In a relatively short space of time, the Amazon Echo has redefined the speaker category, adding smarts to what was a relatively straightforward product range. Its staggered arrival – it was in the US a year or so before its UK launch – did nothing to diminish its importance.
Adding voice (in this case, Alexa) made the speaker the center of the smart home. Adding Skills made it an endlessly-customizable product. It also meant that no Echo was the same. The one in your parents’ home may be used as an egg timer, a joke machine or the radio. The one in your own home may control the heating, the lights and will order pizza – if you ask it nicely.
This is the key to the Amazon Echo: it’s in a lot of homes – a lot. Amazon got there first and is inexpensive, meaning the likes of Google, Apple and many other smart speaker manufacturers are lagging behind.
As quickly as the smart speaker category was created, though, it also became saturated. Yes, Amazon did get there first, but Google and Apple are trying to stamp their authority. Even Amazon has begun to cannibalize its own market, freeing up Alexa so that it can be used by anyone with access to its API.
More Alexa devices in the wild is good news for Amazon, but it has meant that it's made its own speaker a little less desirable.
Design and features
Amazon knows this, and that’s why it's created the all-new Amazon Echo (2017). With the new speaker, it's hoping to once again own the category it defined, supercharging the speaker part, refining the Alexa experience and enhancing the Skills. It's also given it a home-furnished makeover – but is it enough?
TechRadar was among the first in the world to get its hands on the new Amazon Echo, at an exclusive event in Seattle, the home of Amazon.
First impressions are promising. As per the rumors, the speaker has been given an acoustic upgrade.
The device now comes with a dedicated tweeter and a 2.5-inch downward-firing woofer, and these do offer some sound improvements. In our short time with the device, it certainly sounded clearer and more immersive than the original Amazon Echo.
If you really want a sound boost, though, you may want to look at the Amazon Echo Plus, which comes with Dolby processing.
The new audio enhancements are an obvious retort to what Apple has done with the HomePod – and although Amazon hasn't upgraded the sound to that level, it's impressive that it has improved the sound while reducing the size of the speaker.
When we picked it up, however, it still felt on the heavy side despite its size, which is reassuring given the amount of tech that's meant to be packed inside.
The more homely look of the Apple HomePod and Google Home has also meant Amazon has had a rethink on the Amazon Echo’s plasticky design. Out goes the plastic sheen, and in is a design that's more about the speaker being part of your home furnishings rather than at odds with them.
And, don't worry if your furnishings are eclectic, as the new Amazon Echo (2017) comes in six designs. You can choose from a variety of shell colors and finishes, including (and these are Amazon's descriptions) Charcoal Fabric, Sandstone Fabric, Heather Grey Fabric, Oak Finish, Walnut Finish and Silver Finish.
Another feature that Amazon has improved on is its far-field microphone technology. The Echo was always a little hit-and-miss – especially in a noisy room – when it first arrived, and the new Amazon Echo does feel like an improvement.
We tried the new Amazon Echo out in a quiet living room environment, and it woke very quickly when summoned. We also tried it outside in a noisy area, and there seemed to be no delay in it coming to life there, either.
Amazon has done well to add even more improvements to Alexa, too. It's improved the way you ask the device to do things. It makes for a much more natural interaction. For instance, if you want the light on in your hall, you no longer have to say 'hall' if you are already in that room.
You can also group a number of interactions together, called Routines. So, in the morning, you can have the lights come on, your morning briefing read out to you and maybe trigger a smart switch to turn on your coffee maker.
We were only shown a limited demo of this, but the first impressions are promising – these improvements will be coming to older Echo models, too. You can group as many things together as you want, all of which will be available in the Routines section of the Alexa app.
This feels very much like an IFTTT approach to the way Amazon is connecting the smart home together.
The new Amazon Echo (2017) is a small and savvy smart device. The new look improves on the plastic-fantastic feel of the original, and the improvements in sound are definitely welcome.
Amazon has done well to redesign its speaker and also keep costs down – the new price, just $99 or £89 (about AU$126) – makes it one of the most affordable full-size smart speakers around.
The new Alexa smarts really make the whole process of speaking to your speaker a lot more natural; just remember that these features will be rolling out to older Echo models, too.