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The Amazon Echo: Everything You Might Not Know

The Amazon Echo is coming to a wide swath of customers starting next week. Here's what they can expect from it.

Walt Mossberg

Next week, Amazon will start widely shipping its most unusual and intriguing hardware device since the Kindle: The Echo, a slender, nine-inch-tall cylinder built to respond to voice commands ranging from “What’s the weather in Hong Kong?” to “How many teaspoons are in a tablespoon?” to “Play ‘Fire and Rain’ by James Taylor.”

The Echo isn’t exactly new. Selected Amazon customers have been able to get it by invitation-only since last November. Re/code’s Joe Brown penned a lyrical review of the unusual gadget, which responds to the name “Alexa,” back in February. (You can change the trigger word to “Amazon” if you like.)

But now that it’s in general release, the Echo is going to be in the hands of many, many more people, starting in about a week. And since the early units went out and the first reviews were written, Amazon has added some features. I’ve been testing it lately to see what new Echo owners will encounter.

Here’s a quick user guide to the Echo, including what it does well, what it doesn’t, and a few tips and tricks that Amazon doesn’t make obvious.

Q. How much does it cost?

A. Amazon is charging $180, down from the original $199, mainly because the company found that the early crop of users weren’t using a remote control, which has now been eliminated.

Q. What does it do?

A. The Echo only does a fraction of the things a science-fiction-like, voice-controlled, all-knowing gadget might do — but it also does a lot more than you might think. Mainly, it listens for your commands, and then, if it can, responds by either playing something you request (music or spoken word) or by giving you an answer in its robotic female voice.

 When the Echo is listening, it lights up.
When the Echo is listening, it lights up.
Amazon via YouTube

Q. Like what?

A. Well, for instance, it can be a kitchen timer. You just tell it to set a timer, and it does. (You can also do this with Apple’s Siri.) Or it can play an audio book for you, as long as you have already bought it from Audible, Amazon’s audiobook unit. It can deliver a newscast on demand, called a “Flash Briefing,” from a variety of sources, including NPR, the BBC and ESPN.

Q. Anything else?

A. Upon your voice request, it will tell you the weather, a sports score, the traffic between your home and work, and your calendar appointments for the day (if you use Google Calendar). Or if you suddenly remember something you need to buy or do, you can tell Echo, and it will add that item to a shopping or to-do list in the companion Echo app on your smartphone.

Q. What else?

A. Echo can control some home-automation devices, like some Belkin WeMo devices and Philips Hue light bulbs. I didn’t test that, because I currently have none of these automated gadgets in my home.

Q. How does it know you are talking to it? Is it always eavesdropping on you?

A. Amazon says it isn’t always listening — despite an impressive array of mics — and only wakes up and pays attention when you preface a question or command with the magic word “Alexa.” You know that it’s awake and listening because the whole circumference of the top starts glowing blue, and a lighter blue section of lights indicates that the speaker knows which direction the voice command is coming from.

For instance, if you say, “What is the capital of Vermont?” nothing happens. But, if you say “Alexa, what is the capital of Vermont?” the Echo responds with “Montpelier, Vermont” (and it pronounces the city name correctly, even if it does repeat the state name unnecessarily).

 Much of the Echo’s body is devoted to a speaker.
Much of the Echo’s body is devoted to a speaker.
James Temple for Re/code

Q. Why did Amazon choose to name it “Echo” and not “Alexa”?

A. Because Alexa is the name of the software, which Amazon hopes will be embedded in many other devices. At my house, however, five minutes into using it we all completely forgot its official name and just called it “Alexa,” even at the risk that it might wake up and try to answer a question.

Q. Is it hard to set up?

A. No. You use the companion app, connect the Echo to your Wi-Fi, and you’re pretty much done. You can perform extra customization, like letting it know where you live and work (for the traffic feature), or linking it to a service like Pandora. All of this is done in the app.

Q. Do you have to lean in close to get it to hear you?

A. Amazingly, no, at least in my tests. I found I could be on the other side of a moderately noisy room and be heard correctly. I could even be in the next room. Amazon calls this “far-field voice recognition,” which may be a marketing term, but sounds sort of science-y.

Q. I assume that its real purpose is to get you to buy things from Amazon, right?

A. Oddly, it’s really bad at that. In fact, you can’t place a new order from Amazon for anything except songs. All you can do is command Alexa to reorder stuff you’ve already bought. This worked for me, but how many pairs of pliers do you really need?

Amazon says this is because (a) it wasn’t really designed as a shopping device, and (b) it’s really hard to browse, search and shop using only your voice. But, naturally, Amazon also says it is working on this, because it would be great!

The Echo’s companion app can be used to change settings and stream music.
The Echo’s companion app can be used to change settings and stream music.

Q. What else is Echo bad at?

A. I found it was pretty spotty at answering factual questions — it was stumped at least 25 percent of the time. It couldn’t tell me when the Jewish New Year is in 2015, or who Nomar Garciaparra is. When I asked for the weather in York, England, it gave me the weather in New York, New York. (Turns out it will get the older York right, if you say “York, United Kingdom.”)

Echo’s performance can be improved in some cases if you preface a factual request with the word “Wikipedia,” which is its fallback source of facts (No. 1 is a service that Amazon bought, called Evi).

Q. Can it do tricks that Amazon doesn’t advertise?

A. Why, yes. It can tell jokes, though not great ones. I said, “Alexa, tell me a joke.” And it said: “What’s black and white and read all over? An educated penguin.” Then I said, “Tell me a knock-knock joke,” and it said, “Knock Knock. Who’s there? Kanye. Kanye who? Kanye believe I tell jokes, too!” (It uttered all the lines itself.)

It can also play simple games, like Rock-Paper-Scissors. But when I asked it what zero divided by zero equals, it wasn’t nearly as sassy as Siri.

Q. What if you’re a hard-core Trekkie? Can Echo do anything for you?

A. Of course. If you ask it for “Earl Grey tea, hot” — something Captain Jean-Luc Picard often asked the Enterprise’s magical food replicator to simply make materialize — the Echo responds with: “Unable to comply. Replicators are offline.”

Q. Did I make a mistake buying my Echo?

A. I don’t necessarily think so. In our house, it has been pretty nice to have in the kitchen, if only for the on-demand, hands-free newscasts and music. If you happen to be an Amazon Prime subscriber, it might even inspire you to listen to the free music tracks that are available to you as part of the $99-per-year subscription. And others have formed an even stronger attachment to it.

Plus, Amazon is serious about improving the Echo. It just issued a developer’s kit and established a fund to underwrite new apps.

But if you decide after all to return it, the Echo can’t do that for you — yet.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.