2016’s Most Gifted Item

Technology keeps getting better and better. What used to be four D cell batteries in a boom box pumping out the jams from our favorite cassettes, morphed into spinning a CD in a portable player powered by rechargeable batteries.   Since then, music has become even more accessible, playing through our phones, iPods, and even our car speakers using only a simple USB cable or auxiliary cable. The invention of Bluetooth has made listening to music through all of our devices possible without the pesky speaker wires we used to have to deal with. True to form, Amazon has taken the Bluetooth speaker and pushed it one step further.

The Amazon Echo was released in 2014, for purchase by invitation only during its beta testing phase, and then for wide release in mid-2015. In late 2014, Amazon Prime members were invited to request an invitation to try the Echo for a mere $99. After the completion of the beta phase, the Echo was then made available to the public for $189. It revolutionized the Bluetooth speaker market, by adding in desirable features that make it, unlike any other device on the market. The Echo is a speaker that will play songs from your Amazon Music account and even Pandora, but it’s so much more than that too. These days, the Echo is being offered for $179.99, but Amazon has presented fans with a more streamlined option, the Echo Dot, available for under $50.

Using the ever-popular cloud system, Echo’s computer system, called Alexa, can assist in almost every facet of your day to day life. Amazon claims that Echo is made to be controlled by the human voice, and with seven specialized speakers it can hear it over the din of a crowded room. As we’ve all experience with automated systems, background noise isn’t always conducive to listening devices. Unlike your common smart listening system, the Echo has the ability to make out the sound of your voice.

Remember when Apple’s Siri first released, and we were all amazed at what she was able to do? She could answer questions, set up reminders, and control our calendars all by holding down a button on our iPhones. Think of Alexa as Amazon’s next-gen version of Siri, as she can do all of the aforementioned things but a great deal more. Alexa, a name that can be changed to simply ‘Amazon’ by the user, is the name of the cloud-based system used to answer your questions and provide general information.

The seven well-designed microphones are made to pick up the human voice in the most crowded room or noisy situations. Just underneath the surface, the microphones use revolutionary beam technology so you are able to be heard from anywhere. The device detects what Amazon calls the “wake word”, which is the name Alexa by default, it then streams your voice to the cloud, and will bring back whatever information you’re requesting. Simply call out a command such as “play Led Zepplin” and the cloud system will use your voice, input it into the cloud, and process your request accordingly.

Not only does this device play music from your existing cloud accounts, like Amazon Music, Pandora, or iTunes, but it can also add items to a shopping list at the sound of your voice. You can ask Alexa anything; the traffic conditions, the weather report, the schedule for your favorite sports team, or what you’ve got lined up on your calendar for the day. In addition to these features, you can also have the Echo read to you from books on Audible, turn off the lights in your home, and add items to a grocery list, all at the sound of your voice or the touch of a button.

Reviews say that the speaker aspect of the Echo isn’t the best quality in comparison to other Bluetooth speakers like the Bose SoundLink, the Monster Power Superstar, or the Beats Pill. There are also concerns with the voice command section of the system, as she tends to be a bit verbose in her answers to your uncomplicated questions. She also has the potential to misunderstand what you’re adding to lists, especially if you’re not speaking clearly. There is also the issue of having to say the wake word before each item you’re asking her to add to a list. It doesn’t work to simply say “Alexa add milk, eggs, bread, and cheese to my grocery list.” You must say each item individually. Another big gripe about the system is that there is no option for battery power, and it must remain plugged in at all times. However, these negative reviews make up only 4% of the review system on Amazon’s website.

With the constant addition of new technology, it is likely that the previously mentioned bugs could be easily resolved with software updates. Amazon is also making strides to add new services to the system, so while apps like Spotify aren’t available as of right now, they may be available in the future. Use of the echo to control the lights, ceiling fans, or other objects in your home requires the use of products like Belkin’s WeMo or Phillips Hue, but installation is a snap, and the Echo proclaims to be very user-friendly.

From the company that brought us the Kindle, the Fire, the Fire Phone, Fire TV, and Free Two Day Shipping, the Echo is certain to please even the pickiest of customers. With the fantastic nature of Amazon’s customer service and their commitment to constant improvement, there is a reason that the Echo was the most gifted item for the 2016 holiday season. Go ahead and listen.

 

 

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