How does Alexa work and what do the various Echo Amazon models do? Now that the service is also available in Italy, and from today 30 of October 2018 the Echoes are arriving to Italian customers: let's try to understand closely the possibilities of interaction and control with an eye to the services available in our country that we have been able to experience in in the last few days with the models Echo Dot is Echo Plus.
We have therefore updated this presentation and in-depth article with our direct experiences.
What are Echo and Alexa and how they work
Echo the device, the smart speaker or if you want the smart speaker available in various models evolved also with screen and video interaction with a very simple operation: we start from an activation word detected by the local device that normally Alexa but which the user can customize with echo or other terms. The voice is recognized by a circular matrix of 6 microphones plus a central microphone equipped with Fair Field technology that allows recognition from afar.
This topology allows you to hear the voice through a room with a lot of background noise or even with the reverberation of the music that the speaker is playing and in addition the microphones isolate the voice from the rest by offering a visual feedback on the top of the speaker that illuminates the precise sector of origin of the recorded item.
At this point the text is instantly streamed to the cloud where through NLU (Natural Language Understanding) techniques it is processed to compare with the database already present on Alexa services and those of information and Skill producers ( we'll see what Skills are after).
In fact, already in these very early stages the user will have wondered how privacy is managed. The Echo devices have 4 buttons on the top: two are for adjusting the volume while the other two serve on one side to physically exclude the microphone and the edge the speaker lights up red while when the speaker in reception the edge lights up blue.On the other hand, through the Alexa application on iOS and Android the user has the complete history of what Alexa is asked for and can delete individual sentences or entire conversations. It can also manage personalized calendars from iPhone with a special password from Apple ID and much more.
Let's go back to the recognition phase of Alexa's text and response. Once the correspondence of the answers has been found, they are sent to the end user through a technology Text To Speech which has evolved over time and which can also be updated with the old speakers as the answer is processed in the cloud by AWS services (in particular AVS – Amazon Voice Services) and streamed to the local speaker. Alexa's voice has therefore evolved over time and evolved further to be more natural. In the same way Alexa always learns new things and allows you to be always informed because the intelligence on the cloud and not local and thus also the first device to be marketed now able to use the most recent skills.
But let's see the two models we tried
The first devices we tried Echo dot: the basic model intended for those who want to start with Alexa or want to expand the system in secondary rooms where the volume of sound reproduction is not important or can function as a receiver for more efficient amplification systems.
Amazon points out that one of the most interesting places for its installation is the bathroom: from here in the morning you can listen to the latest news, hear the commitments of the day (with a connected calendar) and listen to relaxing music as well as increase a few degrees the temperature of the kitchen and turn on the coffee machine for breakfast. All with voice commands.
But let's see the smaller Echo up close.
Below the Echo Dot unboxing gallery.
The Alexa App for iOS or Android is required for the installation procedure: on this page you can see all the necessary and possible operations with a wide selection of screens.
Echo Plus is the most efficient in terms of audio reproduction and has a plus inside: if we purchased Echo Plus we can, with a small supplement compared to the Echo model, have a Zigbee gateway with which we can connect third-party Zigbee lamps and sensors such as Philips Hue, INNR, IKEA tadfri, Yeelighte Osram without having to go through a dedicated gateway. This will allow us to save something but will not give us access to all the capabilities of complete systems such as the management of the internal scenes of Philips Hue.We took advantage of the launch offer that gives a basic version Philips Hue lamp (the temperature fixed color at 2700 Kelvin) to test how it could be included directly without any problem.
and here the unboxing of Echo Plus
The Alexa App for iOS or Android is required for the installation procedure: on this page you can see all the necessary and possible operations with a wide selection of screens.
How it sounds
If we talk about the specific capabilities for the Smart Home in another section of this test, we cannot help but describe the audio performance of Echo Plus which are, in addition to the aesthetic ones, given the design consonance with Echo Dot, the other reason so prefer it over the Echo model.
We have "listened" to both in different environments and the difference is felt: Plus has a sound more present on the low range while on Echo the mediums prevail which will be excellent for speech but for listening to music I cannot excite with the model pi powerful. Obviously we are not up to the Apple Homepod and do not expect a Mega-party sound but to tell the truth even the Apple smart speaker cannot.
Here we are in the category of listening music for a work or relaxation environment. The system works very well in understanding from which direction the voice is coming even with very high volumes and the reproduction of all types of music absolutely pleasant at all audio levels. To appreciate the choice of Amazon not to shoot at very high volume and sound I distort the speaker at level 10: the speaker turns out to be a discreet presence and the small dimensions allow it to be placed in any corner of the house, being able to match the color of the finish to your furniture. We have ordered a second Echo Plus to see how it works in stereo and we will update this article according to the tests carried out.
As for the combination with the Subwoofer we did not make a test at home but at the presentation of Alexa in an environment of about 50 square meters (a huge living room) the contribution of the bass, inserted "by surprise" in a normal stereo configuration was truly remarkable with a good cut on the intervention frequencies.
