With its new line of Echo devices, Amazon is simultaneously refashioning the device most responsible for bringing intelligent voice assistants into the home and cementing the device’s iconic look for the foreseeable future.
When Amazon unveiled both the smaller and more customizable Echo (not officially called “Echo 2”) and the Echo Plus on Wednesday, I was struck by how the more powerful device looks more like the original Echo than the smaller, cheaper model.
With its built-in smart hub and, by comparison, more powerful audio system, the Echo Plus is the more cutting-edge device and yet it looks and works, on the outside, at least, like the very first Echo introduced by Amazon 3 years ago.
The “all new” Echo ($99.99), by contrast, has a short, fatter body and, up close, I noticed another key difference. This is the first Echo to eschew the physical ring. It still has power and volume controls on top, but that rotatable plastic halo you used to adjust volume is gone. Considering that Echo is a voice-enabled device, it was probably always unnecessary anyway.
And yet, the $149.99 Echo Plus still has it. Go figure.
Aside from obsolescence, Amazon removed that ring to accommodate the Echo’s new customizable skins. I checked them all out and was particularly impressed with the wood grain. It looks like wood — walnut or oak — until you get quite close to it. The gray fabric covering gives the Echo a nice, homey feel. In addition to making the Echo look a little like Google Home, the fabric hides the speaker grill that’s visible on the other, smooth finishes
Amazon also changed the microphone array on the new Echo. Instead of a grill tracing the circumference of the device, as it does on the Echo Plus, the new Echo has seven distinct, yet tiny holes on the top. It’s the company’s second-generation far-field array for better listening capabilities. In one noisy room, I asked the new Echo a question and it handled it easily.
The Echo is also a couple of inches shorter than the Echo Plus, despite feeling like it weighs roughly the same amount, which means that the microphones at the top and the speaker on the bottom are significantly closer together than they are on the Echo Plus (and all previous Echos). Since Amazon launched Echo, it’s worked hard on the technology that keeps the speakers from interfering with the mics.
Amazon told me that improvements in noise cancelling and beam detection in both devices made moving the mics and speakers closer together on the Echo possible.
Sound and control
We didn’t get to run these devices through all their paces, but I did get to see a pair of new Echo, Alexa-powered experiences.
On the balcony outside Amazon’s Day 1 Building, Amazon had arrayed a half-dozen new Echo devices and was showing off how a multi-room speaker system might work.
All were playing the same tune. I turned off mute on the nearest device and said, “Alexa, make it louder.” All the speakers around me got louder. I did it again and they got louder still. I was impressed I could hear them as well as I did considering we were outside and 29 stories above the city. I flipped over one of the Echo devices and noted the visible indent in the center for the new down-firing woofer.
Amazon told me that I could control the multi-speaker system from inside the Alexa app. I can name the Echos based on room, group them and assign music on the same basis. This is very similar to a Sonos system. I’ll be interested to see how well this works in the real world.
My other experience was a little bit more impressive.
In a living room scenario, I found a new, silver Echo Plus sitting next to an HDTV. Beside that was a colored globe light. Behind me was a bookshelf with its own light and then a lamp over an easy chair I never sat in.
I said “Alexa, turn off the light” and the voice assistant turned off the light beside the table. There was no back and forth. I also told it to change the color of the lights. Sometimes, the Echo had trouble hearing me over the din, but usually the voice assistant got it right.
When I said. “Alexa, it’s movie night,” Alexa launched a routine that turned off all the lights and turned on the TV and the new Fire TV device connected to it.
In another room, an Amazon executive told the Echo Plus to play Ray Donovan, and the Fire TV started playing the latest episode. This is no small feat since Alexa and the Fire TV not only have to open the Fire TV app, but they have to dig into the third-party Fire TV Showtime app. The same exec then asked Alexa to play something different and the Fire TV started playing a tamer show.
Of course, Echo Plus can, according to Amazon, do far more and is the more powerful device. Its built-in Smart Hub is designed to cut down the steps required to introduce a new smart device to your home down by a factor of 15.
It even ships with a Philips Hue light bulb to prove this point.
This is exciting, but does not answer the problem of how to get non-homogeneous smart devices already in the home all on one platform.
Later, during a deep dive session on the new technology behind Echo Plus, Amazon executives admitted that the device is not designed to solve that problem and is instead aimed at new devices coming into the home and, especially, those consumers who have yet to join the smart home revolution.
For those customers, though, Echo Plus could be that life-altering product. One product, total smart home control (if you buy all Alexa and Zigbee-supporting products) and, finally, no separate hub to set up.