Amazon recently announced the launch of its Echo range of smart speakers in India. Echo Dot, Echo, and Echo Plus are now up for pre-order via Amazon India with attractive offers like 30 percent discount on their retail prices and 1-year free Prime membership for anyone who orders one of these devices. That sounds like a really good deal, but what are these speakers, and do you really need to order one? If so, then which one? Your favourite tech website is here with all the answers.
What are Echo Dot, Echo, and Echo Plus?
Though we called them smart speakers just a few lines earlier, perhaps the best way of describing the Echo range is to think of tiny computers that are always connected to the Internet, and where the only input-output mechanism is voice. The software inside these little computers is Alexa, Amazon's name for its voice assistant.
While Amazon is widely regarded as the leader in this category, Google has also launched its Home line of products featuring Google Assistant, while Apple's Siri-powered HomePods - which the company is positioning as premium speakers more than 'smart' ones - are also launching later this year. Amazon's Alexa also powers a range of third-party speakers and other devices.
Echo devices are always listening for the 'hotword' Alexa, and once that is detected, the top of the device lights up, indicating it is recording what you are saying. This recording is sent to the cloud for processing where Amazon detects what you said, looks up the answer (or whatever the appropriate response is), and sends it back, where it is then spoken out to you. That’s a lot of steps, but all of this typically happens in under a couple of seconds, and you have the advantage of interacting with this 'computer' in a way that you'd speak to another human being, so everything feels pretty seamless.
You can adjust the volume of the speaker by asking Alexa to set the volume level (from 0 to 10) or by adjusting the top of your Echo device like a knob. A 'microphone off' button at the top of each Echo turns the light on the top to red, indicating it is no longer listening for the word ‘Alexa’.
What can you use them for?
Like Siri and Google Assistant on your phone, Alexa is great at answering simple questions related to history, maths, trivia, and so on. You can ask it for the weather at your current location, or any other place in the world. With the India launch, it will also be able to tell you the cricket score, or get the latest headlines from the likes of NDTV. Amazon has also integrated Alexa with Zomato for restaurant recommendations and with Ola for cab bookings, with many more such integrations (called skills) available on launch day.
You can integrate your Echo device with your Google Calendar and have Alexa read out your schedule, or simply set reminders or timers for yourself. If you have the right hardware (more on that later), you will also be able to do things like say “Alexa, turn off the living room lights” when you are already in bed and don’t feel like making the trip downstairs.
But perhaps the biggest use case for most people is music - thanks to integrations with Saavn, TuneIn, and, of course, Amazon Prime Music (which will be available when these devices ship to consumers), you can ask Alexa to play a specific song, songs by a specific artist, genre, an album (including Bollywood), or even make specific requests like “Alexa, play Punjabi songs by Honey Singh” if you have no taste, and be rocking to some awful tunes in no time. Amazon says an “exclusive preview” of Prime Music will be available to all Prime Members at no additional cost.
And what would an Amazon product be without generating more revenue for Amazon? Yes, you can also use the Echo products to shop on Amazon or check the status of your existing orders. Amazon has offered plenty of Echo-only discounts in the past in the US (i.e. deals available only if you order something via Alexa) and you can expect the same in India as well.
Which Echo should I buy?
For most people, the cheapest option - Echo Dot - is the one to get. The price makes it the most affordable way of dipping your toes into smart speakers/ Amazon ecosystems and seeing if they are for you. One of the best features of Echo devices has been their ability to detect the hotword ‘Alexa’ even in noisy conditions, and all three devices launching in India are identical in that respect. They have a seven-microphone array that works together for listening and noise-cancelling to make sure your Echo device is always ready when you want. This is one department where Amazon’s Echo devices have been streets ahead of the competition like Google Home.
The Echo Dot is tiny and the speaker (a 0.6” tweeter) is not loud enough to fill a big room, but you can pair it any speaker of your choice via Bluetooth or a 3.5mm line-out and listen to music and Alexa's voice via your preferred Bluetooth speakers. This means you are free to upgrade your audio setup in the future without needing to buy another Echo device.
The Amazon Echo is the one to get if you are ready to make a bigger commitment with your pocket and want a speaker that’s loud enough to fill the room. It comes with a 2.5” woofer, in addition to a 0.6” tweeter, and while it can get fairly loud, the quality won’t be good enough to keep audiophiles happy. If you just want a standalone device that’s loud and offers a super-convenient way of playing music, then this is the one for you.
