The Amazon Echo Auto has finally arrived in the UK but this is one odd product
- Effective far field microphones
- Adds Bluetooth receiver and voice control to older cars
- Dashboard air vent mount included in box
- Navigation operations don’t work brilliantly
- Can’t send texts from iPhones
The Amazon Echo Auto is, at one and the same time, an intriguing and frustrating product. On the one hand it provides a handy way for owners of older cars to integrate voice-driven smart technology; anything that allows drivers to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel gets a big thumbs up from me.
Plus, if your car is so old it doesn’t even have Bluetooth, the Echo Auto adds a convenient way to connect your smartphone to your car stereo, too. With all this costing a mere £50 it sounds like an irresistible deal. And if you and your car fit into this rather narrow niche, it most certainly is.
But that’s the one big problem with the Echo Auto (well, there are two, but I’ll get onto that later). Fewer and fewer people fall into that category these days, and if your phone has a 3.5mm output you don’t even need the Bluetooth facility to add voice-driven digital assistant tech to your car as it’s already built into your phone.
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Amazon Echo Auto review: What you need to know
Assuming your car doesn’t have any of the luxuries described above but it does have a 3.5mm aux input AND your phone doesn’t have a 3.5mm output, then you might well be in the market for an Amazon Echo Auto.
And it’s a pretty neat thing too, squeezing all the smarts of an Echo – including a speaker for setup prompts – into a package the size of a small external hard disk drive. It has an array of eight far-field, noise-cancelling microphones on the top surface as well as the same action and mute buttons you’ll see on other Echo speakers.
There’s a multi-colour status LED bar running along the front of the device, which provides similar visual cues to its house-bound brethren. On the right is a microUSB port used to power the device alongside a 3.5mm audio jack.
With an air vent mount provided in the box alongside microUSB and 3.5mm cables, you have everything in the box you need to add Alexa voice control to your car. The only thing not provided is the data connection needed for Alexa function – that part you have to supply in the shape of your smartphone.
Amazon Echo Auto review: Price and competition
We’re used to Amazon’s pricing tactics by now but the £50 price tag for the Echo Auto is still surprisingly low given how clever it is.
It isn’t the only device purporting to add voice assistant control to your car, though. Others offer similar features: the KitSound Freeplay and Anker Roav Viva both pop into your car’s lighter socket, adding Bluetooth, Alexa support charging capabilities to your car for around £50.
The Nextbase 522GW combines dashcam capabilities with Alexa control; it’s a lot more expensive at £119 but you are getting a top-quality dashcam for your money.
Amazon Echo Auto review: How it works
The main problem I’ve had with third-party voice control devices like the Nextbase in the past is that they can struggle to compete with the road noise in the car and I end up having to repeat myself – a lot.
The same holds true for most smartphones. The microphones just aren’t very good at competing with road noise and picking out your voice, unless you raise it. And if after shouting yourself hoarse, it still hasn’t picked up your instructions, there’s always the temptation to take a hand off the wheel and your eyes off the road and use the touchscreen to achieve what you want to do.
That’s illegal, by the way, not to mention potentially deadly; it’s also what the Echo Auto’s microphones are very, very good at preventing. Assuming no-one is speaking across you – that’s a constant problem in my car, by the way – the Echo Auto’s microphones will pick up voice instructions in pretty much all circumstances as long as you pitch your voice at a conversational volume.
And, yes, that means it will work at 40mph plus even with the windows rolled down but you will have to raise your voice to have your instructions recognised.
Now, you probably won’t be opening the windows at high speed very often but it’s good to know that on a hot day you can keep the windows down and still pause, play and search for music.
Amazon Echo Auto review: Alexa on the road
Good start, then. The next question to answer is how useful Alexa is on the road. Now, I’m pretty comfortable with using voice commands in the car. The infotainment system in my Golf supports both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay and all I need to do to get this to work is utter the wake phrase or long-press the voice button on the steering wheel and speak my request.
Both Android Auto and CarPlay have their limitations but they’re both very good (to a greater or lesser extent) at the core in-car tasks of finding and setting destinations, replying to and sending texts, receiving and making phone calls, and playing music from Apple Music, Google Music or Spotify. It all works well because it’s designed to work in your car.
With Alexa, it’s more of a bumpy ride. Yes, it can do most of these things but it just isn’t as seamless as Google Assistant or Siri make it.
Navigation lies at the heart of Alexa’s weaknesses. Ask Alexa to navigate you to an address or location and this works well. Assuming there’s only one option to choose from, Alexa sends the destination to Google or Apple Maps, at which point you tap a notification to launch the mapping application and another time to confirm, and you’re off and running.
The extra tap isn’t ideal but it is fairly straightforward to do; just bear in mind that you’ll need to have both your phone and the Echo Auto mounted simultaneously to make this setup work. If all you need to do is set simple single destinations, you’ll be happy.
You can do this just as easily without your voice, however – where voice assistants excel is when you’re on the road and want to, say, find a petrol station or a fast-food restaurant along your route. You can do this quite easily with Google Maps and Apple Maps but not Alexa.
Another problem arises when a number of options is presented for your search. You asked for “petrol stations near me”, for instance, and Alexa lists three nearby choices. She then, helpfully, goes on to explain what you can do with these options but, bizarrely, If you wait until she’s finished, then respond, nothing happens. Nothing at all.
I tried this several times before working out that I needed to talk over Alexa by saying, “Alexa, take me to the first/second/third one”.
Fortunately, other core operations are a little more intuitive. Making a phone call is as simple as saying “Alexa, call …”. As long as that name is in your contacts list, she’ll make the call for you, after checking she’s got the right name first.
You can also send a text message like this, although weirdly only with Android phones. If you’re an iPhone user SMS texting isn’t possible, although if you try, Alexa will offer to send a voicemail message. Another bizarre omission
You should find, however, that music, podcasts, audiobooks and radio stations work as well as they do on a regular Amazon Echo device, and the same holds true for Alexa-compatible smart home gear. Anything you can do with your regular Echo speakers, you can do with the Echo Auto – turn lights on and off in your house, start your robot vacuum cleaner going, switch smart plugs on and off – you get the picture. Anything that doesn’t involve displaying a video feed on a screen will work.
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Amazon Echo Auto review: Verdict
In case you hadn’t figured it out by now, the Amazon Echo Auto is a very odd product. For owners of older cars, it has its uses, and its microphones do a great job of cutting through the roar of road noise. If you’re a member of the former group or your phone/hands-free kit just isn’t cutting it any more, £50 is a decent price for something that will add Bluetooth connectivity and make things like playing music and radio easier and safer while you’re out on the road.
Most people, however, even those stuck with having to use their phone on a dashboard mount for navigation, are probably best sticking with what they’ve got. That’s mainly because Alexa simply isn’t as good at the core driving tasks as Google Assistant or Siri.