Amazon's Echo and its all-knowing personal assistant Alexa are finally coming to the UK.
A sophisticated voice recognition system, the Echo can control a variety of home devices and app services with vocal commands - from music playback, to reading news updates.
Here's what you need to know in brief:
- It costs £149.99 - Prime members can get a £50 discount until 16 September
- It arrives on 28 September
- It's available in black or white
- It arrives 'Autumn 2016', but it's available for pre-order right now
- Apps built for the Echo that will arrive at launch include offerings from Sky Sports, Uber, TuneIn Radio, Just Eat and Spotify
- A new, improved Echo Dot - a smaller version of the speaker that extends the main Echo's range - is also available for pre-order for £49.99, with discounts available for buying in bulk
First launched in the US back in November 2014 for Prime members, before a wider roll out in June 2015, the internet retail giant has already sold 'millions' of Echo speakers and its cloud-based brain Alexa (the company won't state exactly how many). After many months of fine-tuning its language systems to understand the subtle nuances of UK accents, the system is now ready for use in the UK.
Echo is a tough little gadget to describe: it assumes the position of a 360 degree home speaker, with seven in-built microphones listening out for your commands from across a room. It can play music from a variety of services, include Spotify, Amazon Prime Music, audio books, or any media from a device connected via Bluetooth. It needs a connection to your Wi-Fi. However, say the name "Alexa" (or if you're not a fan of that name, "Amazon" or "Echo"), and the all powerful Alexa cloud computer service will spring to life, ready to answer your questions.
With Alexa on board, Echo is a potent personal assistant, offering similar voice recognition and search skills that you've probably already used with Siri and OK Google. It uses machine learning algorithms and a whole heap of cloud computing power to recognise and understand your requests before grabbing answers from Amazon's cloud system, replying with a something-close-to-human voice of her own. The more you communicate with Alexa, the more Amazon can fine-tune your relationship with the service, getting to know your preferences, terminology - even better understanding your accent.
The Echo is designed to be a central controller in the ever expanding gadget market often referred to as the "internet of things": smart TVs, smart kitchen utensils, light bulbs you can control via Bluetooth, curtain rails that you can operate over WiFi. Amazon has partnered with a heap of product developers to allow you to control all these smart gadgets with your voice from the Echo speaker - the aim being that you don't have to touch a single button to operate anything in your home.
You can also do all your Amazon shopping through the Echo. Or find out what the quickest way to work is. Or when Spurs are next playing. Basically, anything you'd usually type into Google.
It begs some pretty major questions about privacy: just where does your voice go once you start talking to Alexa? Who is listening?
At Echo's UK launch, senior vice president of Amazon Devices & Services Dave Limp was keen to emphasise how secure he believes the system is. The Echo speaker transmits your voice to Amazon's Alexa cloud service only when you say the prompt name, "Alexa". A blue light will then indicate that Amazon is listening for your commands. If you'd rather have peace of mind that no one is eavesdropping, you can hit a mute button on the top of the speaker, disconnecting power from the microphone entirely.
Users are said to have total control over every interaction they have with Alexa. Don't want Amazon to go through an exchange with Alexa? You'll be able to log on to your Amazon account and access your Alexa records, deleting exchanges individually or in bulk.
"The data we collect for Alexa is as secure as all Amazon data," said Limp. "It's encrypted, and stored on servers in the EU."
That data is currently used to improve the Alexa and Echo services. There are no further marketing plans "for now" - Limp didn't want to be drawn on speculative issues.
Why buy one? Well, its broadest appeal is for those who might have a few 'connected' devices in their homes already, like smart lights or a Nest thermostat. More of these gadgets are arriving each year, many with impressive functions, and coding hobbyists can even design their own uses for Echo and Alexa. Various developers have also been making apps for the Echo, allowing you to easily use their services with voice command. These were the names Amazon was keen to emphasis would be available at launch with more to follow...
The uses of Echo and Alexa will expand as soon as more developers decide to build applications for the system, with an expansive array of tools and functions already available in the US. Debates over privacy and user safety will always surround a smart device that's constantly listening to your home environment, but Amazon believes it's done more than enough to assure users nothing sinister lives in the heart of this clever speaker.
We'll give you a full hands on test of the device as soon as we've been able to play with one. "Alexa? Send yourself over, will you?"