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Smart Home

Amazon Echo Plus packs in better sound and a smart home hub

It may look like the old Echo, but the Echo Plus will help connect your smart home to the cloud.

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Amazon announced the new Amazon Echo Plus on Sept. 27.

Ry Crist/CNET

Amazon announced a slew of new products on Wednesday, and given that a couple of them are colorful and new, you might be tempted to overlook the Echo Plus. After all, it looks just like the original Amazon Echo smart speaker, albeit with a new silver color option. However, if you're a fan of using your Echo to control your smart home, the Echo Plus might be the most important device of the bunch.

In addition to promising better sound quality than the original Echo, the Echo Plus comes with a smart home hub built in. Essentially, Amazon is combining the functionality of its original always-listening Echo -- complete with Amazon's popular digital assistant Alexa -- with functionality similar to a SmartThings hub or Wink Hub.

Cutting out the middleman

The Amazon Echo Plus has a built-in ZigBee antenna, allowing it to act as a smart home hub. ZigBee is a low-power frequency popular with small smart home sensors and things like smart lights and smart locks. The Echo Plus will be able to relay the ZigBee signals from devices like those straight to the cloud. That will allow it to automatically sense and set up devices from smart home companies such as Philips Hue, GE and Kwikset.

Previously, you had to buy a separate hub to get devices such as Philips bulbs connected to the internet. The Plus is letting you cut out the middleman. With hub-based systems such as SmartThings or Wink, you have to plug a boxy device that only serves as a hub into your router. The Echo Plus finally makes better use of that hardware, as you'll still be able to give it voice commands and play music, set reminders, control your smart home or access any of Alexa's ever-growing list of skills.

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Availability

You can preorder the Echo Plus starting today for $150 or £140 (the US price converts to roughly AU$190). Your order will include a Philips Hue White bulb. The Echo Plus will start shipping later in September.

New tricks

Once the Plus ships, you'll be able to try out Amazon's new smart home skills -- such as routines, which allow you to trigger multiple smart home devices with a single command. You'll also now be able to group Amazon's devices in with your smart home gear. So you don't have to say, "Turn off the kitchen lights" --  if you're in the kitchen, and your countertop Echo is part of your kitchen group, just say, "Turn off the lights" and it'll know from context which ones you mean. 

That said, you won't need an Echo Plus to take advantage of the upgraded smart home software. Its only truly unique feature is the built-in ZigBee radio. Whether that's enough to get people to pick it over the standard Amazon Echo, which now costs $99 and offers an improved design, remains to be seen. The fact that it looks just like the original might work against it, though that might also sway people who like the volume ring -- the the Echo Plus has it, the new Echo does not.

Aside from the Echo Plus and the new Echo, Amazon also debuted a $35 gadget called the Echo Connect that focuses on the company's new calling feature, an Echo Spot that's like a Dot with a touchscreen, and a new Fire TV. Head here to check out all of Amazon's news from the day.

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Amazon: All things Amazon, from Echo to Prime deals.