Saturday 19 October 2019

Ask Adrian: Our tech editor Adrian Weckler tackles your trickiest technology problems


Amazon Echo Plus
Amazon Echo Plus
Panasonic Lumix G9
Panasonic Leica 200mm lens
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Q: I want to get a wireless speaker for my kitchen but my son told me I should get a 'smart speaker' instead. Is there any advantage to this over a normal wireless speaker? I think I'll mostly be using it to play music from the household iPad and maybe my phone. I don't want to spend more than €150 on it.

A: The only real smart speaker at that price is Amazon's Echo, which has become very popular in the UK and the US, and has just been launched in Ireland.

If you've never seen an Echo work, it's about the same height and width as a small-to-medium-sized wireless speaker.

The sound quality out of it is comparable to that speaker range, too.

Its 'smart' credentials come via its recognition of your voice to ask it (or order it) to do things such as play a song (if you have a music account with Amazon or Spotify), play a radio station (most Irish stations work with it) or ask for a news flash (from RTÉ, the BBC or others).

This all comes courtesy of 'Alexa', Amazon's 'smart' voice-recognition system that exists as an internet service. It is very, very good at understanding you when you speak to it. This happens when you say "Alexa" followed by a question.

Such as: "Alexa, what's the weather forecast today?"

Or "Alexa, play 'Don't Be Cruel' by Elvis."

Or "Alexa, who wrote The Big Lebowski?"

It gets its information from a variety of sources, including Wikipedia and a number of local Irish organisations (which get on to its system by creating 'skills', Amazon's version of an app).

Where it provides a service such as music, that comes from linking an account you already have to the system via the free Amazon Alexa app on your phone.

But it's also very useful for things such as alarms and timers.

One of the things it is used most for now is a reminder to bring an item into work or school.

Such as: "Alexa, remind me tomorrow at 7am to bring my iPad."

Or "Alexa, set a timer for three minutes."

One thing the Echo is very good at is picking up your voice. So far, I have found that it will hear me quite consistently regardless of where in the room I am, or even outside the room if I speak loudly.

It's also decent at picking my voice out through quite a lot of ambient noise, such as a kettle, a washing machine or another person talking. On entertainment, it has a few significant advantages. Because it's linked with RTÉ radio and the independent stations, you can simply say "Alexa, play Radio One" (or whatever station you want) and it will do it fairly instantly.

For those who might chop and change a bit between different shows in the morning or the evening, using your voice to do it from the others side of the room represents the same efficiency leap as going from manually changing a TV station to a remote control.

For things like podcasts, it's arguably even more transformative. Just say "Alexa, play The Big Tech Show", or whatever the podcast you listen to is. It will reach right in and play it. It's a similar story with audiobooks for anyone with an Audible account.

There are also some things that don't work. Shopping is one. Unlike the US and UK, you can't order things from Amazon through your Echo. This won't bother a lot of people, but it comes in the context of Ireland missing out on many of the real advantages of a 'Prime' subscription, such as free delivery or discounts on lots of products.

RECOMMENDATION: Amazon Echo Plus €169

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