It's hard to believe that the Amazon Echo was released way back in 2014. Since then, Amazon has expanded its family of smart-home devices to include the more compact Echo Dot, the portable Tap, the screen-adorned Echo Show and the fashion-focused Echo Look. Alexa has come a long way as well, gaining new commands and features throughout its existence.
But the regular Echo is still considered Amazon's flagship smart speaker.
Reviewers generally appreciate the Echo's understated design and find the smart-home features useful, though they found the audio quality just average and the number of useful Alexa skills lacking. Among some of the requested improvements are more smartphone-friendly skills and improved audio performance.
In his review for Tom's Guide, Michael Gowan rated the Echo an 8 out of 10. He liked the sleek design of the Echo and found the speaker quality to be pleasant-sounding, but wished there was a speakerphone connection as well as a way to use the Echo unplugged.
"With a sleek black design, the...Echo does its best to blend into the background. It's meant to be always on, and always listening for your commands, like a butler who emerges just when you call on him."
"Overall, the Echo did a good job balancing treble, midrange and bass."
"Almost as interesting as all the things the speaker can do is what Amazon left out. There's no speakerphone function, and there's no battery — it has to be plugged in to work."
"It's not as intuitive as speaking to a person yet; for example, if you want to add multiple items to the shopping list, you need to say each one separately."
Ry Crist gave the Echo an 8.3/10 in his CNET review. He found the voice-detection capabilities of the Echo particularly impressive even in noisy environments and appreciated how anyone could use it seamlessly. However, he thought many of the Alexa commands were gimmicky and that the smartphone integration was lacking.
"The Echo is a good listener. Hidden within are seven noise-cancelling microphones that use "far-field" voice recognition technology. All that really means is that it's good at hearing you even when you aren't next to it, and even when there's other chatter going on."
"The Echo is a dedicated voice control device that stays plugged in. It's always ready to take a command, and anyone can use it, regardless of what sort of phone they use, or whether or not they have an Amazon Prime account."
"Most, however, come from smaller developers. Some offer genuine niche utility, while others, like a Skill that teaches Alexa to recite "cat facts" on demand, veer toward banal gimmickry."
"Some of us at CNET, myself included, have noted that its bass tends to weaken or distort at maximum volume, but I haven't had a problem with that personally, since I rarely find myself needing to dial things up much higher than 60 percent or so."
"On a similar note, deeper smartphone integrations would be a helpful addition to Alexa's toolkit, and a handy way to help keep your phone in your pocket."
Nick Pino gave the Echo a score of 4 out of 5 in his review for TechRadar. He appreciated how Alexa picked up on natural language cues and the frequency of updates to its feature set, but still thought that it was a bit of a novelty, especially given its subpar audio performance.
"All this is a way to say that we've seen the Amazon Echo grow up from a novelty to an actually semi-intelligent AI."
"Conversations can happen in informal language, and queries are picked up by natural cues instead of awkward syntax."
"Alexa receives more updates than our Amazon Fire TV or the Kindle, and the team of developers have proven time after time that they really care about feedback."
"While the Echo can crank the volume, the quality of the sound near its upper and lower limits leaves a lot to be desired."
"For many, the $179 / £150 Echo is still a novelty, and until Alexa starts truly understanding natural human speech I don't expect to change their minds."
Valentina Palladino wrote in her review for Ars Technica that she liked the Amazon Echo's understated aesthetic, but was disappointed by a lack of useful Alexa commands and the underwhelming Alexa app interface. Although she found that the speakers filled up a room well, she did notice a loss of audio quality at high volumes
"Echo looks like a smart device but not disruptively so. I set it on top of my entertainment unit, and it blended in with the surrounding vase, candle holder, bowl and picture frame already there."
"Alexa has proven herself to be most useful as my personal news anchor."
"I did notice that lows got a bit grainy at higher volume levels. It wasn't enough to distort sound, but the Echo's speakers just aren't the same quality as my beloved Fugoo Style Bluetooth speaker."
"Echo's skills "store" has grown to more than 500 skills since the device launched, giving the Echo a bunch of potential new features. For now, the problem is that most of them are still quite gimmicky and not that useful."
Editor's note: The number of Alexa skills now exceeds 15,000
"The device has no physical interface, so the app is really the only tactile way of interacting with the device. Currently, it feels basic and rushed — as if Amazon knew it needed an app to go along with Echo, so the company pieced this together in a few days."
Steve Ranger gave the Amazon Echo a score of 4.5 out of 5 in his ZDnet review. He found that the Echo picked up his voice features well and that the speakers worked well, but thought that Alexa's voice was too robotic and unnatural sounding at times.
"Getting a computer to understand a voice is much easier in a quiet room with a microphone close to the user's mouth: the Echo is designed for use in noisier environments and to understand requests coming from further afield."
"The Echo is an always-on device: I don't think I've powered it down since setting it up. That means you can always throw it a quick question at any time."
"The hardware, which comes in black or white, is solid, if unmemorable."
"What lets it down is that often the words run together awkwardly and robotically, at which point the illusion that you're talking to a person -- and that Alexa understands what she is saying -- breaks down."
"And as is the case with other new platforms (like early iOS and Android), too many of Alexa's skills are trivial, not very well designed, or lacking in depth."