Amazon Echo 2 & Echo Plus Amazon’s new smart speakers
Now Alexa comes in various sizes
Priced £150 when it launched last autumn, Amazon’s Echo was the first ‘smart speaker’ on the market, bringing Alexa – Amazon’s AI equivalent of Microsoft’s Cortana or Apple’s Siri – to your living room or kitchen. Like everyone else, we wondered if there was much point to a unit that replicated something already available as an app, and if it wasn’t a bit creepy to have a box in your home that constantly listened for your voice and, when addressed, uploaded what you said to a server to generate a response.
Well, the answers are in. People are buying these devices, having decided that the convenience outweighs the creepiness (Amazon insists your communications are secure). The Echo seems to be here to stay, and now Amazon has updated it with a second-generation model, Echo 2, at a lower price, while also launching the more advanced Echo Plus. The smaller Echo Dot (£50) is still available, and the Echo Spot, which builds Alexa into an alarm clock, is due in the New Year. Finally, the Echo Show (£200), which we’ll be testing soon, adds a screen so you can ‘drop in’ for video chats with other Alexa users.
The new Echo is shorter than the original and comes in a fabric or wood finish. Its sound quality is about the same – clear, but not especially great for music – although the addition of a headphone jack lets you add a better speaker. Volume is controlled with buttons rather than a twisting mechanism at the top, which is a shame. Slashing £60 from the original price is welcome, though.
The Echo Plus keeps the original’s taller, more austere design, with much-improved speakers for a richer sound. Another addition is a built-in hub for home accessories that use the Zigbee standard, such as lightbulbs and thermostats. Alexa could already control many of these if you added ‘skills’ (voice commands), but now you can simply tell her to find your Zigbee stuff and control it. You have to manually put each product in pairing mode to get this working, but after that it’s effortless.
If you have additional Echos, you can also create a multi-room music setup over your Wi-fi network. Next year, Echo Plus owners will be able to make phone calls over a landline, but this will require an add-on, called Echo Connect.
Echo 2: 802.11n Wi-fi • Bluetooth 4.0 • 7x microphones • 2.5in woofer • 0.6in tweeter • Mains adapter • 148x88x88mm (HXWXD) • 821g • One-year warranty Echo Plus: 802.11n Wi-fi • Bluetooth 4.0 • 7x microphones • 2.5in woofer • 0.8in tweeter • Zigbee hub • Mains adapter • 235x84x84mm (HXWXD) • 954g • One-year warranty
VERDICT: Alexa is getting cleverer all the time. If home automation appeals to you, the Echo Plus is the best choice, while the cheaper Echo 2 has superior audio than the basic Dot
ALTERNATIVE: Google Home £129 With better sound than the Echo 2, this controls Chromecast TV streamers and supports IFTTT automation, but now looks a bit pricey
The Echo is here to stay, and the latest models are better and smarter than ever