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The original Amazon Echo: Is it time to upgrade?

The smart speaker category has exploded since the Amazon Echo first made its debut. Is it time for early adopters to consider a change?

If you were one of the lucky ones like me, then you managed to snag the original Amazon Echo for $99 shortly after Amazon first introduced it at the end of 2014. Back then, you had to request an invitation to make the purchase -- the team at Amazon wasn't sure of how much demand there'd be for their always-listening smart speaker, or for Alexa, the artificially intelligent assistant housed inside.

Seems quaint in hindsight, doesn't it? These days, Alexa is Amazon's rockstar, the golden goose that keeps delivering wins for the online mega-retailer. In nearly four years since Alexa's debut, the company has sold millions upon millions of Alexa devices -- 2.5 million in Q1 of this year alone, per Canalys. As for the Echo lineup, it's now a full-fledged family of devices that spans from the ultra-affordable Echo Dot to the refreshed, second-gen Echo, to the touchscreen- and camera-equipped Echo Show. The boom in third-party Alexa devices has brought even more gadgets into play -- everything from lamps and refrigerators to thermostats and yoga robots.

But check the headline on that Canalys report from May -- Google actually outpaced that 2.5 million figure by shipping out 3.2 million Google Assistant devices over the same couple of months, overtaking Amazon for the first time ever with its own fleet of talking smart speakers -- the Google Home, the Home Mini and the Home Max. More Google Assistant devices -- including third-party touchscreen devices designed to give the Echo Show some real competition -- are undoubtedly on the way.

Oh, and don't forget about a certain plucky little startup based in Cupertino that recently started selling Siri-powered smart speakers of its own.

In other words, the smart speaker landscape is light years past where it was when a lot of us first bought in. That begs a question for early-adopting smart speaker fans like me: At what point is it time to upgrade from that first-gen Echo to something else?

smart-apt-promo-photos-3

The original, first-gen Amazon Echo has only grown more and more capable in the years since its release.

Chris Monroe/CNET

'Always getting smarter'

Those three words have been key to Amazon's Alexa pitch. They aren't wrong -- since its inception, the Echo has only gotten better and better, thanks to the steady drumbeat of new Alexa features, partners and third-party skills.

But, with the exception of camera- and touchscreen-specific features reserved for the Echo Show and the Echo Spot, none of those new capabilities have been lost on the original Echo. It can make calls. It can listen for follow-up questions. It can trigger smart home routines. It can act as an intercom.

About the only thing the new Echoes have that the old Echoes don't is a line-out jack that lets you connect your speaker to an external audio setup. That, and the removable shells that let you change the Echo's look.

In other words, if you've been stubbornly sticking it out with a first-gen Echo, you haven't missed out on very much. In Apple parlance, the second-gen Echo was sort of like an "S"-edition iPhone -- refined, yes, but not enough so to render what became before it obsolete.

So what about the other Echo devices? There are always the touchscreen features of the Echo Show (and, with prices currently marked down by as much as we've ever seen, it's as tempting as ever), as well as the bedside, alarm-clock-appeal of the Echo Spot. Smart-home enthusiasts might appreciate the ZigBee radio in the Echo Plus that lets them connect directly with things like smart bulbs, no extra hub necessary. The voice-activated Fire TV Cube has plenty of couch-potato appeal, and the fashion-focused among us might enjoy the AI-powered style advice dished out by the Echo Look selfie camera.

Those are all niche cases, though. At the end of the day, the original Echo still captures Alexa's core appeal -- daily tasks like setting kitchen timers, asking for weather updates, managing your calendar and to-do lists, catching up on news headlines, and turning smart home gadgets on and off. If basics like those are what you use Alexa for the most, then Amazon hasn't really given you much of a reason to upgrade.

The same goes for audio quality. Amazon's made some tweaks to the speakers inside of its Echo devices in the years since the first Echo came out, but to my ear, none of them offer a substantial uptick in audio quality over the original.

Sono One

At $200, the Sonos One offers better sound quality than any Echo device, and it includes both Alexa and Google Assistant voice controls.

Sarah Tew/CNET

So, what about the competition?

There's a lot of it now! Aside from the aforementioned rise of the Google Home lineup and the arrival of the Apple HomePod ($499 at Apple), we've seen a flurry of activity from third parties like Sonos, which has already launched an Alexa smart speaker and Alexa sound bar of its own.

That first option, the $200 Sonos One smart speaker, is a well-reviewed device that offers better sound quality than any Echo gadget we've tested to date. At some point down the road, it'll add in the ability to converse not just with Alexa, but with the Google Assistant, as well. That's a refreshingly neutral approach, and a legitimate temptation for anyone concerned about audio quality, especially when you compare it to the Google Home Max and Apple HomePod speakers, which each offer high fidelity sound, but at a much higher cost.

For even more of a boost in sound quality, you could consider the Google Home Max or Apple HomePod smart speakers -- but both would require ditching Alexa.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Of course, if you're starting to consider jumping in with the Home Max or HomePod, then that means you're also considering parting ways with Alexa. I think that's less of a big deal than you might think -- particularly the jump to Google, which has done an excellent job at matching Amazon nearly feature for feature

Plus, at this point, just about every major smart home gadget that works with Alexa will work with the Google Assistant, too. You'll need to relink all of your accounts, but once you do, you'll be able to do just about everything you could do before.

That's a potential vulnerability for Alexa, especially as Google continues picking up steam. Largely to its credit, Amazon hasn't done much to make the original Echo feel obsolete -- but that approach has also left the door open for competitors to try to tempt its owners into making a switch, because for some of us, none of the new Echo products feel like significant upgrades.

For now, Amazon's strategy seems to be to keep the steady rollout of new Alexa features coming in order to keep its user base from getting bored and jumping ship. That's worked well thus far -- but the competition is continuing to get stronger and more compelling. At some point in the near future, Amazon would be wise to find a new Alexa flagship that actually tempts the first-gen holdouts like myself -- otherwise, we'll start looking to upgrade elsewhere.

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