Three years after defining a category with the first Echo smart speaker, Amazon has regularly refreshed and expanded the line, which now includes seven models, each with its own distinctive character. Add to that the growing handful of add-ons and accessories, including a game show buzzer and selfie-taking virtual fashion consultant, and you have the sometimes strange and often quite useful universe of Echo devices.
After being left more or less alone in the smart speaker market for a few years, Amazon has lately begun to feel some competitive heat. Google launched the $130 Home in May, delivering a more personalized and integrated entertainment experience, and earlier this month followed up with the $50 -- a direct attack on Amazon's $50 . And this December, Apple will crash through the front door with the HomePod, its characteristically high-end (i.e. $350) take on virtual assistance.
Still, Amazon continues to tinker with its portfolio, regularly rolling out new concepts and new features -- usually first the in US, and then other regions. (Note that a number of these devices are not yet available in the UK or Australia.) Last year, the company unveiled Echo Spatial Perception (ESP), which makes it so that only the Echo device that's closest to you responds to your command. In May, Amazon added free calling to all Echo speakers, though you could only call other Echo owners. This month, Amazon eliminated that limitation; you can now use any Echo speaker to call landlines and mobile phones in the US, Canada, and Mexico for free. (Note: you can't call 911 unless you have an Echo Connect.)
Given that Amazon is reported to have more than 5,000 people working on Alexa, we're sure to see continued experimentation and innovation across the Echo line. In the meantime, check out our take on every Echo speaker that Amazon has announced.
By the way, attentive readers in Australia will note the absence of prices for your locality. But there is good news to report on that front: we have it on good authority (because the company told us) that Amazon is planning to open shop in Australia sometime in the coming (unspecified) months. We'll keep you up to date on developments in that story, and will up date this article as things progress.
Amazon Echo Dot (2nd generation), $50, £50
Release date: October 20, 2016
According to Amazon's own top-seller list, the Echo Dot is the biggest hit in its smart speaker lineup. And it's obvious why: at $50, it's by far the least expensive way to access all of Alexa's skills and control a wide array of smart home gadgets. Though the little black puck surely isn't the best-sounding Amazon speaker, it is -- for now -- the only one that can be connected to an existing audio setup via Bluetooth or a line-in cable (sold separately). This means you can turn virtually any speaker system into an Echo. That noted, a number of forthcoming Echo models, as detailed below, also feature auxiliary cable and Bluetooth connectivity, which will undercut the Dot's primacy in this area.
Amazon has discontinued the first-generation Echo Dot, which debuted in March 2016, and though there are still some available from resellers, it's rarely at enough of a discount to make it worthwhile -- especially given the Dot 2.0's superior listening skills.
Amazon Echo (2nd generation), $100, £90
Release date: October 31, 2017
Originally released in 2014, Amazon's very first smart speaker gets a major refresh later this month. At $100 (£90 in the UK), the new, slightly shorter, second-generation model is way less expensive than the $180 original; a three-pack of the new version comes with a $50 discount.
The updated Echo features improved audio quality with a dedicated woofer and tweeter and Dolby sound, and comes in a variety of fabrics and finishes (such as cloth, wood, etc.) that are interchangeable. Following the Dot's lead, the new Echo comes equipped with an auxiliary jack and Bluetooth connectivity for hooking up to an existing speaker system. The first-generation Echo has been discontinued, though Amazon still sells a certified refurbished version for $90.
Amazon Echo Spot, $130
Release date: December 19, 2017
The new Echo Spot is Amazon's mashup of the deluxe Show and the entry-level Dot. It combines the Dot's hockey puck aesthetic and low-power output to the Show's video capabilities, while meeting at about the halfway point on price. Its front-facing camera can be used to make video calls, which can be initiated through the touchscreen or Alexa, and capture intermittent photos or a live feed of video. (The Spot can also place and receive non-video calls.) And like the Dot, you can connect the Spot to an existing speaker setup via Bluetooth or auxiliary cord. As for the display, its round shape should be OK for video calls and displaying some types of information but may be awkward for others; Amazon has confirmed that it will support Prime Video streaming.
