For a company that started out selling books, then excess capacity in its online servers, and now what is likely the most popular ambient computing device, Amazon has been an interesting company to follow during its lifecycle. A few weeks back the company released a new series of devices in the Echo family and I have been using the second gen Echo for several days.
The Echo or as most people likely know it, Alexa, was a unique win for Amazon. The original device caught nearly all of the tech giants off-guard with the success of the product and with the second generation of the platform now shipping, Amazon is looking to build upon its success.
The first generation Echo was a bit ugly but that’s ok. It was a first gen product in a market that did not really exist and its utilitarian design was simple enough to fit into most settings. And if you did love that look, there is the new Echo Plus as an option that also can act as your home hub if needed.
The new Echo is smaller, costs less ($99), looks better and also has the option to change the exterior of the device via swappable shells. If you are familiar with Alexa, there isn’t too much here that is new. But if you are not, this is likely the ideal entry point for the ecosystem.
Yes, there is the cheaper Echo Dot but the audio quality on that device requires that it be connected to external speakers. This makes it a less elegant solution than this iteration of Alexa but remains an option for a more accessible product into the ecosystem.
The exterior shells come in a gray fabric, charcoal, oak, sandstone, silver, and walnut. In short, there is likely a color option that will fit your house and you can swap them at any time. Personally, I like the gray fabric but know that the shells have no impact on the sound or performance of the speaker.
If you have a first generation Echo, this device sounds about the same as that product. Considering that the speaker is smaller than the first gen, that’s a good thing. But, for those looking purely for an audio upgrade, this likely isn’t the speaker for you.
One other notable change is that the volume ring is gone in favor of volume buttons. This is a bit disappointing as the volume ring on the first gen worked great and while the buttons are fine, they cheapen the feel of the device. On the flipside, this device is also $80 cheaper than the last gen speaker at launch.
One notable feature that this speaker does include is line-out for audio. While not everyone will use this, it’s excellent that it is available if you want to route the audio through a home stereo.
And the most important thing about the new device are the microphones. Fortunately, I’ve had no issue with the Echo hearing me or understanding my commands. Everything from controlling my smart home to playing music has worked flawlessly.
While the seven microphones may seem like a gimmick, they work incredibly well. From nearly anywhere in my house, I can talk at a reasonable level and the device picks up the input without any issues.
Amazon has a few updates in the pipeline including refined smart home controls that will let you create ‘routines’. As the name suggests, a routine can trigger a series of commands from one spoken input. Another update will make the device location-aware so that if you are in the bedroom and say shut off the lights, it will only turn off the lights in that room.
At the end of the day, the second generation Echo is a good device for those looking to buy their first smart speaker. If you have the original Echo, unless you want a new look, you may not need to upgrade as the sound quality is roughly the same.
Amazon took the right approach with this device; they made it look better and lowered the price without compromising on sound or microphone quality.