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Amazon Echo (2017) review: New look, new price, same Alexa smarts

Those offshoot products reflect Amazon's eagerness to make Alexa relevant to as many people as possible. With the Echo, Amazon just wants to be sure it doesn't "fix" what isn't broken. The result is a cosmetic and conservative step forward.

Aside from the aux-out jack, the new Echo doesn't boast any new hardware capabilities, nor did it launch with flashy new software or new, marquee skills. Even now, more than half a year since its arrival, the new Echo hasn't acquired any extra features that don't apply to the old one. Ask the new Echo and the old Echo the same question and they'll each give you the same answer.

To borrow some Apple parlance, think of the new Echo as an "S" model: a refinement, for sure, but not a redefining one.

Instead, Amazon points to the past year's worth of big additions, including calling and messaging, smart entertainment controlsvoice recognition, the ability to ask Alexa to remember things for you, music alarms and the fact that you can synchronize music playback across multiple Echo devices. The point isn't to get existing Echo owners to upgrade, but to sweeten the deal for anyone who hasn't bought in yet (and to keep the existing userbase engaged with the platform -- after all, if doesn't cost much to switch over to Google). 

Amazon did take the occasion to give Alexa a tune-up, with a refreshed app and refined smart-home controls that let you control devices such as lights and locks directly from the Alexa app. You can also turn your Alexa-compatible smart switches on and off, or adjust the color of any Alexa-compatible color-changing bulbs.

Those controls also let you create "routines," where a single Alexa command can trigger a series of actions in your home. For instance, saying "Alexa, goodnight" could lock your smart lock, turn the lights and the TV off, and fire up a bedroom space heater you've plugged into a smart switch.The best part is that you create your own custom Alexa command to trigger the routine. Power users should have a field day with that.

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Create a group of lights then add your Echo to it to make those the default lights it'll turn on when you say, "Alexa, turn on the lights."

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

If you'd prefer, you can also schedule your routine to run automatically at a specific time, no Alexa command necessary. More than anything, that feature reflects Amazon's attempts to position the Echo lineup as bonafide smart home hubs -- particularly the $150 Echo Plus, which uses a ZigBee radio to quarterback lights, locks and other smart home gadgets.

Here's another improvement for anyone who owns Alexa-friendly smart lights: You can now add each Echo device to a single, default group of lights. To control those lights, just tell that Echo device to "turn the lights on." 

Grouping your lights and Echos by room is an easy way to make things a little more intuitive. If you tell the Echo in your kitchen to "turn the lights on," it'll turn the lights on in the kitchen. If you tell the Echo Dot in your bedroom to "turn the lights off," it'll turn the lights off in the bedroom. 

That's a good, common-sense step in the right direction, but it isn't specific to the new Echo. Again, like all of the new software features, it applies to the entire Echo lineup, including the original. That means that there's very little reason to upgrade to the new Echo if you're already happy with the old one.

Keep an eye on this space -- I'll be sure to update it regularly as new features arrive.

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Press the mute button on top if you want to turn the microphone off.

Ian Knighton/CNET

Let's talk about privacy

Nothing gins up privacy concerns faster than the phrase "always listening," and that's fair -- Alexa is, indeed, always listening for the wake word. The same goes for your phone if "Hey Siri" or "OK Google" voice activation is turned on, by the way.

The important thing with Alexa is that Amazon insists that it only records and uploads audio when it hears the wake word and thinks that you're actually talking to it. Whenever this happens, the blue light around the top of the device will light up as an indicator. And yes, you can still tap a button on top to mute the microphone and keep Alexa from listening at all (the Echo's ring will glow red whenever you do this, and you'll still be able to activate the speaker by pressing the activation button and then saying your command like normal.)

Beyond privacy concerns, always-listening devices like the Echo raise new security concerns, too. What happens if a would-be burglar whispers "Alexa, unlock the door" through your window? What happens if your kid asks Alexa to order a new Playstation via your Amazon account? And can those microphones be abused?

Amazon has a couple of answers to questions like these. With voice shopping, you can restrict Alexa's purchasing power by blocking them outright when she doesn't recognize the voice as yours, or by locking purchases with spoken PIN code. That PIN code approach is a requirement if you ever ask Alexa to unlock a smart lock.

As for other abuses, Amazon doesn't like to talk about the specific security measures it takes to keep devices secure, but a company spokesperson tells CNET, "Amazon takes customer security seriously and we have full teams dedicated to ensuring the safety and security of our products."

At any rate, we're keeping an eye out for any potential vulnerabilities, too (we already uncovered that a talented imitator can fool that voice recognition engine, for instance). If any new threats come to our attention, we'll update this space.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

All aboard

It's been fascinating to watch Alexa's story unfold. With good AI and great product strategy, Amazon has managed to do more than any other company to make voice controls meaningful in our homes -- more than even Apple, which introduced us to Siri years before Alexa came around. And, if the three-year drumbeat of new Alexa features and the slew of new arrivals to the Echo family are any indication, that story is far from finished.

With the Amazon Echo, you get to watch that story play out under your roof. Even at three years old, it's a legitimately futuristic product -- a voice-activated computer that turns your home into your very own Star Trek ship. The competition is finally getting interesting, but Amazon is still the one driving the conversation. At its new price of $100, the Echo will be awfully tough to beat.

And who knows -- maybe the Echo is obsolete in five years. Maybe smart speakers are just a fad, or a stepping stone to whatever the next big thing is. Who knows. Who cares? Right now, the Echo is a useful, versatile device that does its job well, and Amazon clearly has some pretty big plans for it. Sometimes in tech, it's just fun to be along for the ride.

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