It should be noted that the music in stereo or in the 2.1 configuration must come from streaming and cannot be sent to the additional speakers via audio input or via Bluetooth and this even if an understandable choice for the type of device however a limitation of the versatility of the "facility.
The technologies tested on Echo
Echo Spatial Perception (ESP)
If you have multiple Echo devices within reach, Amazon's ESP technology intelligently calculates voice clarity and determines which Echo is closest and instantly responds to the request. This intelligent functionality, with performance that improves over time and, consequently, ESP will also improve the more Echo is used. In multi-eco homes, ESP solves the problem of two Echo devices that respond together.
Our tests with Echo Dot and Echo Plus in two medium-large rooms, one of about 20sqm and one of 32sqm showed us a high recognition capacity even with active music at a high volume. Among other things, since having a multiroom configuration we wanted to turn off the music on only one speaker, we decided to call them with two different names: "Alexa" for Echo Plus and "Echo" for Echo Dot in order to adjust volumes and manage the stop the music immediately.
What Alexa can do with voice prompts
Alexa can read the news and provide personalized updates based on your preferences. You can choose your favorite press organs to listen to the news, such as Repubblica, IlSole24Ore and TGCOM24 and soon also macitynet.it, or know the results of the favorite football team. Just say Alexa, what are the news? or Alexa, what is the result of the Juventus game? but there are more specific "skills" dedicated to sports championships or specific activities and some more fun and useful like activating a snarling dog to simulate its presence at home against thieves.
Follow your favorite sports
It is possible to ask Alexa to score in real time or when the game is over, find out when the favorite team plays the next game and more. Alexa, on which channel can I watch the Juventus game?, Alexa, who tops the Serie A standings?.
You can learn about the weather forecast locally, nationally and internationally. You only need to ask: Alexa, will it rain tomorrow?, Alexa, what is the weather like in Bologna? or Alexa, what is the weather like in Rome this weekend?, "Alexa Piover tonight at 18?".
You can control the volume and playback of millions of songs by saying the sentences Alexa, turn up the volume or Alexa, skip this song. If you are unsure of the song being played, simply say Alexa, what song is this?. The volume is adjusted in 10 steps and then to adjust it you can say: “Alexa sets the volume to 4".
We used a friend's premium Spotify account and Prime Music in addition to the radios. We can specify the source of the music we want to listen to and this will influence the playlists since Prime Music has a limited series of songs compared to the Unlimited version and radios like Tunein have personalized but interesting lines for the variety: if you know the name of a radio for example that transmits "jazz smoot" you can recall it directly.
Local audio for music and streaming
From the local point of view, the Echo models all have a configuration in which the treble transducer facing upwards with a 360 diffusion system while in the models Echo is Echo Plus we also have different sized downward facing woofers. This leads to a diffusion of sound throughout the room that can take advantage of the bounce on the rear walls. The speakers can also be combined with each other in a stereo configuration that includes speakers of the same type and you can also add a Subwoofer for bass reproduction in configuration 1.1 (one speaker and one subwoofer) and 2.1 (two speakers in stereo configuration and one subwoofer).
Apart from this easy to create a multiroom configuration putting the individual speakers together in a single group or multiple groups such as Everywhere, Living Room, Bedroom or Living Room and launch a command that makes a particular music play streaming (from Amazon Music, Amazon Music Unlimited or Spotify Premium or on Tune IN radios – these are the services available at the time of the first test – but Deezer is also available).
Customers who sign up for Amazon Music Unlimited, Amazon's premium music streaming service, by purchasing any Echo device, will be able to take advantage of a free use period of three months. Customers will thus have access to over 50 million tracks with on-demand and ad-free playback. At the end of the three-month free use period, the subscription will continue and can be canceled at any time.
Amazon Music Unlimited also available with different plans: an exclusive Piano Echo, which allows you to access Amazon Music Unlimited for only 3.99 euros per month on a single Echo device; Individual subscription for 9.99 Euros per month or 99 Euros per year for Prime customers only; o Family subscription, which allows shared access to the service for six family members at a cost of 149 Euros for one year.
Finally, all recent devices have a Jack output and can be connected to amplification systems or to larger and more powerful speakers. The same thing can also be done in bluetooth: the most recent Echoes can both receive and transmit via Bluetooth and therefore play music directly from your phone with local songs or unsupported streaming services such as Apple Music or Google Music.
In our test, we connected the baby via cable Echo Dot to a Zeppelin B&W speaker of the first generation that in fact became one High quality "smart speaker" with high quality stereo playback and a wide field and the ability to access our music on Amazon Prime, on Radio Tune IN and if bluetooth reception is activated on Echo Dot also with our music from Apple Music wirelessly from iPhone.
You can ask Alexa any questions, including those relating to famous people, dates, places, math calculations, conversations, spelling, local information and much more. For example: Alexa, who is the President of the Republic?, Alexa, where does Aci Trezza?, Alexa, so bagna cauda?, or you can ask Alexa to recite a poem by saying Alexa, recites San Martino di Giosu Carducci. Behind the Italian version of Alexa there is a specialized team that has not translated the interface but rebuilt it from scratch to develop it according to the habits, idioms and typical behavior of the Italian user with slang or local expressions that infer in the normal spoken language.
