ADVERTISEMENT

Product Review

The Amazon Echo Auto (2nd gen) is smaller but not smarter

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Amazon’s second-generation Echo Auto is a tiny Echo for your car’s dashboard. It has good microphones, is easy to install and to stow when you’re parked, and provides a simple way to add hands-free music playback to your car stereo if it lacks Bluetooth. But it’s not as smart as your smartphone’s built-in assistant, and unless you already have an ecosystem of Amazon smart home gadgets, it doesn’t make sense for most people, myself included.

Simply put, the Echo Auto is a $54.99 microphone that mounts on your dashboard and lets you use Alexa voice commands on the road. It connects to your phone via Bluetooth and then connects to your car stereo for playback either by Bluetooth or a 3.5mm wired connection. Your car doesn’t need any kind of smarts for it to work, just an old-fashioned cigarette lighter / power outlet and an auxiliary input for your stereo.

The microphone end of the second-gen Echo Auto is even smaller than the last one (2.1 x 0.9 inches, compared to 3.3 x 1.9 inches, which was itself a lot smaller than the Echo speakers and pucks designed for the home). It comes with an adhesive-backed magnetic mount that attaches to your car’s dashboard. There’s not a lot of open space on my dash, and I was a little worried it would sit too close to the car stereo’s volume dial. But it’s deceptively small, and I found a good spot for it out of the way of any buttons or knobs.

The Echo Auto gets its power from your car’s USB port (or the 12V power adapter). Your car needs to be running to use Echo Auto, and once it’s powered on, you can connect it to your phone (and the Alexa app) via Bluetooth. Then you’ll either use Bluetooth or the 3.5mm jack on the Echo’s breakout box to connect to your car stereo. All of this can be done in about five minutes, provided you have an Amazon account and the Alexa app on your phone.

I had no trouble with it, and I like that I can easily tuck the breakout box and cords into the little compartment below my dashboard so everything is out of the way. Importantly, the whole thing can be unplugged, taken off the mount, and stored in the center console when I leave my car — and plugging it back in is just as quick. I try not to leave anything in view in my car to tempt a break-in, so having something valuable-looking attached to my dash at all times would have been a non-starter.

Echo Auto breakout box in-hand showing USB connector, speaker and headphone jack.

There’s a speaker and 3.5mm jack for auxiliary audio output built into the matchbox-sized breakout box.

My experience with Alexa wasn’t quite as smooth. It seems to have gotten smarter since my colleague Sean Hollister reviewed the first-generation Echo Auto. Asking it to find nearby gas stations and coffee shops and to look up store hours usually worked well. But for anything that requires it to interact with the phone, like placing calls and using navigation, you’re limited by what the Alexa app can do on your phone, and you run into those limitations quickly.

Alexa is also able to open up Apple Maps with a specified destination via voice command, but I still have to tap a button in the app to start or stop the navigation. Siri, on the other hand, can do these things without any additional input from me. Similarly, Alexa can text your contacts, but only after you run through the initial setup and enable Bluetooth notifications for the app. I don’t have to do any of that with Siri — it just works right off the bat. Initially, texting didn’t work for me at all and was limiting me to using “Alexa messaging” with contacts who have that feature enabled. Amazon spokesperson Simona Meynekhdrun says this was a bug, and I can confirm that it works now.

The Echo Auto wants to default to Amazon services, which I don’t use many of. Even with Spotify set as my default streaming service, I still had to ask Alexa a couple of times to get A Charlie Brown Christmas to play there instead of Amazon Music. It also defaults to putting new events on your “Alexa Calendar,” even if you already have another calendar linked to your account. Do I want this Alexa calendar? Do I even know where it is? No and no. You can change the default to a Google, Microsoft, or Apple calendar easily enough, but it’s one more thing to fiddle with in order to get set up the way I want.

I can’t have Alexa text just anyone in my contacts list — they need to have Alexa messaging enabled

As for other Alexa services, well, the library of “Skills” is looking pretty bare. I checked for a Starbucks reordering skill, which would come in handy (disclosure: I live in Seattle, and I have a habit). It’s no longer available, and the only Starbucks Alexa Skill available is something that tells you which Starbucks coffee roast is best for you based on answers to a few questions. This is useless. Amazon recently made some major cuts to its devices and Alexa teams, so I don’t feel great about the long-term prospects of a more helpful Starbucks skill (or any other) coming back in the future.

