What is the Amazon Echo?

Amazon Echo Plus (2nd Gen)
(Image credit: Amazon)

You might be wondering, "what is the Amazon Echo?" Well, readers, it's a hardware lineup that looks like a family of unassuming Bluetooth speakers, displays and alarm clocks. But they're much more than that. 

They're all powered by Alexa, Amazon's voice-activated personal assistant that listens and responds to your queries, and can things like stream a Spotify playlist, turn on any of the best smart light bulbs, add items to your shopping list, order an Uber ride, read the news, wake you up, tell jokes, relay traffic info and much, much more. Here's everything you need to know about the Amazon Echo and Alexa.

Credit: Amazon

(Image credit: Amazon)

How much does the Echo cost?

The centerpiece of Amazon's voice-powered speakers is the all-new, third-generation Echo. This fabric-swathed device is at the top of our best smart speakers list, and is compact enough to fit just about anywhere in your home (as long as there's a wall plug nearby). Its top features a signature light ring, and four buttons: one for microphone, one for action and two for volume. Inside, you'll find a 3-inch, downward-firing woofer and a 0.8-inch tweeter. It usually costs around $99, but you can often find it for less.

All-New Echo (3rd Gen): $99 @ Amazon

All-New Echo (3rd Gen): $99 @ Amazon
The 2019 Echo speaker is the middle child of Amazon's hardware ecosystem. It looks sleek, sounds great and costs less than $100. For these reasons, it's our pick for best smart speaker.

If you're looking for a more affordable and compact device, the $25 Echo Flex plug-in smart speaker might be more your speed. The $49 Echo Dot is another solid option, while the $149 Echo Plus has a built-in smart home hub. The Echo Spot ($129) sports a small circular screen, while the $229 Echo Show has a larger rectangular display, as well as powerful stereo speakers.

But if you're a real audiophile, the $199 Echo Studio is an excellent pick. It's the best-sounding Alexa speaker yet, marking Amazon's move into the premium audio market.

MORE: Amazon Echo Buying Guide: Which Is Best For You?

Echo Studio: $199.99 @ Amazon

Echo Studio: $199.99 @ Amazon
The Echo Studio is Amazon's premium smart speaker. It's a booming device that competes with offerings from audio savants like Sonos and Bose. 

Is there a monthly fee for Echo?

No. All you need to make the Echo work is a Wi-Fi connection. However, having an Amazon Prime account introduces all sorts of perks to using your Echo. Prime members receive free two-day shipping on most items in the U.S. (including those purchased with your Echo), and members in some regions can get free same-day delivery, or even two-hour delivery via Amazon's Prime Now service. They also get discounted access to Amazon Music Unlimited, which the Echo can stream.

What is the Amazon Echo Dot?

The Echo Dot is essentially a miniature Amazon Echo. The Dot can control your lights, act as an alarm and order you a pizza, just like a standard Echo. The Dot's built-in speaker also delivers solid audio, but you can connect it to any best Bluetooth speaker or some other home speaker of your choice via the Dot's 3.5-millimeter audio jack for some extra sound.

There's also an Echo Dot with Clock speaker. This is almost identical to the existing Echo Dot, save for the addition of an LED screen that tells time.

Amazon Echo Dot: $49.99 @ Amazon

Amazon Echo Dot: $49.99 @ Amazon
The Echo Dot is the perfect entry-level smart home speaker. It might not provide the biggest sound, but it benefits from all the best Alexa skills.

Does Amazon Echo have to be plugged in?

Yes. As smart as the Echo is, it lacks a built-in battery. Fortunately, those looking to talk to Alexa on the go can check out the Amazon Tap, an Alexa-enabled Bluetooth speaker that retains all of the Echo's key functions. Voice features aside, the $129 Tap offers Dolby-powered, 360-degree stereo sound, and lasts for an estimated 9 hours on a charge.

Other companies make wireless Alexa-enabled speakers, but some third-party manufacturers also sell portable battery bases for various Echo devices. Here's a list of our favorite Echo accessories.

What is Amazon Echo used for?

Thanks to Alexa, Amazon's Echo devices can play music, read the news or an e-book or an audiobook, report the weather and traffic conditions, recite sports scores and schedules, call a ride, shop, check your bank account, give movie schedules, check your calendar, set a timer, tell jokes, host a game night and answer questions. It can also connect to your smart home devices. Many of these things will work right out of the box, but you can get the Echo to do even more by enabling Skills.

What is the difference between Alexa and Echo?

The Echo is a lineup of smart speakers. Alexa is the artificially intelligent voice assistant that powers those speakers. But Alexa doesn't only live in Echo products. It powers a number of Amazon devices, including the Fire TV and Fire tablets, as well as countless third-party products, including smart speakers such as the Sonos One, smart thermostats like the Ecobee 5 and even computers like the HP Pavilion Wave. 

