Late last year, Amazon announced the Echo, a wireless speaker with a voice-controlled personal assistant built in. We called it "Siri in a box" in our review, and that's a pretty apt description. The Echo can be a standard Bluetooth speaker, but it's real appeal lies in its ability to answer questions, play music on demand, or order products from Amazon with just a voice command. Instead of the iPhone's Siri, the Echo's virtual assistant is named Alexa, but they are very similar in their capabilities.
But when Amazon announced the Echo in November of last year, you couldn't actually buy it. Interested customers that already had Amazon Prime accounts could get on a waiting list to buy the speaker and would receive invites when Amazon had the device available. Since then, Amazon has been fairly conservative in giving out invites to purchase the Echo, and even when customers were given the opportunity to put down money for it, shipping times stretched from weeks into months.
Today, that's changing, as Amazon is opening up Echo purchases to anyone that wants one. The Echo costs $179.99 and will start shipping on July 14th.
The Echo has gained a number of new features since launch
Seven-plus months between initial announce and general availability is a really long time in the technology world, but Amazon's been making good use of the time. Since its initial launch, Amazon has been slowly upgrading the Echo's capabilities, making it a more appealing device than it was at the outset. It can now act as the hub for a smart home, turning on various lights and appliances that are hooked into Belkin's WeMo and Philips' Hue systems. It can play music from Pandora in addition to Amazon Prime Music, and it can read Google calendar events. IFTTT integration lets you connect things like the Echo's Shopping and to-do lists to other services automatically. And of course, you can still order products directly through Echo by just asking it to make the purchase. Amazon says it has not only been adding features to the Echo, it has also improved speech recognition and accuracy since it first debuted.
The Echo is Amazon's entry into the smart home, an area that's becoming increasingly crowded with big players such as Apple and Google. Amazon's approach is unique, but it plays to the company's strengths, tying into services it provides and making it easier than ever to buy things. It may just be the smartest smart home device you can get right now, and according to Amazon, it's going to get even better later this year, once developers release third-party integrations for it.