Amazon has upgraded the Amazon Echo at an event in its headquarters in Seattle and Pocket-lint was on hand to have a play. In an intimate event that resulted in a huge refresh to the range, the new lead device for Echo is the Amazon Echo Plus.
The new Amazon Echo Plus promises a greater focus on the smart home making it much easier for you to connect devices to your home like the Philips Hue bulbs, but does it work?
Amazon Echo Plus preview: Design
- Familiar cylindrical design
- Black, white, and silver colours
- 235 x 84 x 84mm, 954g
The Amazon Echo Plus features virtually the same design as the popular original Amazon Echo released in 2016 in the UK. There is a slight difference, however. The new model is slightly wider: 84mm vs 76mm, and also lighter 954 grams compared to 1064 grams, but for most you won't notice the difference, we certainly didn't.
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Now available in a metallic silver as well as the original white and black versions, the unit features the two standard and familiar buttons on the top for muting and activating Alexa if you don't want to use your voice and a dial around the top for controlling the volume. There is also an illuminated ring around the top to show you that something is happening, as there was before.
At the base is the power and aux out sockets. As cylindrical speakers go, Alexa is simple and elegant looking. Since the Echo was launched in 2015 there have been a wide range of competitors launched, some similar styling, or looking to mimics the experience. Google Home followed soon after, Apple has the HomePod and there's rumours of the Samsung Bixby speaker incoming too. Then there's an emerging range of devices that offer Google Assistant or Alexa, but from other manufacturers, from Panasonic through to Onkyo.
The design hasn't dated, but is it different in its design language to the new smaller Amazon Echo and in some ways, we can't help but feel a little sorrow that this version of the Echo hasn't moved on a little more.
Amazon Echo Plus preview: It's still a speaker
- 2.5-inch woofer
- 0.8-inch tweeter
- Dolby sound processing
We've never really seen the Amazon Echo as a fully-fledged speaker, and at £139.99 in the UK, it's clear this is about making your life smart rather than really packing a punch on the tunes front. Sound quality has been the biggest criticism of the Echo, but people don't buy the Echo for the speaker. They buy it because it opens doors that your average Bluetooth speaker won't.
That said, the Echo Plus has been upgraded with a new speaker setup featuring a 2.5-inch woofer and 0.8-inch tweeter. From what we've heard so far in demo rooms at Amazon's HQ, the speaker delivers a better sound and you now get Dolby processing to make things a little bit rounded. It's certainly better than the new Amazon Echo from what we've heard so far. Although it uses the similar speakers, the speaker cavity is larger, creating a bigger sound.
For those who do crave better sound quality, the Echo Plus is now equipped with aux out so you can connect it directly to a different speaker system if you choose. The Echo has also always supported Bluetooth if you'd rather use a speaker you already have. However, while those considering buying the standard £89 Echo might be tempted to wait for something like the rumoured Alexa-powered Sonos Play:1, the Echo Plus has additional smart home skills that none of it's rivals currently offer and that's the ZigBee controller that's built in, which is, very much, the point to the Echo Plus.
Amazon Echo Plus preview: It's still all about Alexa…
- New second-gen far-field mic technology
- Automatically updates from the cloud
The beauty of the Echo Plus is that like other devices in the Echo family it is powered by Alexa and Alexa is constantly getting updated via the cloud. There are no software updates needed, new stuff just becomes available each week. The Alexa ecosystem has seen an explosion over the last year, with everyone trying to get involved with this fast moving AI.
Talking to Alexa is therefore important and here the new Echo Plus, like the new smaller Amazon Echo, gets another upgrade. The new Echo Plus also uses Amazon's second-gen far-field technology, which features better wake word processing, improved beam-forming technology, and enhanced noise cancellation.
In practice this means that means it will be better at hearing you barking orders, even if the music is turned up loud. We tried it in a couple of demo environments and it worked flawlessly, however we would love more time with the device to allow us to test in a more traditional home environment. As far as the Alexa experience goes, you get everything here that you'll find in the other Echo devices.
Alexa is also getting new features. It will try to address four key areas, including a better understanding the context of what state a smart home device that is connected is in - i.e., whether a smart lock is locked or not, routines so you can create scenes like you can with Apple's HomeKit and trying to make setting up of other devices much easier.
Routines look really clever. You will be able to say "good morning" and the lights will come on, your blinds will open, the Echo Plus can deliver your morning briefing, and even your kettle could start boiling. Yes, it's a brave new world, with these routines realising the home automation core that started much of the movement in smart homes.
But there's a whole new set of skills that the Echo Plus is given that you won't find in any other the other Echo devices and that's ZigBee.
Amazon Echo Plus preview: Zigbee connectivity
- Easily connect your smart devices
- Let's you ditch individual device bridges
- Only available in Echo Plus
The Amazon Echo Plus beats out the new Amazon Echo with a dedicated smart home hub built into the device that offers ZigBee support. ZigBee put simply is a wireless protocol that a number of smart devices use to talk to each other. By baking ZigBee support directly into the Echo Plus it means you'll be able to simply add new smart home devices (as long as they are ZigBee compatible) by asking Alexa to "discover my devices".
We witnessed David Limp, head of devices at Amazon, do just that with a light bulb at the unveiling and it worked instantly and flawlessly. This will save you from having to install dedicated bridges for products, not only making installation a lot easier, but also freeing up connections on your router. It means that the Echo Plus becomes the directly line of control, rather than having to setup separate devices using a number of different apps and Skills through Alexa.
Now, those familiar with the Echo will know that it can already do a lot of those things. Take Philips Hue for example. Hue bulbs work using the ZigBee protocol (you'll even get one with the Echo Plus, while stocks last) and the Hue bulb is the sort of thing that Echo Plus will control directly. You just screw it into a light fitting and tell Echo Plus to discover it. Then you'll be able to turn it on or off by voice, create routines and so on.
That's very straight-forward, but this really works at a basic level. With no Philips Hue Bridge (which you'd normally need to setup a Hue system), there are a range of things you'll miss out on, so the Echo Plus doesn't totally replace the offering of each of the companies that it now works with. If you've already got Hue setup, you don't need the Echo Plus to make it work - you simply have to use the Hue skill, but Amazon and Philips are hoping that the simpler setup through ZigBee in the Echo Plus will encourage more people to adopt smart home products.
Philips, however, have been fast to point out that there's a bigger experience offered via Hue than you'll get on Echo Plus, with things like colour syncing with your TV, Hue scenes and firmware updates not something that the Echo will do.
The Amazon Echo Plus is similar to the original Amazon Echo in design and while it is an upgrade from the original model, it's really about making smart home connectivity much easier. On the surface, the day-to-day experience of the Echo Plus looks to be very close to the existing device so for many, there probably won't be the drive to upgrade your existing Echo, not when there's a smaller device that offers a fresher design in the regular all-new Echo.
We like the inclusion of a bundled Philips hue light bulb and that suggests that the Echo Plus is really a smart home starter kit for those not already engaged with systems. If you've got Hue already and an Echo already, we're not sure that the attraction of ZigBee will draw you in. But for those interested in what a smart home can offer, the Echo Plus opens a huge door, not only in terms of all the things that Alexa works with already, but in the ease of establishing a new smart home setup with new ZigBee devices.
While the regular Echo is easier to see as an £89 smart speaker, the Echo Plus is a more sophisticated and ambitious device. The question will be whether people understand what it's trying to achieve.