Alexa's core feature is the ability to play whatever music to 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.
While we're talking about music playback, let me get in a quick word on audio quality. The new, second-gen Echo has a slightly bigger tweeter than before, 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.
Okay, here's cool Echo trick number two: 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.
At launch, Amazon offers five 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. Don't be surprised if more options arrive in the near future to tempt you into mixing things up.
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 over Bluetooth).
One more thing: the ability to connect with external speakers is now a standard feature across the entire line of Echo gadgets (before this year, it was exclusive to the pint-sized Echo Dot). That means 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.
Even better: you can now add each of your Echo devices into a group of lights and make that the default set of lights it 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.
Caption byRy Crist
/ Photo by Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET
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.
"Routines" are another new Alexa feature -- 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.
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.
Upgrade to the touchscreen and camera-equipped Echo Show, and you'll be able to make and receive video calls, too. No Echo Show? No problem -- you can still make video calls to other Echo devices using the Alexa app.