There’s a massive “land grab” going on at present, with Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa both rushing to become your “go to” device for voice interaction/control. The chances are you now have competing voice services calling for your attention, perhaps even both on the same devices (such as Android phones), or maybe Apple is trying to squeeze into your awareness too with Siri (but without nearly the same commitment to winning as have Google and Amazon).
Not only are we seeing more voice controlled gadgets appearing, but Amazon in particular is developing an ever more extensive range of its Echo voice control units. Big, small, expensive, cheap – you name it, they’ve probably got it. We’ve written about their Echo Dot (list price $50, currently on sale for $30 – get some if you don’t have them already) which is their standard voice control unit. They’ve also released several voice control units with screens attached, most recently the Echo Show 5 which we reviewed here (list price $90, currently on sale for $65 – this is probably the best all-round unit for most people and great buying at $65). They have an assortment of other products too, but for most of us, we’ll either be choosing Echo Dot or Echo Show 5 units.
A new device cautiously being released at present (you have to ask for an invitation, no less) is an Alexa Echo Auto unit to add to your vehicle. If your vehicle can play music through its Bluetooth connection, or has an auxiliary input to its music system, then this wil work. It lists for $50.
The unit itself is small and light. It measures about 3.4″ x 1.9″ and is about 0.54″ thick. It weighs 1.6 ounces. It requires power and comes with a cigarette lighter adapter that has two USB charger type outlets, and is rated for supplying 4 amps between them. The unit tested to only use 0.05 – 0.1A of power, so you could use it with any USB power outlet in the car that you might already have. Amazon also provides a power cable (3 ft long).
It has an array of eight microphones to hear you clearly and filter out some of the ambient noises in a car, and while it has a small speaker built in, it wants to use your car stereo to play its audio.
To connect in to the car stereo, you either it through Bluetooth if your car has Bluetooth that is compatible not just with phone calls but also with music playing. If you don’t have this, you can connect it through your car’s auxiliary input if it has one (Amazon also provide a 1m/39″ connecting cable for this too). If it doesn’t have an auxiliary input either, there are two more options that Amazon doesn’t mention but which should work perfectly well.
If you have a cassette player input, get a “music to cassette adapter” – see this link. They cost about $10.
If you don’t have a cassette player input, you could get a Bluetooth to FM adapter that ends up taking the output from the Echo Auto’s Bluetooth or wired output and transmitting it at very low power over FM so your FM radio will receive it. It costs about $16 – see this link.
One last thing – mounting it in your car. Amazon provide a mounting adapter to perch it on an air vent louver. I don’t like those things, and they interfere with the car’s air flow too. Maybe you aren’t as fussy as me. But if you feel the same way, or you don’t have a compatible air vent design, then simply get some velcro. Stick the soft fuzzy piece to the unit and the hook piece to wherever you wish on the dashboard. Because the unit is so lightweight, you just need the smallest of dots. You can see lots of adhesive velcro choices here.
The preceding might sound complicated, but it isn’t really. Plug it in to power, plug it in to audio, and mount it.
Now for the next step. Go to the Alexa app in your phone, and add the new Echo Auto device to your list of Alexa devices. The Echo Auto connects to the internet through your phone’s data connection.
I was uncomfortable doing this, because I had to grant a slew of new permissions to the Alexa app. I had to allow it to run in the background all the time, which means it will use more battery and reduce the time between charges for my phone. I also had to give it access to my contacts, and allow it to manage phone calls and text messages.
But I agreed to these things, because your choice is either to agree or to have your Echo Auto become a useless paperweight.
Using the unit was much the same as using any other Alexa unit, but possibly Alexa’s responses were a bit slower. That would depend on the quality of your internet connection through your phone at the time.
I also tried using it to play streaming music – “Alexa, play Classic FM”. (In case you’re wondering, and assuming about a 128kb audio streaming rate, this would use 58MB of data for one hour of music, ie you could play music for 17 hours before using up 1 GB of data allowance. It was nice to be able to hear my favorite UK based radio station in a US car for a change, but the feed stopped and started a bit, perhaps due to poor bandwidth and re-buffering.
The audio feed was also interrupted by the phone’s usual cacophony of dings and dongs and buzzes and beeps. Each time the phone felt the need to make a noise to tell me a new email had been received or whatever else, Alexa would first turn down the music, then play the tone, then after a pause, return the music to normal volume. This was annoying.
Do You Need an Alexa Device in Your Car?
This is the big question, of course. After I had connected the Echo Auto to my car, I stared at it, wondering what I’d do with it. But as time passed, I came to think of various uses, and in happy reality, an audio controller is actually a great thing in a car, because you can do things “hands free” and also not need to sneakily peek at your phone screen to get answers.
For example, if you’re wondering what the weather will be like when you reach your destination, ask Alexa. If you want to know the latest news or sports scores, ask Alexa.
If you’re driving to the airport to meet someone, you can ask Alexa to check if the flight is on time or not.
There was another dimension of convenience too. If you want to talk to someone at home, just announce whatever you want to say, or drop in on a specific Alexa unit at home. (See our article and attached cheat sheet with lots of helpful Alexa commands.)
There is another type of use for Alexa in the car. It made it easy for us, as we were pulling in to our driveway, to turn on lights inside the house and along the driveway.
None of these are essential life-changing features/benefits. But the unit is only $50, and overall, we liked the extra features it gave us. Do we need an Alexa unit in the car? No. But do we like having one? Yes.
Should You Get an Alexa Echo Auto?
Yes and no is probably our ambivalent answer. We liked the added convenience we could enjoy with Alexa in our car as well as (almost entirely) everywhere else.
But we didn’t like having to allow the Alexa app to always be active in the background on our phone. We also didn’t like having to switch the car radio from its normal mode of playing the radio and now instead be on the auxiliary input for the Alexa unit.
This also meant we couldn’t have other auxiliary input devices – it would be nice to have (and very easy to engineer) a pass-through mode on the Alexa unit so it simply switches itself into the circuit when it needs to say or play something. Or to have multiple inputs and simply command Alexa to switch which input/source it feeds out to the car stereo. We also have a satellite radio player and an MP3 player that we sometimes feed into the car’s audio system, and now we can’t.
We could add a mixer box so that all three units could “share” the one input, but that is starting to become a bit complicated for most people. Another solution that Amazon could have adopted – perhaps the best of all solutions – is to include a speaker in the unit itself, the same as they do with their Echo Dot devices.
The other consideration depends on your phone’s data plan. If your phone has a data plan that you never use up each month, you won’t mind having the Echo Auto use a bit more data. But if you’re paying by the GB (eg on Google Fi) or if you’re often using up all your included data and sometimes having to pay extra for more, you might notice an increase in data use and an associated extra cost.
On balance, we keep coming back to the happy fact that currently an Alexa Echo Auto is only $50. If you already have other Alexa devices and use them, why not try an Echo Auto. You might like it. And if you don’t like it, there’s probably even a free return policy for the first short period of time.