What is it?
The Amazon Echo is a voice-controlled, wifi-connected speaker that can play music, answer questions, read you the news and weather, set timers and even control the lighting, heating and other devices in your house.
What does it look like?
If you get it in white, the cylindrical shape and 360-degree speaker grille give the impression of, say, a portable room dehumidifier. But the black model looks sleeker, techier and much more like a piece of kit Darth Vader would be proud to own. The blue circle of light that appears when you make a request only adds to the sci-fi vibe (although the red light you get when you mute it is more Vader).
So what can it do?
If you’ve never used a voice-controlled device before, you’ll be pretty impressed with the Echo right out of the box. After downloading the Alexa app (basically, Amazon’s AI/voice-control system) to your phone or tablet and running through the quick set-up, you can start requesting music and asking questions.
When I bought one for my sister for Christmas, she loved it but my dad, who’s in his early 70s, was absolutely blown away by just the basics, like being able to request songs, switch to a particular radio station and turn the volume up and down, simply by saying “Alexa” followed by a command.
My dance-obsessed four-year-old nephew, meanwhile, is currently in a phase of asking Alexa to play his favourite song, Starship’s We Built This City, over and over again. At least he's getting plenty of exercise.
Asking Alexa to read you the news headlines or the weather forecast can be handy, and I’m a big fan of the timer function (“Alexa: time 10 minutes”), which is invaluable when you’re in the middle of cooking, have your hands full and just want to make sure your roast doesn’t get burnt. You can also use Alexa as your alarm clock and set a regular daily wake-up call.
You can add items to shopping lists or to-do lists, which then appear on your phone (or whatever device you have the Alexa app on).
And when you get into what are known as Skills, there’s a whole host of other things you can do.
Skills are basically like apps on your phone and you can find and add them via the Skills section in your Alexa, er, app.
Do a workout, order an Uber, find out what's on your Google calendar, or add new events, get the latest football scores, or the latest train updates, listen to an audiobook, turn on your coffee machine and control the lights and heating in your home (although you'll first have to shell out for other wi-fi-enabled tech to do those last three).
Alexa will even tell you some proper dad jokes or come up with amusing answers to questions about herself, Game of Thrones and the meaning of life.
What are the issues to look out for?
For most people, playing music is likely to be the core use for Alexa but there are limits to what you can access for free. Anything you've ever bought from Amazon (whether as a download or hard copy) is automatically part of your library and you're allowed to upload 250 MP3s of your choice for free. But beyond that, it starts to cost.
Amazon Prime members (£79 per year) get access to "a curated streaming catalogue" of 2 million songs and you can upgrade to Amazon Music Unlimited's 40 million tracks for an extra £7.99 per month, or £79 per year, for existing Prime members, or £9.99 per month for non-Prime members.
But if you already have Spotify (also £9.99 per month) you can connect to that through Alexa and save yourself any further costs.
Alexa's voice recognition is good but not flawless and there are some instances when you'll have to repeat yourself. Generally, though, she'll pick up what you're saying from any part of a quiet room. Ironically, though, if your Echo is playing music loudly, Alexa will occasionally struggle to hear you over it and you may have to move closer and/or raise your voice (but then who hasn't found themselves shouting frustratedly at a machine at some point in their life?).
Alexa doesn’t always register kids’ voices well, which you might consider a blessing, although they usually work out a way around it – a colleague told me he once walked into the living room to find his young daughter speaking in a disturbingly low register in an attempt to impersonate her dad and get Alexa to respond.
The Echo is definitely loud enough to fill a decent sized room with music, and for its size the sound quality is impressive, but on its own it's not going to replace a proper hi-fi. You can, however, get it to link to Bluetooth speakers, which could solve that issue.
While Alexa can answer a lot of basic questions – "how many teaspoons in a tablespoon?", "who is this I'm listening to?", "what's the weather going to be like tomorrow?"– she gets confused when it comes to more complex ones, to the extent that you generally just give up.
Very occasionally, Alexa will leap into life unexpectedly, for instance when she hears something that sounds like its name on the TV. But it's so rare that it's more amusing than annoying.
Like any device that relies on wi-fi to work, the Echo is only as good as your connection. It also needs to be plugged in at all times, which is not a huge hassle but makes it slightly less portable than it might otherwise be.
So what’s the verdict?
I think the fact that I constantly refer to Alexa as "she" probably gives away that I have a bit of a soft spot for her. And if you like the idea of voice-controlled music and are willing to pay a monthly subscription (either to Amazon or Spotify), then the Amazon Echo is a decent bet, solidly built and with a surprisingly loud and high quality speaker, while Alexa's voice recognition is good if not perfect.
Beyond music, there are a number of handy ways Alexa can help you in your daily life and with new Skills being created all the time, those are only going to increase. Having said that, her ability to answering more complex questions seriously needs to improve to create a deeper and more satisfying relationship between tech and user.
At £150, the Echo is a good investment for music fans and those who want to take a first step into voice-activated technology – or as a gift for those who might be too sceptical to try it for themselves.