Alexa, naturally, works best in Amazon’s ecosystem. But I’m not convinced that’s something I need in my car. There’s a probably case to be made for the Echo Auto if you have a lot of Alexa-enabled smart home devices. I don’t have any, and I’m not sure I’d care about turning on my living room lights by talking to a device in my car. Even if I did, my phone’s voice assistant can already do that.

Echo Auto mic module with finger pressing mute button.

There’s an action button and a mute button on the mic module, along with an indicator light.

I do order a lot of my groceries from Amazon Fresh, which integrates fairly well with Alexa’s shopping list function. Being able to add something to my next grocery order as it occurs to me while driving is a legitimate use case for me, so Echo Auto would come in handy in those instances. But that’s still a rare occurrence, and there’s not enough other useful stuff that Alexa could do for me to that I’d want a whole extra device in my car. If I ever get my act together and start using Reminders on my iPhone, I could easily ask Siri to remind me that I need to buy cat food later. It can’t put Fancy Feast in my Amazon shopping cart for me, but I can live with that.

The Echo Auto’s strength remains its very good microphones. This version has five instead of eight and relies more on “improved algorithms” to understand voice commands. Even with fewer microphones, it’s still very good. It can hear me speaking at a normal volume, even with the heater and fans running at full blast. It has a harder time if I’m on the highway with the window down, but it can hear me better than I’d expect without having to speak up much.

Understanding simple questions and commands is what the Echo Auto is best at, and even then, it fails spectacularly at times. I got into a yelling match with it when I asked for the hours of Burien Press, a coffee shop in Burien, Washington, that it had correctly identified on the first try a day before. Here’s a list of things Alexa thought I said as I got increasingly impatient:

  • VariantPress
  • Fury Crest
  • PurionPress
  • Darien Press in Marion Washington
Close-up of a hand holding the Echo Auto, a small black device about 1 inch wide and 2 inches long.  It has a small button and an indicator LED and a cable leading down from it.  The photo is taken in a car, and the center dash / infotainment area is out of focus in the background.

The Echo Auto is small and sleek, but not as smart as the voice assistant that’s already on your phone.

The Echo Auto is a fine piece of hardware that doesn’t make a lot of practical sense. The best use may be for someone with an older car that lacks Bluetooth but has an aux input. In that case, it’s an easy way to add hands-free music playback and basic navigation to your car’s built-in speakers. Still, $55 is too steep for that — $30 feels about right for that kind of thing, and Bluetooth-to-aux adapters already exist. That $55 gets a little easier to justify if you have Amazon smart home products, but I think the overlap in the Venn diagram of “Has a very old car” and “Has lots of Amazon smart home products” is pretty slim. On top of that, the long-term prospects for Alexa getting more and better third-party skills don’t look great.

What really kills the appeal of the Echo Auto is the device you already own: your smartphone. If you put a simple mount in your car, set your phone in it, and just ask your phone’s built-in assistant to navigate to Starbucks, send a text, or play something on Spotify, you’ll have better luck. As it stands, Alexa isn’t all that smart away from home.

Update December 13th, 1:30PM ET: This review has been updated to include information about SMS texting via Alexa. This feature did not work in our initial review period, and Amazon has since fixed a bug that was preventing it from working.

Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge

Agree to Continue: Amazon Echo Auto (2nd gen)

Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it — contracts that no one actually reads. It’s impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But we’re going to start counting exactly how many times you have to hit “agree” to use devices when we review them since these are agreements most people don’t read and definitely can’t negotiate.

In order to use the Amazon Echo Auto, you’ll need to download the Alexa app for iOS or Android. An Amazon account is required to sign in. By signing up for one of those, you must agree to its conditions of use.

When you set up the device in the app, “you agree to Amazon’s conditions of use and all of the terms found here.” You can explore the documentation at that link, but below, we’ve listed the 13 terms that you must agree to:

Final tally: 14 mandatory agreements.

Source link

ADVERTISEMENT