'What can the Amazon Echo do?': Everything you need to know about Amazon's smart speakers

ShutterstockThe Amazon Echo comes in several different models and versions.

Even if you don’t own an Amazon Echo, you’ve almost certainly heard the name of its artificially intelligent personal assistant, Alexa.

Alexa is such a part of popular culture that it is routinely referred to on late night talk shows and primetime sitcoms.

Alexa is built into every Echo device – and there are a number of devices, including the original Echo, as well as the Echo Dot, Echo Spot, and Echo Show.

The Echo devices are more similar than different

At its core, the Amazon Echo is a “smart speaker,” able to play music and perform a wide variety of other tasks by voice command. Keep in mind that the overall capabilities of most Echo devices are roughly the same, even though there are a number of different models and each model has been through several generations.

Currently, for example, the Amazon Echo Second Generation is for sale – but functionally, it’s identical to the Echo First Generation. The main difference is its appearance, which is fabric-covered rather than the industrial plastic finish of the original.

Echo 1AmazonThe Amazon Echo is the original smart speaker, but all models can perform the same voice-controlled commands.

What can you do with the Amazon Echo?

Let’s start by looking at what you can do with all of the Echo models, and then talk about some differences later.

First and foremost, Alexa responds to your voice – you wake whatever model of Echo you have by saying “Alexa…” followed by a question. You can also configure it to respond to “Echo” instead. There are virtually countless questions you can ask the Echo. In some cases, the device will respond verbally with the answer. At other times, it will send a link to more information on the internet to your Echo mobile app.

The Echo is also optimised to respond to a large number of specific questions or commands. As a very small sampling of the device’s capabilities, here are some commands it recognises:

  • Alexa, tell me the news.
  • Alexa, wake me at 7AM tomorrow.
  • Alexa, set a 30-minute timer.
  • Alexa, what’s on my calendar today?
  • Alexa, play the Beatles.
  • Alexa, what’s the weather?
  • Alexa, tell me a joke.

When combined with additional smart home devices and software, an Echo can also control other devices. You can say “Alexa, turn on the kitchen light” to turn smart lights on by voice. You can lock and unlock certain brand front-door smart locks, and trigger and disable smart home alarm systems. The Echo can also control Sonos and other multi-room audio systems.

Special features of Amazon Echo products

As Amazon has expanded the Echo product line, it has made sure that all its devices can perform the same core commands, but various models have certain additional capabilities.

The Amazon Echo Plus has all of the features (and appearance) as the original Echo, but it includes a Zigbee smart home hub. This means that if you want to add smart devices in your home like SmartThings or Philips Hue lights, you don’t need a standalone hub – it’s built into the Plus.

The Amazon Echo Show is what you get if you combine an Echo speaker with a tablet. Equipped with a 10-inch display (or 7 inches for the older first generation), the Show has a built-in voice-activated web browser, can show photos, video, music lyrics, and more. Perhaps its most interesting feature is that it includes a video chat app that is like FaceTime, except you don’t need to hold it up in the air.

Echo 2AmazonThe Echo Show can do the same things as its older siblings, but it also can conduct video chats.

The Amazon Echo Spot is smaller than the Echo – somewhat larger than the puck-like Echo Dot – but it adds a circular, 2.5-inch display. Unlike most Echo speakers, which can only communicate with you verbally or send information to your mobile app, the Spot can display information for you to read or watch. Functionally, though, it’s otherwise the same as the Echo.

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