Alexa's core feature is the ability to play whatever music you ask her to play, and that's no different with the new Echo. Just say, "Alexa, play jazz," or "Alexa, play Walk Like an Egyptian," or even, "Alexa, play thunderstorm sounds" and she'll happily oblige.
Along with Amazon Music Unlimited, you can stream from Spotify and Pandora, as well as streaming radio and podcasts from TuneIn and iHeartRadio. And, in a bit of a surprise move from late last year, you can now stream tunes from Apple Music on the Amazon Echo, too.
While we're talking about music playback, let me get in a quick word on audio quality. The second-gen Echo has a slightly bigger tweeter than the first one, but that only represents a marginal improvement over the original. It sounds decent and it's easily strong enough to fill a room, but if you already have an Echo, there's no need to upgrade.
One other note about music playback -- you can now customize the equalizer settings on your Echo speaker, with controls for bass, mid-range and treble ranging from -6 to 6 dB. Just ask Alexa to turn up the treble, set the mid-range to 3, decrease the bass, or any other similar command. You can also access the EQ settings by going to the Device Settings section of the Alexa app, selecting the speaker you want to adjust, then selecting "Audio Controls."
Got more than one Echo device? You can group them together in the Alexa app, then play music on all of them at once. You can even split the left and right audio channels between two Echo speakers to create a stereo pair. Add in the thumping bass of the new Echo Sub, and you're looking at a legitimate, voice-activated 2.1 stereo audio setup.
OK, here's cool Echo trick No. 4: Interchangeable bases called shells. They're basically like phone cases for the Echo, and swapping them out is just as simple. Just push up through the bottom to separate the shell from the interior speaker, then slide that interior into whatever other shell you like.
Amazon offers five different shell options. By default, you get a fabric shell in light gray or dark gray. For $20 more, you can get a silver shell or a woodgrain shell in walnut or oak. I assumed that we'd see at least a couple of other options emerge by now, perhaps from third parties, like we've seen happen with phone cases. That hasn't happened yet, though.
Here's another design tweak that gives the new Echo an extra trick: An aux-out jack. Grab yourself a 3.5mm cable, and you'll be able to connect the Echo with your existing audio setup (you can also connect the Echo to external speakers over Bluetooth).
One more thing: The ability to connect with external speakers is now a standard feature across the entire line of Echo speakers (before this year, it was exclusive to the pint-size Echo Dot). That means that you'll be able to connect Alexa to your existing audio setup no matter which Echo you buy, including the Echo Plus seen here.
Speaking of the Echo Plus, it offers everything the Echo offers, plus the addition of a Zigbee radio that lets it connect directly with Zigbee gadgets like smart lights and smart locks. The standard Echo can connect with those, too, but you need to plug an extra hub into your router to translate the Zigbee signal. With the Echo Plus, your Echo is the hub. That makes it an interesting pick for anyone interested in building out their smart home setup.
Here's the second-gen version of the Echo Plus bathed in the green glow of a color-changing Philips Hue Zigbee bulb that it can control all on its own. The second-gen model offers a slight uptick in sound quality, plus the addition of a built-in temperature sensor that you can use to automatically trigger smart home gadgets like connected thermostats and space heaters when the room gets too hot or too cold.
No matter which Echo you're using, you can control certain smart home gadgets directly from the Alexa app, no voice command needed. Just go to the "Smart Home" section of the app, then select "Devices" to see a full list of your gadgets.
The Alexa app also offers bare-bones controls for supported smart thermostats, like the Nest thermostat seen here. You can't access any advanced features, but you can nudge the temperature up and down.
Even better: You can now add each of your Echo devices into a group of lights and make that the default set of lights your Echo will turn on when you tell it, "Alexa, turn on the lights." That's an intuitive way to make each Echo more of a room-specific smart home controller.
Alexa has also learned how to change the color of color-changing smart lights. Just tell her to "make my lamp blue," or "make the living room fuschia," and she'll make it happen. You can also create more complex scenes in apps like Philips Hue and Lifx, then trigger them by name with a single command.
For instance, if you make a multicolored scene with several smart lights, save it as "Rainbow" in either the Hue or Lifx app, and then tell Alexa to discover new devices, she'll "discover" that scene. From there, you'll be able to trigger it just by saying, "Alexa, turn on rainbow."
"Routines" are another useful Alexa trick -- they let you trigger multiple things all at once with a single, customizable command. For instance, you could say, "Alexa, I'm home," to turn your smart lights on, trigger a scene that raises all of your smart shades, and launch your Fire TV. Between the way you word your command and the specific things it triggers, there's a lot of room for creativity here.
Here are the things that your routines can currently trigger. Along with smart home control, you can also get Alexa to read the weather, the traffic or the headlines from you Flash Briefing. Music playback and custom Alexa responses are now supported, too, along with options to tweak device volume and settings or make Alexa wait in between actions.
Routines can also trigger music playback. Creating new ways to get Alexa to play your favorite music is lots of fun. For instance, you could make a routine that plays this whenever you say "Alexa, rick-roll me."
To trigger a custom Alexa response, you'll just type out whatever you'd like her to say. One weird quirk: Your typed text can include commas, question marks and exclamation points to help shape the way Alexa sounds -- but you can't include apostrophes.
For the longest time, thermostats weren't supported in Alexa routines. Now, they're finally good to go. This one automatically turns my thermostat down at night in case I forget to turn the heat down before bed.
If you've got a Fire TV streamer plugged into your TV, you can use your voice to launch specific streaming apps and shows, or even search for a specific genre. "Alexa, show me kung fu flicks" is a command I've used on more than one occasion.
You can even connect Alexa with select smart TVs, then tell her to turn them on and off, change the channel or input, adjust the volume or even pause, fast forward and rewind. I use Alexa controls to turn my Vizio on and off all of the time (probably because I have a really bad habit of leaving the remote in strange places).
So Alexa can replace your light switches, your radio, your remote control, and more -- but did you know she can sort of replace your phone, too? Sync up with your contacts in the Alexa app, and you'll be able to use your Echo to call them or leave them a message. When there's an incoming call or message for you, your Echo will glow green. You can also ask her to call mobile numbers and landlines at no charge.
Upgrade to the touchscreen and camera-equipped Echo Show or the smaller, cuter Echo Spot, and you'll be able to make and receive video calls, too. Don't own either one? No problem -- you can still make video calls to other Echo devices using the Alexa app.
Alexa can also distinguish between different voices. Just go to the "Your Voice" section of the Alexa app to get started. It's a really helpful feature if you're sharing the Echo with multiple roommates or family members, or if you want an added layer of security for things like voice purchases and smart lock controls. If Alexa doesn't recognize your voice, she won't buy or unlock anything.
Your Echo devices can now monitor your home whenever you're away by using those built-in microphones to listen for trouble. After turning the feature on in the Alexa app, just say, "Alexa, I'm leaving" as you're walking out the door.