Amazon Echo on night table next to bed

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What Is the Amazon Echo?

Amazon's intelligent assistant explained

Amazon Echo is a smart speaker, which means it does more than play music. With Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa, Echo can tell you about the weather, create shopping lists, help you in the kitchen, control other smart products like lights and televisions, and a lot more.

What Is Echo?

The primary Echo device is two speakers and some computer hardware wrapped in a sleek black cylinder. It comes equipped with Wi-Fi, which it uses to connect to the internet, and it can connect to your phone through Bluetooth. It also pairs with a variety of accessories to automate your life, shop, watch TV, or listen to music.

Along with the speaker version, Amazon also created several wearable devices that connect to Alexa:

  • Echo Frames are smartglasses that deliver content and notifications through two inconspicuous speakers in the arms of the gadget.
  • Echo Loop is a titanium ring with a button that summons Alexa. It vibrates to alert you of notifications. You can also speak requests into it and hold it up to your ear to listen to the response.
  • Echo Buds are in-ear headphones that put Alexa directly in your head. They also include noise reduction, which can help you hear Alexa's voice in a crowded place.

All three of these devices mean that you won't need your Echo speakers with you to benefit from Alexa when you leave your house.

Without access to the internet, the Echo can’t do much, unless you have the Amazon Echo Auto. In that case, the capabilities are a little different, but with a home Echo, you can stream music from your phone using Bluetooth, but that’s about it. Better wireless speakers are available at a similar price if you can’t connect the Echo to the internet.

When an Echo connects to the internet, all its capabilities are available. Using an array of built-in microphones, Echo listens for a wake word to call it into action. This word is "Alexa" by default, but you can change it to "Echo" or "Amazon" if you like.

What Can an Amazon Echo Do?

When you wake Echo up, it immediately listens for a command. When you talk to the Echo, it does its best to fulfill whatever request you make. For instance, if you ask it to play a specific song or type of music, it uses the available services to find the music. You can also ask for information about the weather, news, sports scores, and more.

Due to the way that Echo responds to natural speech, it's almost like talking to a person. If you thank Echo for helping you, it has a response to that.

If the idea of talking to a speaker isn't appealing, Echo has an associated app for Android and Apple phones and tablets. Use the app to control the Echo without talking to it, configure the device, and view recent commands and interactions.

Can Echo Eavesdrop on Conversations?

Since Echo is always on and listening for its wake word, some people worry it might be spying on them. The Echo records what you say after it hears the wake word and Amazon uses that sound data to improve Alexa’s understanding of your voice. However, you can view and listen to the recordings that an Alexa-enabled device has made to ensure it's not capturing personal information.

Access data about commands from the Alexa app, and view a complete history by accessing your Amazon account online.

How to Use an Echo for Entertainment

As a smart speaker, entertainment is the primary use for the technology. Ask Alexa to play one of your Pandora stations, for instance, or ask for music from any artist included in Prime Music if you have a subscription. It also supports other streaming services, including:

Google’s music subscription service is absent from the Echo lineup; Google offers a competing smart speaker device. However, you can get around this by pairing your phone to an Echo over Bluetooth and streaming that way. Echo can also access audiobooks from Audible, read Kindle books, and tell jokes if you ask.

The Echo has some cool Easter eggs if you know what to ask.

Use Echo for Productivity

Beyond the entertainment factor, the Echo also provides information on the weather, local sports teams, news, and traffic. If you tell Alexa the details of your commute, it will warn you about traffic issues you might run into.

Echo can also make to-do lists and shopping lists, which you can access and edit in the smartphone app. And if you use a service, such as Google Calendar or Evernote, to keep track of to-do lists, Echo can handle that as well.

While Echo has a lot of functionality out of the box thanks to Alexa, it’s also extensible using skills, which third-party programmers use to add functionality. For instance, both Uber and Lyft have skills that can be added to Alexa so that you can request a ride without touching your phone.

Other fun and useful skills you can add to the Echo include one that dictates text messages, another that orders pizza, and one that finds the best wine pairing for a meal.

Amazon Echo and the Smart Home

If you’re on board with the idea of talking to your virtual assistant, you can control everything from your thermostat to your television in the same way. Echo is capable of acting as a hub to monitor other smart devices. You can also connect it to third-party hubs that, in turn, control more devices.

Using an Echo as a hub in a connected home is a little more complicated than asking it to play your favorite music, and there are several compatibility issues. Some smart devices work directly with Echo, many require an additional hub, and others won’t work at all.

If you are interested in using an Echo as a smart hub, the app includes a list of compatible devices and the skills to go along with these devices.