MORE: Best Alexa compatible devices

Who (or what) is Alexa?

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Like Tony Stark's Jarvis or Apple's Siri, Alexa is the voice of the personal assistant that lives inside the Echo, the Amazon Fire TV and countless other connected devices. It is a cloud service that performs all those actions, such as reading the news and checking movie times. It has some personality, too (just say, "Alexa, beam me up," or tell it you're its father). To wake up the Echo, simply say "Alexa." You can change that trigger word to Amazon, Echo, or Computer in the Alexa app (available for Android, iOS, Fire OS and desktop browsers).

What are Alexa Skills?

Skills are essentially apps created by either Amazon or third parties that add functionality to Alexa. As of now, there are more than 30,000 available. Examples of Alexa Skills include the ability to order an Uber, play games, tune your guitar, guide your workouts, read you a daily affirmation and many other things. You can browse all the options from the Alexa app, or through Amazon.com.

Aside from our overall favorite Alexa Skills, we've also compiled a few topic-specific Alexa Skills lists:

Can Alexa really understand me?

Alexa understands English (with accents from the U.S., U.K., Canada and India), French, Italian, Portuguese, German and Japanese. But that doesn't mean some accents won't trip it up. In fact, there's nothing more frustrating than when Alexa says, "I'm sorry, I didn't understand the question I heard.

Credit: Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

When you first set up the Amazon Echo, you should put Alexa through voice training. In the Alexa app, tap the menu icon in the top-left corner and select Settings, followed by Voice Training. It will ask you to read common commands, such as "Alexa, turn down the volume." You can repeat phrases or the whole training session.  

MORE: Best Alexa skills

The Alexa app keeps a transcription of every conversation you have with it. And you can see what Alexa heard you say. The app asks you to confirm whether it heard correctly or not, which also helps Amazon learn how to improve the voice recognition program.

Is Alexa always recording me?

Not exactly. The Amazon Echo is always listening for its trigger word. Once it wakes up, it streams the audio of your conversation (including the 2 or 3 seconds before you said the wake word) to the cloud, to interpret your command and execute it. It then sends a transcript of the conversation to the Alexa app. However, it can be triggered accidentally, and perform actions based on what it hears.

If you don't want all of your Alexa requests saved, you can delete individual recordings. Amazon warns this may degrade the Echo's accuracy in the future, since the device learns from your recordings.

Additionally, if you don't trust Alexa not to eavesdrop, you can tap the microphone button on top of the Echo to turn it off.

The ring at the top changes color. What do the different Alexa colors mean?

The ring at the top of the Amazon Echo glows and pulses in a variety of colors that indicate what it's doing. Solid blue indicates the Echo just woke up and is listening. When a bar of cyan faces you, it indicates the Echo is processing your request. Orange light shows the Echo is connecting to your Wi-Fi, but purple means that the device has encountered a setup error. The Echo's top glows white when it changes the volume, and it glows red when you turn off its microphone. Check out our guide to all of Alexa's lights.

What music services does the Echo support?

While it has a lot of flashy features, the Amazon Echo is still primarily a speaker that can pump out your tunes. You can connect to Amazon Music Unlimited, Spotify, Pandora, Pandora Premium, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, Deezer, Gimme Radio and Sirius XM. You can also make Spotify and Pandora your default music library, and Pandora and iHeartRadio your default station service, instead of Amazon Music.  

You can command Alexa to play from your playlists, start a specific song or select music by genre, artist, activity or album. You can stop, skip, shuffle, repeat or like songs. You can even ask Alexa to play music for a specific amount of time or ask it for details about the song, artist or album that's playing. To pump up the jam, you can manually use the volume ring at the top, or you can just say, "Alexa, turn up the volume."

You can also play music from your iTunes library on an Echo device, but functionality is more limited than with other music services. You'll have to start the music from the phone/tablet/laptop, but then you can control it via voice commands to pause, play and skip.

Q: Can Amazon Echo play YouTube?

Echo devices can't connect directly to YouTube, but if you load YouTube on your phone or tablet and connect it to the Echo via Bluetooth, the Echo will play the audio.

Can I use the Echo as my alarm clock?

Credit: Amazon

(Image credit: Amazon)

You sure can. It also works as a timer, which comes in handy when you're cooking. There are a number of tones to choose from in the Alexa app. You can choose the voices of some celebrities, including Alec Baldwin and Dan Marino, as your alarm sound (though this won't change Alexa's default voice). Plus, you can ask Alexa to wake you up to music of your choice. Just say something like "Alexa, wake me up at 8 a.m. to 80s music." In fact, the spherical Echo Spot is designed to look (and act) like an alarm clock, with a touch screen that displays the time and weather.

