The original Amazon Echo is a voice-activated smart speaker with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity. It is now joined by several other devices in the Echo family, all of which have the Alexa voice assistant at their core.
Who is Alexa?
Alexa is the wake word for Amazon Echo. It is a digital voice assistant who will happily fulfil any of your spoken commands, from setting an alarm to searching the web to answer your burning questions and playing music.
Echo is constantly learning, too, adapting to your speech patterns, vocabulary and personal preferences. Amazon is constantly updating the way Alexa listens and responds and will eventually provide an interface with natural-sounding responses.
What is Amazon Echo?
Amazon Echo is a cylindrical home audio speaker that integrates a personal voice assistant named Alexa, very much like Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant. Echo is always-on and always connected to Wi-Fi, allowing it to sit on your home network and access cloud services, with Bluetooth letting you stream music from mobile devices.
Alexa can handle things like multiple timers and alarms, IFTTT support, integration with Google Calendar, and lets you listen to Audible audiobooks and re-order Prime-eligible items from Amazon. It can even order your favourite takeaway from Just Eat.
Some of those capabilities are built in, while for others the relevant 'Skills' have to first be enabled in the Alexa app. Skills are like apps created by developers, and can help you to control smart home products such as those rom Philips Hue, LIFX and WEMO.
The standard Echo is now in its second-generation, which replaces the older version at a significantly cheaper price of £89.99.
The new Echo has a new shorter and more customisable design, improved sound with Dolby processing, and second-gen far-field technology.
What is the Echo Show?
Echo Show is an Echo with a screen and a camera as well as a 'room-filling speaker'.
Amazon announced the second-generation Show in September 2018, which has a slightly higher price of £219.99 but also a larger 10in screen and new fabric casing.
With a screen integrated Echo can show as well as tell.
Echo Show allows you to:
- Watch video news broadcasts
- Watch YouTube videos
- View song lyrics from Amazon Music
- Monitor smart security cameras, baby monitors and video doorbells, including those from Ring and Netgear Arlo
- View weather forecasts
- Read shopping and to-do lists
- Video chat with others who have an Amazon Echo device or Alexa app
What is the Echo Plus?
The Echo Plus is a bigger and better version of the standard Amazon Echo. Its increased size allows it to incorporate enhanced speakers with 360-degree sound. There's also Dolby processing, which should make your music sound even better.
In October 2018 we saw the release of the second-generation Echo Plus, costing £139.99 in the UK and $149.99 in the US. You can buy the new model now.
There's not a huge difference between Mk 1 and Mk 2, but a fabric mesh now coats the body, and it's available in three colours: Charcoal, Heather Grey, and Sandstone (basically white). There's also an integrated temperature sensor, and Alexa should be clever enough to respond to changes by triggering your (smart) heating to go on or off.
Also expect improved audio, thanks to a new speaker powered by Dolby play 360° audio with three-inch woofer and "increased back volume".
On the top of the Echo Plus are similar controls and seven far-field microphones. Combined with beam-forming technology and noise cancellation, Amazon says the Plus can hear you from any direction-even while music is playing.
The original Echo Plus remains available to buy at £139.99.
What is the Echo Dot?
Amazon has in September 2018 updated its Dot for the third time, adding a more powerful speaker (up to 70% louder) and giving it the same attractive mesh fabric design (available in three colours) seen throughout the Echo family.
It still costs just £49.99, with the new model available to buy now. In the meantime the older 2nd-gen device is a bargain at £39.99 - click to buy.
First, and most obviously, the Echo Dot will use the Alexa Voice Service to provide users with everything from music playback to the latest news, and even control of smart home devices (if compatible). It's also smart enough to work out which Echo you're closer to (if you have more than one) and respond only from that speaker, despite being heard on multiple speakers.
However, the Echo Dot also features Bluetooth functionality allowing you to connect it to any Bluetooth speaker in your home, bringing Alexa functionality to, say, the high-end Kef Muo Bluetooth speaker. It also allows you to play music from services like Spotify, Prime Music and Pandora without the need for a computer or smartphone. The virtual assistant is activated by simply saying "Alexa" and thanks to its "far-field voice recognition" it can pick up commands from across the room while music is playing from the speaker.
It also features a built-in speaker, allowing the Echo Dot to be used in a number of situations from simulating an alarm clock in your bedroom to reading out a recipe in the kitchen, and can be hooked up to an existing speaker system via a line out cable.
What is the Echo Spot?
The Echo Spot is finally available to buy in the UK. It's a smart alarm clock, and a sort of cross between the Echo Show and Echo Dot.
It's more expensive than the Dot at £119.99/$129.99, but it has greater functionality. There's a 2.5in display that can show the time or allow you to make hands-free calls and video calls. Audio quality won't be amazing, but you can hook up an external speaker via Bluetooth or AUX.
What is the Echo Sub?
The Echo Sub is the newest product in Amazon's Echo family, announced in September 2018. It costs £119.99 / US$129.99 and is available to buy now.
The Sub is not in itself a smart speaker, but it plugs into other Echo devices to improve their audio output, with 100W of bass from a down-firing 6in woofer. You'll need to pair it with a second-gen Echo or Echo Plus.
What is the Echo Look?
A hands-free camera and style assistant, the Echo Look can ensure you are always looking at your best.
Echo Look can take full-length selfies and video at request, allowing you to show off your wardrobe to your heart's content, or for personal use quickly and easily scroll through your outfits and pick out one to wear. The depth-sensing camera has built in LED lighting and computer vision-based background blur.
A dedicated companion app lets you see yourself from every angle, while Style Check can use a combination of machine learning and advice from fashionistas to let you know which outfit looks best.
What is Amazon Tap?
Currently US only, Amazon Tap is a $129.99 portable Bluetooth and Wi-Fi enabled speaker, providing users with Alexa functionality while on-the-go, and everything that comes with it including music streaming support, smart home support and even the ability to order a pizza from Dominos (in the US, anyway!).
However, while the Tap provides Alexa functionality, the real focus is on the audio quality - it features dual stereo speakers with Dolby processing, allowing for high-quality vocals and deep bass. It was also designed to provide users with 360 degree sound projection, providing users with omni-directional audio.
It's small and lightweight making it the ideal travel companion, and the 9-hour battery life should serve most users well.
Can Amazon Echo hear me while music is playing?
Yes. Amazon Echo has seven mics hidden inside and around the edges of the speaker, which use beam-forming tech and enhanced noise cancellation, so it'll hear you no matter how loud it is and where you're sitting.
That's the theory, anyway. In practice, Alexa can't always hear you when the music is loud and you might have to turn it down a bit manually before she'll respond.
What is Amazon Echo's audio quality like?
The quality is fairly decent from the original Echo, although we have not yet tried the newer versions which should offer improved audio. It's excellent for things like news briefings, audio books and anything else spoken. It's not the greatest for music, but it's perfectly acceptable.
Inside the Echo is a 2.5in woofer that delivers deep bass, and a 2in tweeter for hitting the high notes. Amazon also says a reflex port is able to enhance the woofer's output without distortion.
The Echo Dot has a much smaller speaker that's not great for music at all, but pretty good for vocals. The idea with the Dot is that you connect it to your existing hi-fi or a Bluetooth speaker.
How do I control Amazon Echo?
Besides using the Alexa wake command, an Amazon Echo companion app is available for Fire OS and Android, and can be accessed via the browser on iOS devices, PCs and laptops. This lets you manage alarms, music, shopping lists and more.
There is also a volume ring at the top of the big Echo, (buttons on the Echo Dot), plus Action and mic mute buttons on top.