Set timers and alarms
It is possible to set multiple alarms and timers with your voice, including the repeat setting. Just say Alexa, wake me up at 6 tomorrow morning, Alexa, how long is my timer left? or Alexa, set up a repeated alarm for Tuesday at 9:00.
Create Shopping Lists and Things to Do Alexa helps you organize and create Shopping Lists and Things to Do. Alexa, add mushrooms to my shopping list or Alexa, add 'bring out the trash on my to-do list.
Listen to eBooks
Customers can also listen to Kindle books that support text-to-speech functionality, including Prime Reading books: additional benefits included on Amazon Prime for Prime customers, or Kindle Unlimited for customers who sign up for the 9-month subscription , 99. In our test, we recovered old books purchased on Kindle and a friendly female voice read them, chapter by chapter.
Alexa and Alexa Drop In Calls and Messages
Alexa allows you to make voice calls via Wi-Fi or 3G from the application on iOS and Android, leave text messages and voice messages to devices installed in the home without any smartphone present, it can work as an intercom and, with the Drop In function, it can '' activate an audio input and output channel on authorized devices.
All functions of this type are explained in an in-depth article on this Macitynet page.
Home automation: the smart home managed by the voice
With Alexa it is possible to raise the thermostat before getting out of bed or lower the lights from the sofa when you want to watch a movie, all using only your own voice: this happens in two ways: or using products that have a direct connection in Wi- Fi and bridges like Hue that bridge between wireless transmission technologies and Wi-Fi itself or with a direct Zigbee connection but only on the model that supports this technology: Echo Plus.
Alexa works immediately with a variety of compatible products that work with Wi-Fi such as lights, thermostats, smart sockets and switches from brands such as Philips Hue, IKEA, BTicino / Legrand, Netatmo, Honeywell, Netgear, TP-Link, Hive , Tado.
It is possible to immediately connect the devices that work via Wi-Fi or with a gateway based on Wi-Fi: we should authorize them for use with Alexa in order to provide the possibility of command through the voice and assign them to a room.
Through the screen of Echo Spot you can see the images in real time from a video camera connected from the garden or from the terrace, or see who has rang at the front door, using the Smart Home Skills created by NETGEAR, myDlink, Ring, Logicircle and more. The camera can also be viewed from the screen of a connected smartphone (even those of Nest).
You can use the powerfulRoutine function which allows you to automate a series of customizable actions using a single voice command of your choice: in other home automation systems they are called scenes or scenarios but you can combine different capacities. Saying Alexa, goodnight, Alexa turn off the lights and reproduce sounds that combine sleep : the combination of Skills with "traditional" home automation commands which makes the Alexa system very powerful.
It is possible to create Routines based on the time of day, setting, for example, a Routine with which Alexa, every day at 6 am, and 9 am on Saturday and Sunday, turn on the kitchen lights, start the coffee machine and read the weather forecast. By adding temperature and movement based routines, Alexa activates when the temperature of a room is too high or too low, or when movement is detected.
Third party skills
Developers can use the Alexa Skill Kit (ASK) to develop Skills. With over 400 Skills available in Italy developed locally, you can learn about GialloZafferano recipes, order a pizza on Just Eat, learn a definition from Treccani, listen to the latest TV programming from Super GuidaTv, see movie trailers with MyMovies, play with Akinator, listen short stories for children from Giunti or test their knowledge with the Skill of De Agostini and Clementoni, or know the status of their train with Trenitalia.
The macitynet.it skill is also being approved and we hope to see it available soon among the Alexa options in Italian so that you can listen to the latest news from our site in your summary.
Below you can see how the skill system combined with the home automation system works
In this week of intensive use of Alexa we have practically gone from the last beta version available to the definitive functioning and surely some of the "hindrances" of this phase have blocked some functions that we must deepen such as the management of Fire TV. We must say that the Italian developers of Alexa have done an excellent job in terms of understanding the natural language and the system can also manage the mix of requests between Italian and English, one of the biggest obstacles in these types of systems. The prices of smart speakers at the moment are absolutely "to scream" and reflect Amazon's aggressive commercial policy which, thanks to commercial agreements with third parties, can propose hundreds of solutions and combinations to bring "democratic" home automation to the level of all users and above all remove many basic users, once the system is configured, the hassle of having to deal with panels and buttons.
The introductory offer
Amazon Echo, Echo Plus, Echo Dot, Echo Spot, Echo Sub and Amazon Smart Plug I am already available on this page. Deliveries began on October 30th.
Echo devices are available at a special introductory price, with a 40% discount: Echo Dot coster 35.99 euros, Echo coster 59.99 euros, Echo Plus 89.99 Euro ed Echo Spot incredibly 77.99 Euros. Let's see in detail the capabilities of the Echo models available in Italy on this page.