Echo was offered to some Amazon Prime members in late 2014, and it became widely available for purchase in June 2015. Its price as of this writing is $179.99, and the optional remote is an additional $29.99.
The company is improving and adding new capabilities to Echo and Alexa all the time, like movie showtimes, text-to-speech for Kindle and Yelp local search. With access to the Alexa service being offered free to third-party gadget and app developers, a great many voice-based services have been made available for Echo since the device's release, and we will no doubt see more in the future, both on Echo and other devices.
Amazon Echo has been well received. Reviewers have noted that the device seems to understand natural speech more accurately than a lot of its voice-recognizing counterparts (including Siri and Xbox), even at a distance or over background noise, and that it replies with useful information most of the time, in addition to providing decent sound quality on music playback [sources: Ackerman, Hardawar, Pogue].
As with any service that collects data (in this case vocal recordings) and stores it in the cloud, data breaches are possible. The data stored by Alexa is not entirely anonymous. It has to be connected to your Amazon accounts to remain useful. And the device requires your location information in order to provide services like local weather and traffic, much like your phone does.
Before you buy, you have to weigh whether you're more worried about how Amazon or others might use the information or more wowed by the services and conveniences the info makes possible, just as you must with other data-gathering and sending devices. In the case of Echo, you can at least turn off the microphone array whenever you want, and thanks to its status lights, you can see when it's sending your voice to the cloud.
We've seen voice-activated assistants before, but this is the first one that is mostly untethered from our full-featured computing devices. Amazon Echo is a hands-free step toward the integrated virtual home assistants many of us have assumed would pop up any day now.
Hopefully this means it's only a matter of time before we can issue voice commands for all of our household duties from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed, from adjusting our environmental comfort to figuring out what's for dinner. Here's to our future "Star Trek"-like existence.