If you've read some of my other commentaries, you know smart speakers aren't really for me. My dislike of them is mainly focused on the smart display subcategory -- I will never understand their draw. But it also extends to smart speakers in general.
I don't own one. I don't want one. I know, I might be alone here, but I'm OK with that. Then Amazon's David Limp announced the pint-sized plug-in Echo Flex smart speaker on stage Wednesday at the tech giant's annual hardware event.
The Echo Flex is cute, it's only $25, and it has a tiny built-in Alexa speaker. And that tiny Alexa speaker does all of the same stuff as the high-end $200 Echo Studio, also announced at the event, minus the promise of superior sound quality. The Echo Flex is "not optimized for playing music," Limp said at the event. (But, personally, if I wanted truly kickass sound quality, I wouldn't buy a smart speaker anyway. I'd get something like the SVS Prime Tower.)
I haven't preordered the Echo Flex yet, but I'm considering it. I like that it delivers tangible value beyond providing your local weather report, turning on a light or guiding you through a cooking tutorial via a simple USB port. Yes, third parties like Ecobee make thermostats and light switches with built-in Alexa voice controls, but this is the first smart speaker from a smart speaker company that attempts to do more.
The Echo Flex doesn't have traditional prongs like a smart plug, but it is a smart plug in its own way.
On the bottom of the speaker, there's a USB port for charging a phone or other USB-powered devices. And, bonus: If you spend an extra $15, you can attach optional, interchangeable accessories to the USB port. Right now, those options are limited to a motion sensor and a nightlight, but I wouldn't be surprised if Amazon comes out with a few more at some point.
According to Amazon, the $15 motion sensor accessory has a 20-foot detection range. It's also supposed to work with automations like, "If motion is detected, then turn on my kitchen light," which you can create and customize in the the Alexa app.
The nightlight accessory, also $15, is Alexa-enabled, dimmable and color-changing. An integrated light sensor will turn the nightlight on and off automatically -- or use the Alexa app to set an on-off schedule.
Alexa is supposed to be able to discover the motion sensor and nightlight accessories automatically, as soon as you plug either one into the USB port on the Echo Flex.
Every smart speaker we've tested has left me feeling pretty underwhelmed. Either it has great sound but limited features like the Apple HomePod, a sleek screen but no privacy shutter like the Nest Home Hub Max -- the list goes on.
The Amazon Echo Flex feels different.
For $25, you can charge your phone and ask Alexa to set a timer while you're cooking dinner. And if your kitchen has relatively limited counter space like mine (but plenty of outlets), this is a fantastic solution. Add on the optional accessories for an extra $15 each and you can get alerts when the Echo Flex detects motion -- or use the nightlight so the area near the pantry is lit just enough to find your favorite midnight snack.
I'm rethinking the lack of smart speakers in my house now -- and the cute, affordable Echo Flex is to blame.