Alexa has changed a lot in the last three years, but the Echo hasn’t. The hefty monolithic cylinder still acts as most people’s entrant into the Echo ecosystem. But today, Amazon announced a new, redesigned Echo that makes Alexa sound better, work better, and look better. And it’s only $99.
The looks maybe matter most: The new Echo is considerably shorter than the last, like a mid-point between the Echo and the Dot. Amazon made six different shells for the thing, including a few wood-veneer options, to blend into your home a little better than a big black can of tennis balls.
Amazon also improved the sound that emanates from the Echo’s single 360-degree speaker. It now has a dedicated bass tweeter, and should sound much louder despite the smaller size. It also rigged up a multi-room audio system, so that if you buy multiple Echos and say “play Stevie Wonder everywhere,” you’ll get audio on all your Echos at once. In the demo today, with more than half a dozen Echos playing simultaneously, the audio didn’t quite sound Sonos- or HomePod-level. But it sounded far better than the original Echo. Most other Alexa speakers have differentiated themselves on their better sound, but Amazon’s at least closed the gap considerably.
The cylindrical Echo might be the most powerful Echo, but the Dot’s the most popular. So Amazon updated that one too, combining the Echo Dot and Show into a small device called the Spot. The Spot seems to be Amazon’s idea of a bedside Echo, an alarm clock with massive features. It’s small and round, about the size of a softball, with a similarly round, 2.5-inch touchscreen that by default can show a watchface or the weather. You can video call on the round screen with picture-in-picture, and interact with Spot just like any other Echo device. It does anything the Show does, from watching videos to checking your security camera. Basically, the Echo Show is a brilliant device with a serious lack of industrial design; the Spot is much nicer to look at, and easier to hide. And it only costs $129.99.
Don’t worry, though. Amazon didn’t retire the old Echo. It just renamed it: It’s now called the Echo Plus, and it costs $149. Basically, it’s a new Echo with the improved sound and voice recognition, plus a smart-home hub. That means it can find nearby connected devices, help you set them up, and control them. Screw in a lightbulb, tell Alexa to find it, and they can instantly get working with just a few voice commands. You don’t need apps, or to enable skills; you can just talk to Alexa. Already, more than 100 devices support the Echo Plus’s simplified setup process, and you’ll even get a Philips Hue bulb in the box with your Echo Plus. Amazon really, really wants you to have a smart home.
At Amazon’s product event today, Dave Limp, Amazon’s head of devices, listed a few things the company has learned in the three-year history of the Alexa platform: People love music, for one thing, as well as audiobooks and podcasts. They also love setting timers and alarms, and controlling the lights with their voice. These are the things that have become daily habits for Alexa users. There are more than 5,000 people working on the Alexa service, Limp said, all across Amazon. And those people’s jobs only start when you buy an Echo.
At the same time, Limp announced new “Echo Buttons,” which connect to an Echo and expand what you can do with your device. One called “Button Trivia,” for instance, asks questions and lets you buzz in with your answer. They’re simple products designed to show off a new Gadgets and Actions API, but they extend the possibilities of Alexa even further. “Any game you’d play on the Jumbotron at halftime, you can play with Echo Buttons,” Limp said. He played three-button monty, mentioned a Trivial Pursuit game coming, and more. The buttons will cost $20 for a two-pack.
Along with the buttons and the new device, Amazon also announced a number of new features. Your Echo can now make phone calls, similar to the Google Home. Amazon even created a new $35 box, called the Echo Connect, which connects to your landline jack and turns it into the best, smartest speakerphone you’ve ever had. That’s in addition to your Echos’ ability to act as intercoms, the messaging app Amazon’s built around your contacts and their Echos, and that new phone-call ability. Amazon’s even opened up APIs for Alexa communications, so other companies can build Alexa products that offer all the same chat abilities.
Toward the end of his presentation, Limp made the case for Alexa’s world takeover. He touted a new BMW partnership, which will put Alexa into your Beamer starting in 2018, and the ever-widening group of other companies building on Alexa devices. At the same time, though, the message was clear: Alexa goes everywhere, but it lives in your Echo.