Amazon is finally bringing its Echo voice-controlled speaker to brick-and-mortar retail outlets in a big way, confirming that shoppers will be able to pick one up from their choice of more than 3,000 stores across the U.S., just in time for the holiday season.
Retail partners selling the speaker include The Home Depot, Staples, Sears, Brookstone, RadioShack, Fred Meyer, and P.C. Richard & Son, among others.
The Echo is Amazon’s cloud-based, voice-controlled speaker designed to rest at the center of your home, offering a multitude of features accessible through basic voice commands. Users can ask the Echo’s voice-controlled assistant, Alexa, to play some music, recite the latest news, weather reports, sports scores, or other information. You can use it to set an alarm, or save to-do lists, and best of all — as far as Amazon is concerned — shop online; Amazon Prime members can use Echo to re-order products, and it will use default payment and shipping settings.
And that’s just for starters. The device also integrates with home control products to facilitate various home automation tasks, like turning on or off Philips Hue lights, controlling Samsung SmartThings products, WeMo Insteon switches, or Wink automation products and their connected devices. With the If This Then That (IFTTT) protocol, you can also use Echo to access “recipes” you’ve set up with compatible devices, like adding shopping items to your Evernote digital work station, or transferring a to-do list from the Echo to your iPhone.
Musically, it works with a number of popular streaming services, including Amazon Prime, Prime Music, iHeartRadio, Pandora, and TuneIn, allowing you to request a song from a specific artist, genre, playlist, or station, then pause or skip tracks during playback, all via voice commands. Because the unit is Bluetooth-enabled, you can also stream tunes from other popular services, like Spotify and iTunes, from a wirelessly connected mobile device.
Additionally, you can use the Echo to run Yelp searches for local businesses or restaurants: maybe you want to find out if that new Asian fusion restaurant is open yet, or what time your local pharmacy closes. Check out local traffic as well, to ensure you take the best route to work in the morning. You can also tap into your Google Calendars to see if you have any appointments, or book a dinner out with friends.
If you so desire, you can also use the Echo to do things like listen to audiobooks. Echo works with Whispersync via Amazon Kindle so you can listen when you want to sit back, eyes closed and relax, then automatically switch to reading mode once you’re ready to perk up again and do some active eye-scanning.
It’s always on, so there’s no need to activate a feature or press a power button. And it boasts seven mics in a process called beam-forming technology so that your requests can be heard from across the room. Because the Echo is cloud-based, it’s designed to continuously collect information, and get smarter over time. Consider it like a virtual butler in the home (though it won’t actually bring your coffee in the morning.)
The device has raised some privacy concerns for users, since it’s always listening in. Amazon says the device listens for the “wake word,” which is Alexa, then starts recording from that point on, plus a few seconds prior, to understand what you’re asking. And you can manually turn off the mic if you wish, though that would sort of defeat the purpose. Still, the concept is perhaps equal parts amazingly convenient and unsettling at the same time.
Greg Hart, Vice President of Amazon Echo and Alexa Voice Services, calls the device a “must-have gift this holiday season,” and he notes the advantage of customers being able to visit local stores now to actually try the device out for themselves.
See a full list of retailers that will be selling the Amazon Echo in stores, which roll out beginning in the coming weeks, for $180.