The Echo Plus is the most-expensive Alexa-enabled device Amazon is launching in India, and it comes with a bigger speaker (0.8” tweeter and 2.5” woofer) in addition to a built-in smart home hub. This allows you to add ZigBee-enabled smart home products like the Philips Hue Bulb without the need of buying an additional smart home base controller. Many popular smart home products support the ZigBee protocol, so if this is an area of interest, you can consider buying the Amazon Echo Plus. Just remember that your favourite vendor may not support ZigBee, or the product you’re looking to buy might not be available without a bundled smart home base - and in those cases, the cost savings from using the Echo Plus as a base station could be negligible.
Even if you don’t buy an Amazon Echo Plus - or if you wish to use a non-ZigBee product with your Echo Plus - you will be able to control smart home products using Alexa as long as the base unit on your smart device can connect to the Echo device over Bluetooth and/ or Wi-Fi. Amazon US has a great selection of products that work with Alexa, and a similar store should come up in India as well. Note that external speakers can be connected to the Amazon Echo and Echo Plus as well.
The Echo Plus comes with a free Philips Hue bulb in the US but that’s not the case in India. The newest Echo devices also offer multi-room audio capabilities - the ability to play the same song or playlist on multiple devices at the same time.
Should I bother buying one at all?
Let’s answer this question by sharing our experience using a US-bought Echo Dot for the last 12 months or so. After the initial excitement died down, we found ourselves using Alexa for two things - listening to some late night jazz via TuneIn (Amazon Prime Music hasn’t been in India, but that’s set to change), and for timers to remind us of things in the kitchen. We have the Dot placed in a common area near the kitchen and it’s super convenient to say “Alexa, set a timer for 5 minutes” and have it buzzing after the set time while you are cooking or have something on the stove.
Another reason we like the Bluetooth speaker + Echo Dot combo is that it gives us a bit of mobility with what is essentially a fixed device. The Echo devices are powered by a Micro-USB port but they need to be plugged in all the times. You could theoretically use a power bank to power one, and there are people who have set up these things in their cars, but they are designed to be planted in a corner of home/ office and forgotten about.
By throwing a Bluetooth speaker in the mix, we are able to listen to jazz late in the night in our small home office, away from the common area where the music would disturb others in the house. And no, we don’t shout like animals to control Alexa in the middle of the night - that is why we bought the Alexa Voice Remote to be able to whisper sweet-nothings to Alexa in the middle of the night. There's no word on whether it's officially coming to India just yet, but if you buy one in the US, it should pair with your India unit just fine.
We believe most people’s experience with these devices will be similar - you may experiment with a lot of things to begin with, but you will settle in on a couple of use cases that fit your lifestyle. For many, the Amazon Prime Music integration will be the killer app - the ability to ask Alexa to play any music is pretty cool if the music catalog delivers on its promise.
We like to experiment with new technology more than an average user, but we’ve still not find a compelling enough solution to make our home ‘smarter’ in a meaningful way and integrate it with Alexa. There are also the privacy implications of having an ‘always listening’ device in your house (though Amazon says nothing is sent to the cloud until you say 'Alexa', and you can delete all your recordings at any time) but you already move around with phones that do the exact same thing.
Most people won’t need an Echo device - almost everything can be accomplished without them as well - they are designed to make your life a little bit more convenient. What price you put on that is entirely your call.
Here are answers to a few other questions we’ve been getting a lot.
I am already a Prime Member, will I get a free one-year extension if I buy an Echo device under the ongoing offer?
Like we reported at the launch, you will get the benefit, though Amazon is still figuring out in what form.
An Amazon spokesperson has reiterated to Gadgets 360: “Existing Prime members will get the complete Prime value – an extension of Prime by 1-year or a cash back to their Amazon Pay [account].”
I bought an Echo device in the US - will I be able to use the India services?
Yes, once the Echo devices start shipping in India - expected to be from the week of October 30 - you will be able to reset your Echo device and link it to your Amazon India account, getting all the country-specific integrations and services.
Should you reset it? Unless you are using third-party integrations like Pandora and Spotify using some unofficial hacks, you are best advised to reset your Echo and link it with your Amazon India account, even if it's just to enjoy Prime Music, which is available at a bargain price compared to the US.
I cannot get used to how different 'Indian Alexa' sounds after resetting my US unit - can I just switch the voice back?
No, there's no way of registering your Echo device with an Amazon India account but still using the voice of the 'American' Alexa. You will just have to get used to it.
Can I use my Echo device to control my Amazon Fire TV Stick?
This feature is available in other regions where Echo devices are sold, and it should be available in India as well once Echo devices start shipping in the country.