The Echo Auto is the tiny box pictured here on top of the dashboard. (Credit: Amazon.com, Inc.)

Last fall, Amazon announced a number of gadgets that use the company's Alexa virtual assistant for tasks ranging from microwaving food to giving you map directions. This latter one came courtesy of Echo Auto, a device that could give you a similar experience to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, for a fraction of the cost. Today, the first Echo Autos start shipping to customers -- but the landscape may already shifting to accommodate its presence.

The Echo Auto is still only available by invitation, and Amazon hasn't said exactly when it will be sold to the general public. But in the meantime, it's at least priced half off at $25. If you can get your hands on it, you just supply power through an adapter that plugs into the 12-volt receptacle (where car cigarette lighters sometimes go) and place it on your dash.

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Its array of eight microphones is designed to pick out the sound of your voice amid road noise and other potential interference, and the device communicates with your phone and your car wirelessly, via Bluetooth.

It also has a 3.5mm audio jack that you can use to connect to your car's audio system, if it has an aux jack somewhere in the center console. This may get you better sound quality for your music than Bluetooth. If your car doesn't have Bluetooth, then an aux jack is the only way to feed the Echo Auto's audio output to your car's speakers.

Once you've got it all set up, you can use Alexa instead of Siri or the Google Assistant to stream music and podcasts, set reminders, make a shopping list, get map directions, and control compatible smart home devices. However, support for Apple Music and Apple Maps is still in the works, and Echo Auto isn't compatible with every iPhone or Android phone. Amazon has a short list of the phones that are known to not work.

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One problem: The Google Assistant is a moving target

A bigger problem than compatibility is the evolving nature of the Google Assistant (download for Android or iOS), which is actively being upgraded to provide all the functionality that used to be designed for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Just yesterday, Google announced that this update is rolling out for its Assistant and Maps apps, eliminating the requirement for additional equipment or a more expensive vehicle trim.

With this update, you'll be checking your map on a relatively small phone screen instead of a car's infotainment display, but you'd be in the same boat if you went with Echo Auto -- minus $25. At this point, the distinction may boil down to the Echo Auto's ability to control smart home devices while you're driving -- but there don't appear to be major roadblocks to getting the Google Home app to work in the same manner.

At the rate Google is going with the evolution of its Assistant, Echo Auto may not have an edge by the time it becomes widely available. Then again, Alexa is a major pillar of Amazon's long-term strategy, so I wouldn't count it out just yet.

Takeaways

  • Amazon has started shipping the Echo Auto device that it announced last fall; it's designed to compete with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and it currently costs $25.
  • However, the item is currently available by invitation only, and we don't have an exact ETA for when Echo Auto will be generally available.
  • Meanwhile, Google has recently updated its Assistant and Maps apps to give users without Android Auto most of the Android Auto experience, which may cut into the appeal of the Echo Auto.

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Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.