You're either an Alexa person or you're not.
If you are, you'll know how useful it can be to create lists, set timers, make calendar appointments and send messages just by asking Alexa to do it for you.
Oh, and most importantly of all, play your favourite song, artist or playlist.
There are few technical toys more satisfying to use, wandering from room to room of your house, getting a weather forecast just by asking for it or staying up to date with the very latest news headlines.
But what happens to your virtual assistant once you get in your car? Is she trapped inside your smart speaker or can you take her with you?...
With the Amazon Echo Auto, Alexa never has to leave your side.
I'm a fan of this device, partly because I'm a fan of the Amazon/Alexa ecosystem but mostly because I love a simple idea, well executed.
The Amazon Echo Auto provides the missing link between your phone and your car, bringing all Alexa's powerful voice recognition skills into play, making online interactions safer and more effective while you're driving.
If the Echo range of smart speakers are subtle in their appearance, then the Echo Auto is positively nondescript - a tiny black box not much bigger than a business card and about as thick as your average phone. Just the Amazon logo and two buttons on top - a mic mute button and a manual activation button, neither of which you'll probably end up using at all. Even when attached to the included air-vent mount, this is no dashboard eyesore - choose the right vent and you should barely notice it's there.
Which is as it should be; the whole idea behind a virtual assistant is it shouldn't have a noticeable physical presence at all - it should just be waiting at your beck and call, ready to answer your requests audibly but invisibly.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of the Echo Auto is your car doesn't have to be bluetooth enabled for it to work. It will connect by bluetooth if that's your preference but you can use your car stereo's AUX input instead. This is great news for me because while my car's bluetooth usually connects to my phone, about one time in ten it suddenly decides not to, usually when I really want it to. The Echo Auto makes all this inconvenient vaguery a thing of a past because the connection between my phone and the device itself has been rock solid every time I've fired it up.
As far as setup is concerned, it couldn't be much easier. The Echo Auto comes with its own car charger, with a second USB slot for any other devices you might already be running. So it's just a matter of plugging in the USB-C lead and the AUX cable if you're connecting that way, turn the car on and the Echo Auto will light up to indicate it's ready for pairing in a matter of seconds. This is as easy as opening the Alexa app on your phone and adding the Echo Auto as a new device. Done.
The true elegance of the Echo Auto is how fast it boots up every time you turn on the ignition - most times it's working and connected with it's signature blue light and subtle audio tone before I've even thought about it. From that point you're ready to play music or podcasts from your favourite streaming service, check the weather, ask for driving directions... all that cool stuff.
Some reviewers have been critical of this device on the grounds it doesn't really do anything your phone can't already do by itself. I'd suggest those reviewers aren't using Alexa all day, every day like I do. I'd also suggest their car bluetooth works a bit more consistently than mine does. Because the Echo Auto responds exactly the same way as any other Echo device, the experience between my house and my car is completely seamless - down to the point I can turn smart lights and other appliances on and off before I even get home.
The biggest benefit is one of safety. Because I'm talking to Alexa I'm not thinking about my handset at all while I'm driving. Even though it's my phone providing the data connection, I'm not looking at it and certainly not touching it. This means I can keep my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road, even while replying to text messages. In saying that, there's one weird feature I didn't ask for and don't seem to be able to switch off; Alexa not only transcribes any SMS messages you want to send, it also attaches an audio file of you dictating the message to avoid any confusion. Unfortunately, confusion is generally the direct result, because the recording is saved to the cloud and appears as a hyperlink in your message. I get what they're trying to do. I'd just like to be able to switch it off.
Other than that, I couldn't be happier with how well the Echo Auto performs. It has an eight, count 'em eight far-field mic array to guarantee Alexa will pick up your instructions over road noise, air-con and even loud music. As usual, Alexa's voice recognition is usually pretty spot-on and works just as well, if not more consistently than with my speakers at home. And best of all, I now have a bluetooth connection in my car I can rely on every time, not just most of the time. All this for under $90. If you were already considering some kind of bluetooth adapter for your car anyway, you may as well add the convenience and safety of a reliable virtual assistant into the mix as well.