The answer to “What is Amazon Echo” isn’t as straightforward as it seems.  At first glance it might seem like a voice activated music streamer.  Maybe it’s a stand-alone personal assistant, in the vein of Siri or Google?  Or a Smart-Home hub?  The truth is that it’s hard to make out what the Echo is because it can be all do all of these things, and more.

Listening Station

This is no doubt the feature that most piques a person’s initial interest.  Here the Echo functions flawlessly.  The Echo may not feature the same music hall quality of some dedicated devices like the UE Boom 2, but it’s definitely loud enough to fill an apartment with sound.  However, the Echo offers features that simply aren’t available with a dedicated Bluetooth speaker.

The Echo allows you to connect directly to any of your steaming music services directly.  This means no more tapping on your phone to direct your personal orchestra, only to have it stop abruptly because you walked out of Bluetooth range with your phone in your pocket.  “Alexa, play some Christmas music” or “Alexa, play NPR” is all it takes to get it going with Echo.  The Echo will hear you from up to 30′ away, and even while the music is on, so changing your station or pausing the playback is never a problem.

Digital Assistant

Admittedly, we all have access to this type of product already through our phones, but many of us rarely get more involved than using it to keep contacts, or calendar dates for us.  This is one area where the Echo really shines.  No more digging through your pocket or trying to grab your phone with greasy hands to add something to your shopping list; just say “Alexa, add milk to the shopping list”.  Tired of fiddling around with your laptop to see how many teaspoons in a tablespoon, while you’re in the middle of cooking?  Just ask Alexa.

Alexa can even handle more general queries.  You can ask what the weather is going to be like, or what traffic is like, to help you plan.  Alexa can read your calendars to let you know what time an event is, she can tell you if the trains are running behind.  She can add items to a “to-do” list for you using Evernote.  It’s hard to understate how useful a basic web portal can be when it’s hands-free and very intuitive.

Aside from the very practical PDA uses, Echo also offers some that are extremely useful in a pinch.  What time does the pharmacy, or the Chinese restaurant close?  Need a recommendation for dinner, Alexa can help with all of these.

Smart Home Hub

Amazon is attempting to “future proof” the Echo by providing extensive support for the Smart Home.  This is an area where all signs point to exponential growth, and the Echo is positioned to be a leader in the field.  Amazon has already provided built in support for Lowe’s line of Smart Home devices, Belkin’s Wemo, Samsung’s SmartThings (including their impressive smart home appliances), Wink’s smart devices,  Insteon’s and Phillips‘ lines of smart lighting products.

In addition to this the Echo supports customizable, programmable automated tasks via IFTTT.  This allows for users to program complicated tasks like automatically closing the garage door, turning off the sprinklers and turning on the outdoor lights if it rains.

TL;DR version

The Echo is fast becoming a “must-have” device for anyone who finds themselves turning to the phone for just about every mundane task.  Amazon has also succeeded in making a device that actually works “as advertised” and that’s an exceedingly rare feat from tech companies these days.

Every now and then, a device comes along that instantly delivers its users into the what the future will be for everyone else; the radio, the color tv, the home pc, the smartphone, and now the Echo.  If you’re looking to upgrade your home with a modicum of future-tech, the Echo is the best first step.  If you’re just looking for a way to simplify your home, the Echo stands alone as the best device out there.

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