for you – hands free. The sound quality is decent, however, bass heads, beware!
If you have books installed on your Kindle account, you can ask Alexa to read for you. And it’ll ask you to select one. I had only one book in my account, and when I asked Alexa to read a book for me, she resumed the book exactly from where I had stopped. Personally, I think that the reading quality of Alexa is great – it’s loud and clear and easily comprehensible.
Overall, the sound quality on the second-generation Amazon Echo is crisp and clear. Every time Alexa spoke, it was loud and easy to comprehend. The Echo’s seven-mic array ensures that your every command is properly picked up by Alexa. The ability to take calls through the Echo is a nice addition, and so is the Drop-In feature, which essentially acts as an intercom between Echo devices for your home.
Another interesting feature is Routines, which clubs a number of smart things that can happen with a single command. If you have Philips Hue or any other compatible home automation system, you can turn on lights and get a morning briefing just by saying a phrase that you’ve had Alexa learn already, for instance, ‘Alexa, start briefing’. This is a feature you’ll love and will grow on you, especially when you start adding more Skills to it.
The second-generation Amazon Echo is definitely a smart update to the Amazon speaker range with a reduced-price tag, refreshing design and an improved Alexa experience. While Google and Apple boast solid ecosystems at their core, Amazon’s Echo offers something practical, something which has been fine-tuned and refined in the recent months and is on a solid trajectory to become a mainstream smart home speaker.