Amazon launches Echo voice-activated personal assistant, music player

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Amazon's Echo virtual assistant.

Credit: Amazon

The device can connect to smartphones via apps for streaming music

Amazon revealed a new voice-controlled speaker called Echo that works like Apple's Siri or Microsoft's Cortana in that it responds to user requests for information or to play music uploaded from Amazon Music and other services.

The tube-like speaker/voice command system is connected via Wi-Fi and can be connected to smartphones or tablets via Echo apps. The company offers an Android app, and an iOS version is "coming soon," Amazon said.

The cylindrical speaker is 9.25 inches tall and 3.27 inches in diameter. It has to be plugged in, and is not mobile.

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An inside look at Amazon's Echo voice-activated speaker/information system.

Once turned on, Echo is supposed to remain in a sleep state until users say the word "Alexa" or "Amazon." Alexa is short for Alexandria, Egypt, former home to one of the world's greatest ancient libraries.

On Wednesday, Amazon sent out invitations to its Prime subscription service members who can order the device for $99 for "a limited time." For everyone else, Amazon Echo will cost $199 when it becomes available in the "coming weeks."

The Echo can provide information such as news, weather or general knowledge from sites such as Wikipedia, AccuWeather and other third-party news sources. With the free companion app on Fire OS and Android, plus desktop and iOS browsers, users can also manage alerts, music, shopping or to-do lists that the speaker system will then remind them to do.

Tucked under a light ring at its top area seven microphones, giving it an omnidirectional listening capability. The system also uses noise cancellation, so users can ask it a question while it's playing music.

The system is connected to Amazon Web Services (AWS), so it continually learns and adds more functionality over time, the company said. Additionally, the more often a user talks to Echo, the more it adapts to that person's speech patterns, vocabulary and personal preferences.

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The Echo Android app.

Amazon said Echo also delivers "crisp vocals with dynamic bass response" through dual downward-firing speakers, which produce 360° audio "to fill the room with immersive sound." The speaker system includes a 2.5-in. woofer and a 2-in. tweeter.

Along with Amazon Music files, Echo provides hands-free voice control of Prime Music, iHeartRadio and TuneIn. Echo is also Bluetooth-enabled, allowing users to stream music services like Spotify, iTunes and Pandora from a smartphone or tablet.

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