Amazon's all-new Echo is a more attractive smart assistant

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
The new Amazon Echo packs an improved design and enhanced audio.

Back in late 2014, I was highly skeptical when Amazon (AMZN) introduced its Amazon Echo and Alexa voice assistant. After all, who would want a speaker in their homes they could talk to?

It turns out a lot of people. Enough, in fact, for Amazon to launch five more smart speakers since then, including the all-new Echo. Available now for $99 — that’s less than the original’s $179 price tag — the new Echo improves upon both its predecessor’s looks and performance.

It’s a great buy for consumers who are just getting into the smart assistant market. However, there might not be much reason for existing users to upgrade since the cloud-based Alexa gets all the same improved functionality in both the new and old versions of the Echo.

An Echo that’s at home in your home

The original Echo stood out for both its impressive capabilities as a smart speaker and almost alien design. Amazon crafted the Echo in the shape of a tall, black cylinder that was instantly recognizable. But as competitors like Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) Home and Apple’s (AAPL) upcoming HomePod opt for more traditionally decorative designs, Amazon is adjusting the Echo’s look.

The new Echo is still a cylinder, but it’s squatter than the original. And like Google’s Home, which has a customizable base, the Echo now has an interchangeable shell that you can fit to your home’s style. The base shells come in black or grey fabric and are genuinely attractive. I can see both easily fitting in on my end table or night stand. I can also see my cats deciding to tear into them like they did with my Google Home’s fabric base.

Evidence that my cats hate or love my Google Home.

If you want a different look, you can purchase walnut, oak, or silver finish shells for $29 a piece. Replacing them is a snap. You simply push the small indent in the bottom of the Echo and push the speaker out of the shell. Slide it into your new one and you’re all set.

Unlike the first-generation Echo, this new version doesn’t have a twistable volume ring at its top. Instead, Amazon has included volume up and down buttons. It’s not a big change and really makes no functional difference. Still, I liked the simplicity of being able to twist the top of the Echo to quickly adjust the volume when I needed to turn down Taylor Swift before the delivery guy got to my door and found me out.

Amazon did away with the Echo’s twisting top in favor of traditional volume buttons.

Amazon did, however, add an AUX jack to the new Echo, which means you can connect it to any speaker. Want to turn your big home entertainment center into a giant smart speaker? You’ve got it.

Pump up the jam

Consumers don’t just use their smart speakers to talk to disembodied voices. They’re also solid standalone speakers for listening to music and podcasts. But Amazon couldn’t just release a new Echo with the same speakers as the previous model. So the company upped the audio capabilities of the Echo by dropping in a 2.5-inch subwoofer and 0.6-inch tweeter.

The new Echo next to the older, taller Echo.

I’m by no means an audiophile — I think the headphones that came with my smartphone are more than adequate — so I’m not exactly picky when it comes to audio quality. That said, I found the new Echo’s speakers to be a bit clearer and deeper than the original’s.

If you’re the kind of person who needs the absolute best audio experience, well, the Echo probably isn’t going to cut it. But then that’s what that AUX jack is for.

Can you hear me, Alexa?

Amazon says the new Echo has improved beam-forming microphones that allow it to hear your voice from farther away. I live in a New York City apartment, which means, well, there’s not a ton of room to really put the Echo’s mics to the test. I noticed it, like other smart speakers, had a bit of trouble hearing me over excessively loud music, but both it and the older Echo picked up my voice with ease from a moderate distance.

The point is, this Echo isn’t going to blow away the last version, which is great for owners of the original.

The Amazon Echo without its fabric shell.

That holds equally true when it comes to the new Echo’s overall capabilities. The second-generation Echo can do everything its predecessor can. That means you can call other Echo devices, as well as people with the Alexa app, make voice calls to your family’s and friends’ mobile phones and landlines and set up multi-room listening.

Both Echos also have the ability to let you perform multiple tasks at once with one voice command. You can, for example, say, “Alexa, goodnight,” and it will run a set routine of tasks like lock the doors, turn off the lights and more. You can also train both Echos to recognize your voice, so when you say “Play my favorites playlist,” it will play your playlist and not your roommates. The same feature also works with making calls. So, if you tell your Echo to call your Mom, it will call your own mother and not your friend’s.

Should you get it?

The Amazon Echo is already the best smart speaker you can buy thanks to its ability to communicate with hundreds of connected devices, as well as Amazon’s own massive online store.

The addition of a vastly improved design, and slightly upgraded sound, simply serve to make it a more attractive purchase for first-time smart speaker buyers. Should you ditch your current Echo for the gen 2? Not necessarily.

I’d only suggest making the switch if you’re sick of your current Echo’s look, or you really want that AUX jack. If not, stick with your original.

Update: This post has been updated to reflect that the echo can make voice calls and recognize individual voices.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.