What’s your idea of a relaxed evening at home? Dim the lights, play some soothing jazz tunes and order pizza from your favourite joint? Now imagine doing all this with just your voice. This isn’t a scene from the future – it’s the present – thanks to Amazon’s Alexa AI assistant. Alexa lives inside Amazon’s Echo speakers, which were launched in India recently. Interestingly, India was just the fourth country where the Echos were released, after the US, UK and Germany. The lineup includes the 2nd-gen Echo and Echo Dot, as well as the top-end Echo Plus. All three are available at a 30 percent discount on Amazon, and come with a one-year Amazon Prime membership included, which makes them a tempting proposition if you’re keen on purchasing your first smart speaker. I received the Echo Plus for review, but I also own an Echo Dot. If you’re interesting in knowing exactly what these devices can do, and if they’re worth the investment, read on.
The Echo Plus is the most premium device of the trio. This isn’t just because it has a more powerful speaker than the other two, but because it includes an integrated ZigBee hub, which is a wireless communications standard used by several smart home devices, including Philips’ Hue range of smart lights. This means that you can use it to control any ZigBee-powered device, without needing to purchase a separate hub.
Apart from this, the Echo Plus also features a 2.5-inch woofer and 0.8-inch Dolby-powered tweeter. The sound is clear and loud enough to fill a room, and the device works great as a standalone Bluetooth speaker.
The speaker is always listening for the ‘Alexa’ hotword, and it’s great at picking up the sound of your voice from anywhere in the room, even when it’s noisy or there’s music playing. This is possible thanks to the omni-directional seven microphone array – a feature that’s common to the Echo and Echo Dot as well. Whenever the speaker detects the word ‘Alexa’, the light ring at the top glows blue to indicate that it’s listening for the next command. If you’re concerned about privacy, you can press the physical mute button at the top to turn off the microphones, which will make the light ring glow red.
Meet the desi Alexa
Bringing Alexa to India was a particularly difficult challenge for Amazon, given the various accents and pronunciations across the country. Apart from giving Alexa a distinctly Indian accent, Amazon also had to localise it further to recognise snippets of regional languages themselves, such as the names of songs, places, etc.
So what can Alexa do? It can answer basic questions like the time, weather, numerical conversions, general knowledge questions, etc. In India, Alexa is also equipped with knowledge on the latest cricket matches and scores, as well as what movies are playing in your city. You can also ask Alexa to set reminders, alarms, timers and make a to-do list. If you have Amazon Pay balance, you can order stuff from Amazon using just your voice. You can even ask Alexa to tell you a Rajnikant joke, although be prepared for cringe-worthy replies like “Did you know that Rajnikant can slam a revolving door?”
What I ended up using Alexa the most for is listening to music. All Echo users in India get a free preview of Amazon Music, which includes both the international and India-specific catalogue. Unfortunately, the Amazon Music app isn’t available in India as of now, so there’s no way to view the library or playlists. While I found Alexa’s ability to understand international music requests effortless, it’s often a hit and miss with regional stuff. Apart from Amazon Music, the Echo can also play music from Saavn and TuneIn radio.
Surprisingly, the Echo speakers in India don’t work with Amazon’s Fire TV Stick, unlike in the US. I’m guessing this functionality will be available in the country eventually, since you can already use voice commands (not Alexa though) to search for content with the Fire TV remote.
The Echo had only 13 skills when it was launched in the US three years ago, and there are now 25,000 globally. In India, Amazon has tied up with various local operators like Zomato, Uber, Ola, Urban Clap, FreshMenu, etc for these. You can enable the skills you want via the Amazon Alexa app or by using your voice. Using a skill is easy, for example, you can just say “Alexa, open Zomato”, and Alexa will begin a series of interactive questions designed to help you reserve a table or order food. The integration is impressive, but it’s cumbersome and time consuming to use. Frankly, I think it’s easier to open up the app on your phone and book a cab or order food.
What’s more useful is the various news services available, which gives you the info from the likes of Times of India, Indian Express, ESPN and Cricinfo. You can just say “Alexa, what’s my flash briefing” for a summary of the day’s headlines. You can also program Alexa to perform a routine. For example, saying “Alexa, Good Morning” could be set up to turn on the lights and read out daily news headlines.
Amazon sent me a Philips Hue bulb along with the Echo Plus to test out the smart home capabilities. Connecting any ZigBee-powered device is effortless. You can just say “Alexa, discover devices” and the Echo Plus automatically scans for any compatible smart home device and connects to it. Apart from just turning on or off the lights, you can also ask Alexa to change the colour of the light, adjust brightness, make it warmer or cooler, and more. Unfortunately not all smart home devices use the ZigBee standard though.
While the Philips Hue is pricey, there are quite a few Wi-Fi enabled smart home products like TP-link smart plugs and Syska LED smart lights that are more affordable. These work directly over Wi-Fi and don’t require a hub to work, which means you can use them with any Echo device. Xiaomi’s Yeelight bulbs are also Wi-Fi enabled, and while they’re not available officially in India, you can get them shipped via Gearbest or Alibaba for a very reasonable price.
At its asking price of Rs 10,499, the Echo Plus is a pricey proposition, especially given that Alexa is still a work in progress in India. While Alexa works well for basic questions and playing music, there are several instances where you’ll be met with a frustrating “Sorry, I don’t know that” response. In many ways, the Google Assistant is much more adept at crawling the web for information, which doesn’t come as a surprise. Unfortunately, the Google Home isn’t available officially in India yet, so the Echo Plus (or any Echo speaker for that matter) doesn’t have any competition here as of now. In that respect, the Echo is your only choice when it comes to a smart speaker in India. And if setting up a smart home is on your to-do list for 2018, you can’t go wrong with the Echo Plus.
Bonus: Which Echo speaker is right for me?
The Echo is essentially the same device as the Echo Plus, but it doesn’t feature a ZigBee smart hub. The speaker is slightly less powerful than the Plus, and features a 2.5-inch woofer and 0.6-inch tweeter. It’s still good enough to listen to music though, unlike the Echo Dot. The most affordable Echo in Amazon’s lineup, the Echo Dot can do everything the Echo can, but the speaker isn’t great for listening to music. You can hook it up to an existing Bluetooth speaker though, and in this case it works seamlessly, answering questions and playing music on the external speaker without any lags. The Echo and Echo Dot can also control smart home devices, although you’ll need to own a corresponding bridge or hub to control them. If you’re using Wi-Fi-enabled products such as Xiaomi’s Yeelight bulb, you can control them directly using voice without the need of buying a separate hub.
At Rs 6,999, the Echo is priced on the higher side, so it makes sense to get one if you don’t own a decent Bluetooth speaker. If you already do, you can just get the Echo Dot, which offers all the same functionality for half the price. If smart home abilities are what you’re after though, the Echo Plus is your best bet.