Like the other new speakers in the lineup, the Echo Spot features updated listening technology that helps Alexa hear you from across the room, even while music is playing, and respond from the speaker you're closest to -- if you have more than one. And the new multiroom music feature streams music throughout your home, synchronized across all of your Echo devices.
Amazon Echo Plus, $150, £140
Release date: October 31, 2017
The Echo Plus looks and acts like the original Echo -- but it's had a major smart-home brain implant. In addition to the Alexa functionality you get in every Echo device, the Echo Plus features an integrated smart-home hub that serves as the conduit between the cloud and all of your smart locks and lights; it comes bundled with a free Philips smart lightbulb.
Before, you needed a separate hub from SmartThings, Wink, or another third party -- which could run $50 to $100 -- to control the smart-home devices made by companies like Philips Hue, GE and Kwikset. Now, the Echo Plus, with its built-in ZigBee antenna, will sense, set up and connect these devices automatically.
Amazon Echo Look, $200
Release date: April 26, 2017 (available by invitation only)
Amazon bills the Look as a "hands-free camera and style assistant." Though the technology isn't particularly novel -- Canary, Nest and others have sold smart home cameras for years -- the idiosyncratic emphasis on fashion is classic Amazon. The concept: tell Alexa to take photos of you in various outfits and get feedback and recommendations from Amazon's human and bot "Style Check" experts. And, amazingly, it actually works.
What you gain in fashion know-how, however, you give up in audio quality (it's not great), message functionality (it won't send or receive them), and self-awareness (it doesn't support Amazon's Echo Spatial Perception). For now, the Echo Look is available to customers in the US on a limited basis; you have to request to be added to the rolling invite system.
Amazon Echo Show, $230, £200
Release date: June 28, 2017
Though it's positioned as the Cadillac of Amazon's lineup, the Echo Show doesn't totally fulfill its potential or justify its premium price. Sure, it covers most of the basic Echo bases: support for Alexa, solid sound quality, and Bluetooth connectivity. Plus you get a 2-megapixel camera and touchscreen video display. And there's the Show's "Drop In" feature that lets authorized contacts -- parents, grandparents, caretakers -- peep in on your camera feed whenever they choose. Creepy or useful: you decide.
Still, the Show's blocky design is boring, and aside from the hands-free, voice-activated video calls you can have with other Alexa users, the touchscreen simply doesn't add all that much to the Alexa experience.
Echo Connect, $35 and Echo Buttons, $20 per pair
Release: December 13, 2017
Later this year, Amazon brings out the Echo Connect, which ties your home phone line into to your Echo speakers and lets you make calls with Alexa's help. To be clear, you need both a home phone line -- landline or VoIP, but not a cell phone -- and another Echo speaker to make it work; the Connect itself is not a speaker. Alexa will vacuum up all of your mobile phone's contacts, however, if you let her.
Amazon has also announced Echo Buttons. These multicolored buzzers -- think "Jeopardy!" -- can be used to play games, connecting to your Echo speakers via Bluetooth.
Amazon Tap, $80
Release date: June 2016
The Tap was supposed to be a battery-powered, mobile version of the Echo Dot. But somehow Amazon launched it without a voice-activated "hands-free" mode; instead, you had to tap a button and then give it a command, lethally mitigating its very reason to exist. A software update released in February 2017 breathed new life into the Tap, and it now responds to the wake word "Alexa" just like the Echo, Dot and the rest. And what it lacks in audio quality it makes up for in versatility, setting reminders, searching the Internet, controlling your other smart devices and so on.
Amazon Dash Wand, $20
Release date: June 2017
Amazon's battery-powered, voice-enabled grocery scanner costs $20 and comes with a $20 shopping credit; if you shop on Amazon, it pays for itself. Point it at a barcode, press the button, add that item to your Amazon shopping cart (or ask Alexa to add it). Easy, reliable and, basically, free. Though it doesn't provide the full scope of Alexa's capabilities, it will also give you the forecast, perform common kitchen measurement conversions, and control some smart home devices.