The Amazon Echo was in need of a change. Given it was released some years ago, its rivals have caught up with what Amazon is doing in the smart speaker market and are offering viable alternatives. 

To make sure that it keeps its smart speaker share healthy, Amazon has opted to split its full-fat Echo range into two: the all-new Amazon Echo and the Amazon Echo Plus. 

Design and features

The Amazon Echo Plus is a bit of an oddity. You would think its name would imply a completely redesigned and refined speaker but this isn't the case – it's the new Amazon Echo that's had the visual makeover, while the Echo Plus looks like an Echo of old.

What Amazon has done instead has kept the original chassis of the Echo – apparently it is slightly different but nothing a consumer would notice – gutted it and supercharged its insides. 

It might not look any different but there are quite a few changes under the hood.

The biggest of these is the addition of a ZigBee-friendly hub inside the device. By doing this, Amazon has made it even easier to make the Amazon Echo Plus the center of your smart home. 

Integrating ZigBee means that you no longer need a separate hub for your connected gadgets to connect to, as the Echo Plus does all the hard work for you. 

ZigBee is currently used by a multitude of smart devices, including the likes of Philips, Honeywell, SmartThings, Belkin and Ikea. Having it integrated into the Amazon Echo Plus means that the Echo will recognise any smart devices in your home and work with them – you just have to ask it nicely.

The way it works is really simple. In our demo session the Echo Plus was asked to "discover my devices". It took a minute or so but it found all the available devices to connect to. This cuts out the middle man as it means you no longer have to use Amazon Skills or apps to connect things to your Echo. 

Even though a smart home is getting simpler to setup, this initial process is something of a faff so it's great to see Amazon trying to simplify the process even more. 

We do worry that having only one Echo doing this may confuse consumers a little, though, so it will be interesting to see how Amazon markets both the Echo Plus and its redesigned Echo. 

Performance

Amazon hasn't just refined the 'smart' part of its smart speaker but the 'speaker' part, too. While the new Amazon Echo has improved audio, the Echo Plus is the one for real audio enthusiasts. 

Amazon has added Dolby processing to its 360-degree omni-directional audio setup and in the demos we had the sound was certainly fuller. 

The Amazon Echo has always suffered a little with its low end; bass just doesn't sound booming enough. There is a definite improvement in this area thanks to Dolby's tinkering, and we can't wait to try it out in a proper test situation as the time we did have with it was limited and in a noisy demo room.

Other changes are things that will actually be coming to older Echo devices as they are all Alexa focused. 

Alexa has been given a number of new improvements. There's a new feature called Routines where you can group a number of Alexa actions together so you can have your kettle and lights come on at the same time in the morning if you wish. It's also simplified how you ask for things. So if you are in the dining room and want to turn off the light, you no longer have to state what room you are in. These are quite significant changes and ones that make the process of speaking to the speaker that little bit more natural.

It's also added the ability to call anyone through the Echo. This is something the US has had for a little while but is new for the UK. The idea is users can make calls and send messages to friends and family using Amazon Echo, Echo Dot or the Alexa app. 

Early verdict

Amazon has created a powerful smart home centerpiece with the Amazon Echo Plus. It may look like the standard Echo of old but its been given a great sound boost and the integration of a ZigBee hub should make things a lot simpler for those yet to make their home smart. 

While there isn't much wrong with the old Echo design, it does feel like Amazon has missed a trick, though. If it had made a bigger version of the new Amazon Echo design then we would have no qualms, but putting all this new tech in a design that's a few years old does jar a bit.