Can Amazon Echo Make Phone Calls?

Yes. Once you've given Alexa access to your contacts and verified your phone number in the Alexa app, just ask Alexa to call a contact by name, or to call any phone number (don't forget the area code). You can call another compatible Echo device or a mobile or landline phone.

Amazon Echo Show (2nd Gen): $229.99 @ Amazon

Amazon Echo Show (2nd Gen): $229.99 @ Amazon
The Echo Show is Amazon's smart display. It's an excellent countertop hub, offering video chat, music and more. 

The Echo Show and Echo Spot can also make video calls to other compatible Echo devices or the Alexa app. The devices video call by default (if you're calling someone who has an Echo Spot, Echo Show or Alexa app), but you can can turn video off by saying "Video off" or tapping the video button after your call has started. And the Echo Spot's "Drop In" feature allows you to converse, uninvited, with other Echo Spots or Echo Shows — a great way to check on your kids or bother your roommate.

MORE: How to Make a Voice or Video Call Using Amazon Alexa

Can Alexa call 911?

Unfortunately, Alexa can't call 911. But you can set up a number of third-party skills, such as Ask My Buddy, to quickly call an emergency contact.

How does shopping work on the Echo?

If you're an Amazon Prime member with a U.S. shipping address, you can use the Echo to order products from Amazon. Pretty much anything Amazon Prime-eligible (that Amazon sells directly), as well as music, is fair game.

MORE: What Is Alexa Voice Shopping, and How Do You Use It?

The Amazon Echo can create shopping lists, which are saved in the Alexa app or on Amazon.com. It uses the default payment method and shipping address that's saved in your Amazon account. It will ask you to confirm or cancel the order before processing it. If Alexa can't find the item in your order history or can't complete the order, Amazon will suggest an alternative.

For instance, if you ask for cat litter, but you've not bought that before, Alexa will say, "I didn't find that in your order history, but Amazon Choice for cat litter is Tidy Cat. Should I order it?"

To prevent just anyone from placing orders on your Echo, you'll want to set up a voice code. In the Alexa app's Settings, under Voice Purchasing, toggle on Voice Purchasing. Then you enter a four-digit code. Alexa will ask you for this code before completing any purchases.

Can Alexa control my other smart home devices?

The Amazon Echo can control hundreds of smart home products via voice commands. It works with just about everything from WeMo plugs and Philips Hue light bulbs to smart thermostats and security cameras. It can also connect to a number of smart home hubs, including Samsung SmartThings, Nexia, Wink, and Insteon.

MORE: 7 Cheap Alexa Gadgets to Start Your Smart Home

Can Alexa control my smart lock?

Many major smart locks are compatible with Alexa, including the August Smart Lock (2nd Gen), the Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt and the Yale Real Living Key-Free Touchscreen Deadbolt. You can tell Alexa to lock or unlock your door, as well as check on its status.

Alexa can also control a number of home security cameras, including the Netgear Arlo Security Cameras, and Ring Video Doorbells. You can even view a feed from some of these cameras on a Fire TV or Echo Show.

MORE: How to Connect Your Amazon Echo to a Bluetooth Speaker

Q: Does the Echo work with IFTTT, and what can I do with it?

IFTTT, which stands for If This Then That, is a free Web service that leverages specific events to trigger an electronic response of some sort. The cause-and-effect relationship is called a Recipe.

IFTTT can be used to make the Amazon Echo even more useful. For example, you could set up IFTTT to tweet every time you complete a task on your to-do list, dim the lights when you play music or set a reminder on your phone each time you add an item to your shopping list.

What are Alexa routines? Are they the same as Recipes?

Using the Alexa app, you can program your Echo to turn on various smart home devices, relay the news or complete multiple other tasks when you say a certain phrase. For example, saying "Alexa, start my day" could cause Alexa to turn on the lights, start the coffeemaker, turn on the TV and tell you the weather. Routines are similar to IFTTT's Recipes. The difference is that Recipes can be triggered by an action (such as tweeting or playing music) rather than a code phrase.

MORE: How to Connect Amazon Echo to IFTTT

Can I connect multiple profiles to one Echo?

If you create an Amazon Household on the Amazon site or through the Alexa app, then you can use the Echo to listen to music or audiobooks from more than one person's account. To make a purchase using a secondary account on the Echo, you'll need to switch accounts first.

Kate Kozuch

Kate Kozuch is the managing editor of social and video at Tom’s Guide. She covers smartwatches, TVs and audio devices, too. Kate appears on Fox News to talk tech trends and runs the Tom's Guide TikTok account, which you should be following. When she’s not filming tech videos, you can find her taking up a new sport, mastering the NYT Crossword or channeling her inner celebrity chef.