Amazon’s second-generation Echo Auto is a tiny Echo for your car’s dashboard. It has good microphones, is easy to set up and store when parked, and provides an easy way to play music hands-free on your car stereo if it doesn’t have Bluetooth. But it’s not as smart as your smartphone’s built-in assistant, and unless you already have an ecosystem of Amazon smart home gadgets, it doesn’t make much sense to most people, myself included.
Simply put, the Echo Auto is a $54.99 microphone that mounts on your dash and lets you use Alexa voice commands on the go. It connects to your phone via Bluetooth and then connects to your car stereo for playback via Bluetooth or a 3.5mm wired connection. Your car doesn’t need any kind of smart to work, just an old fashioned cigarette lighter/outlet and an aux input for your stereo.
The mic end of the second-generation Echo Auto is even smaller than the previous one (2.1 x 0.9 inches, compared to 3.3 x 1.9 inches, which itself was a lot smaller than the Echo speakers and pucks used for designed at home). It comes with an adhesive magnetic mount that attaches to your car’s dashboard. There isn’t a lot of open space on my dash and I was a little worried it would be too close to the car stereo volume knob. But it’s deceptively small, and I found a good spot for it, away from knobs or knobs.
The Echo Auto gets its power from your car’s USB port (or the 12V power adapter). Your car has to be running to use Echo Auto, and once it’s on, you can connect it to your phone (and the Alexa app) via Bluetooth. You then use Bluetooth or the 3.5mm jack on the Echo’s breakout box to connect to your car stereo. All this can be done in about five minutes, provided you have an Amazon account and the Alexa app on your phone.
I had no issues with it and I like that I can easily tuck the breakout box and cords into the little pocket under my dash so everything is out of the way. Importantly, the whole thing can be unplugged, removed from its mount and stowed in the center console when I leave my car – and plugging it back in is just as quick. I try not to leave anything in plain sight in my car to tempt a break-in, so having something valuable attached to my dash at all times would have been a non-starter.
My experience with Alexa was not so smooth. It seems to have gotten smarter since my colleague Sean Hollister reviewed the first-generation Echo Auto. Asking to find nearby gas stations and coffee shops and looking up store hours usually worked well. But for anything that requires interaction with the phone, such as placing calls and using navigation, you’re limited by what the Alexa app can do on your phone, and you’ll soon run into those limitations.
I can’t have everyone in my contacts list text Alexa – they must have Alexa messaging enabled. You can see who opted in by browsing your contacts in the Alexa app. Looks like maybe a third of my contacts have the feature turned on. I also have an unusually high number of current and former Amazon employees in my circle (disclosure: I used to work at DPReview, a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon), so take that with a grain of salt.
Alexa can also open Apple Maps with a specified destination via voice command, but I still have to tap a button in the app to start or stop navigation. Siri, on the other hand, can do these things without any additional input from me.
The Echo Auto wants to use standard Amazon services, of which I don’t use many. Even with Spotify set as my default streaming service, I still had to ask Alexa a few more times to get it A Charlie Brown Christmas to play there instead of Amazon Music. It also puts new events on your “Alexa calendar” by default, even if you already have another calendar associated with your account. Do I want this Alexa calendar? Do I even know where it is? No and no. You can change the default to a Google, Microsoft, or Apple calendar easy enough, but it’s one more thing to play with to set it up the way I want it.
I can’t have everyone in my contacts list text Alexa – they must have Alexa messaging enabled
As for other Alexa services, the “Skills” library looks pretty bare-bones. I checked for a Starbucks reordering skill, which would come in handy (disclosure: I live in Seattle and I have a habit). It’s no longer available, and the only Starbucks Alexa Skill available is something that tells you which Starbucks coffee roast is best for you based on answers to a few questions. This is useless. Amazon recently made some major cuts to its devices and Alexa teams, so I don’t have a good feeling about the long-term prospects of a more helpful Starbucks skill (or any other) returning in the future.
Alexa works best in Amazon’s ecosystem, of course. But I’m not convinced I need that in my car. There’s probably a reason for the Echo Auto if you have a lot of Alexa-enabled smart home devices. I don’t have one and I’m not sure I’d want to turn on my living room lights by talking to a device in my car. Even if I did, my phone’s voice assistant can already do that.
I order a lot of my groceries from Amazon Fresh, which integrates pretty well with Alexa’s shopping list feature. Being able to add something to my next grocery order as it comes to mind while driving is a legitimate use case for me, so Echo Auto would come in handy in those cases. But that’s still a rare occurrence, and there aren’t enough other useful things Alexa could do for me that I’d want a whole extra device in my car. If I ever get my act together and start using Reminders on my iPhone, I can easily ask Siri to remind me to buy cat food later. It can’t put Fancy Feast in my Amazon shopping cart for me, but I can live with that.
The strength of the Echo Auto remains its very good microphones. This version has five instead of eight and relies more on “enhanced algorithms” to understand voice commands. Even with fewer mics, it’s still very good. It can hear me talking at a normal volume even with the heating and fans running at full blast. It has a harder time sitting on the highway with the window down, but it can hear me better than I’d expect without having to say much.
Understanding simple questions and commands is what the Echo Auto does best, and even then it sometimes fails spectacularly. I got into a shouting match with it when I asked about the hours of Burien Press, a coffee shop in Burien, Washington, who correctly identified it on the first try a day before. Here’s a list of things Alexa thought I said as I grew more and more impatient:
- Variant press
- Fury crest
- Purion press
- Darien Press at Marion Washington
The Echo Auto is a fine piece of hardware that makes practically no sense. The best use may be for someone with an older car without Bluetooth but with an auxiliary input. In that case, it’s an easy way to add hands-free music playback and basic navigation to your car’s built-in speakers. Still, $55 is too much for that — $30 feels about right for that sort of thing, and Bluetooth-to-aux adapters already exist. That $55 becomes a little easier to justify if you have Amazon smart home products, but I think the overlap in the Venn diagram of “Has a really old car” and “Has a lot of Amazon smart home products” is pretty small. In addition, the long-term prospects for Alexa to get more and better third-party skills don’t look good.
What really negates the appeal of the Echo Auto is the device you already own: your smartphone. If you put a simple mount in your car, place your phone in it, and ask your phone’s built-in assistant to navigate to Starbucks, send a text, or play something on Spotify, you’ll have better luck. As it stands, Alexa isn’t that smart outdoors.
Photography by Allison Johnson / Acutely
Agree to Continue: Amazon Echo Auto (2nd generation)
Every smart device now requires you to agree to a set of terms and conditions before you can use it – contracts that no one really reads. It is impossible for us to read and analyze all these agreements. But we’re going to count exactly how many times you have to click “agree” to use devices when we review them, as these are agreements that most people don’t read and certainly can’t negotiate.
Last count: 14 mandatory agreements.