We take a look at the Amazon Echo

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Amazon Echo  

Is this the answer for you and your smart home?

The Amazon Echo is much more than a wireless speaker. In fact, playing music isn’t its number one feature.

The main theme for this device is the Amazon Alexa voice-assistant – and Amazon’s desire to be a permanent fixture within your home.

Alexa is designed to answer your every whim. Whether providing information such as the news and weather, adjusting you’re heating, or controlling your audio visual system, Amazon’s Echo speaker promises to do it all. After launching in the US last year, the Echo is now widely available. But does it deliver on its cloud computing promises and what about its wireless speaker?

Aesthetics

The Echo is a straightforward upright, cylindrical speaker, available in black or white, and while not exactly screaming top-end desirability, it looks good enough to merit a place in the average home. And it feels robust and solidly built for a £90 wireless speaker.  (The Alternative is the Echo Dot with no speaker at under £50)

Inside are seven microphones, alongside its voice technology to make sure your commands are heard, it also allows multiple speakers to work out which is nearer to you.

Also inside are a dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and a couple of speaker drivers, a 6 cm woofer and a 5 cm tweeter.

Amazon is keen to emphasise that this is a first class speaker as well as a clever personal assistant, and it also promises 360-degree sound to give you plenty of flexibility in terms of placement.

Functionality

On top of the device you’ll find the ‘volume ring’ as well as the mute and action buttons. LED lights around the ring will show you when Alexa is listening, though you can mute the assistant entirely.

Getting started is simple. Plug in the speaker, download the Alexa app and you can be in command seconds later. Once up and running, it’s all about your voice.

But you do have the option of adjusting the volume on the Echo itself, while opening up the Alexa app will also give you some more control options. There’s also an optional Amazon Voice Remote for £20.

Operation

‘Alexa’ is the word used to activate the system, after which you can ask the speaker to play or pause music, read the news, weather, football scores. Both the success of these voice commands and the number of available services is crucial.

Alexa is learning all the time and Amazon is aiming to add new partners at an equally rapid rate.

Providing you speak clearly and use the systems recommended phrasing, Alexa is pretty impressive. A change in the tone of your voice can cause a little confusion, and while the Echo doesn’t find every singer songwriter we asked for, it has a fairly good strike rate.

Amazon makes a great play of how well Echo can hear its name, even in busy rooms or when there is more than one device.

But it’s not just about finding and listening to music; Alexa has many talents and skills, which are enabled through its various partnerships with content providers, including Sky Sports, The Guardian, Telegraph, National Rail, EDF Energy to name a few.

Getting locally based news and weather updates is easy enough, while some other skills require simple linking of accounts. Add an Uber account and you can ask Alexa to find a cab. A notification will arrive on your Uber app to confirm it’s on the way.

For some apps, the lack of a screen on the Echo means it may just be simpler to use your phone app.

However, the more compatible products you have, the more you will get out of Alexa, so it’s down to Amazon to keep adding ‘skills’ and partners.

Alexa’s other skill is connecting and controlling hardware, with Amazon aiming to give you complete control of your smart home.

We’re talking lights, switches and thermostats. Commanding the lights to turn on as you walk in the door is no longer the preserve of the rich and famous. This works.

On the Audio Visual side, custom installers already have Crestron support, allowing you to add voice control to a complete home cinema system.

Sonos and Amazon have also announced a deal to bring Alexa voice control to Sonos gear. We hope to see more Audio Visual brands getting involved.

We should also mention Amazon’s Echo Dot, a puck-sized unit that’s designed to be connected to your existing speakers, systems or even headphones.

The Echo Dot has the same Alexa voice assistant and skills, and looks like the top of an Echo speaker, complete with control buttons and volume ring – plus added volume up and down buttons. It also has seven microphones inside as on the featured Echo, so it can hear all your commands.

There are small speakers, so you can hear Alexa, but for music playback the aim is to connect to your existing system. It has a 3.5mm stereo audio output for this purpose, as well as wireless Bluetooth connectivity.

The Amazon Echo Dot could prove to be a clever addition to any array of existing audio and video products that would benefit from its voice control.

If you want the voice-controlled music experience, you will need to use Amazon Prime Music, Spotify or Tune In radio.

You can stream music from any source – as you would a standard Bluetooth speaker – but remember apps that aren’t associated won’t have voice control function.

Amazon wants to integrate Alexa with more devices, but for now Amazon Music is the default service, though that can be changed to Spotify. Whichever service you use, you can see the track playing on the Alexa app.

You can also ask Alexa what track is playing and other voice commands include playing by song, artist, genre or even playlist, and pause, shuffle and volume controls.

 The success rate isn’t quite 100 per cent. Less known bands with may take a few attempts to connect, but there are no issues getting commands to work from a reasonable distance.

But the Echo’s sound quality is a different story. Listening to music via Spotify, the Echo speaker plays it safe at both ends of the sound spectrum to avoid any unwanted harshness in the treble, but you don’t get a whole lot of bass depth either.

The speaker can play reasonably loud, but turn it up too high and you’re more likely to get the speaker itself shaking than any room-shaking bass.

The Echo is perfectly listen able, but for more discerning listeners, you can get a whole lot more detail from some of the alternatives in the market.

Of course, the Echo is much more than just a wireless speaker. If you simply want a Bluetooth speaker to listen to music, you should look for alternatives.

But by adding voice control to the equation, and bringing some futuristic functionality into play, the Echo is a satisfyingly clever little speaker.

The Echo demonstrates that Alexa is a slick, useful voice assistant, and one that should improve over time.

And while Alexa isn’t the only one – Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant spring to mind – it’s currently most likely to make a real impact throughout your home, and not just on your phone.

The more compatible apps, and devices you own, the more you will get out of the Echo. So we look forward to seeing more Audio Visual brands offering Alexa support.

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Smartechnologies review the Mi Band 2 Fitness Tracker by Xiaomi

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The Xiaomi Mi Band 2 is probably one of the best value Fitness Trackers around today. With a 1.0668cm OLED display it lets you monitor your steps and pulse as well as the time, without you ever having to pick up your phone.

With a class leading 20 days use between charges from a 70 mAh battery, Xiaomi’s lack of a battery indicator on the screen really doesn’t matter.  The only real down side here is the fact the Mi Band 2 still uses a proprietary cable for recharging, so you’ll need to be careful not to misplace it.

In order to scroll through options the Xiaomi has a button. This anodised button lies flush with the display, and is activated with a simple touch rather than a press. It’s large in comparison to the tracker itself, but we don’t think that detracts from the overall design which looks cool. In fact, we think the Mi Band 2 looks much more like a premium device than many of the others in its price range

While you might pay more than the RRP due to the fact Xiaomi products are not officially sold in the UK, you can pick up the Mi Band 2 from just £29.99. That’s from smartechnologies which supplied our Mi Band 2 for appraisal. Okay, so the price is a little more than the original Mi Band which, costs around £21. But even at this price the Mi Band 2 offers fantastic value for money. More so when you consider that Xiaomi has within this budget managed to add an OLED screen.

As a Fitness Tracker the Mi Band 2 retains the optical heart-rate scanner and can also track your sleep quality and duration. While we can’t vouch for the quality of our sleep, its timings do seem to be very much in line with when we think we dropped off to sleep or indeed woke up.

The Mi Band 2 remains an incredibly lightweight Fitness Tracker. The removable tracker itself weighs just 7g and comes with a 155- to 210mm adjustable hypo-allergenic band. As before, the entire thing is waterproof (rated IP67), and lifting it to your face (as you would a watch) returns a status update.

The Mi Band 2 has introduced a new polycarbonate band which is a lot tougher than those supplied on its predecessor. Even if you have issues, it’s relatively easy to get hold of spare bands, and these come in various colours should you not fancy the standard black version!    Mi says it has upgraded the pedometer algorithm for the Mi Band 2, and much to our delight it has also tweaked the accompanying Mi Fit app. Not before time.

As before Mi Fit syncs data with the band as soon as you launch the app. It offers the usual step-, sleep-, pulse-, distance and calories burned counters, and you can track your activity, sleep and heart-rate by day, week or month. The Mi Band 2 also lets you set alarms, idle alerts and have the Mi Band 2 warn you of incoming calls and texts by gently vibrating on your arm.

With the Mi Band 2 (as with the original 1S) you can also add app notifications: you can choose up to five apps for which the Xiaomi will vibrate to alert you to new notifications. Do bear in mind, though, that the more you use this feature the lower the battery life will be.

Setting up app notifications isn’t easy since there is no order to the list of apps you can choose, and Mi Fit lists every service running, but you do this once.  Of more concern is the fact Xiaomi hasn’t better utilised the new screen for alerts. We accept that the display is too small for printing even just the subject line of a notification, but we’d like to see the icon of the app the notification relates to rather than the word ‘app’ when a notification is received.

The one place the Mi Band 2 continues to fall down unfortunately, is third-party app integration – particularly within the UK. Though it does now tie in with Google Fit. One of the most attractive aspects of Fitbits and other popular fitness Trackers is their ability to allow you to compete with friends when desired.

You can, of course, set your own activity and weight goals using Mi Fit, and by default you’ll get notifications when you achieve these each day. In Summary this is a cracking piece of kit and scores highly in terms of value for money.

 

You can find the Xiaomi Mi Band 2 at Smartechnologies priced at £29.99