Amazon Echo 2020 REVIEW – Better sound and smarter too
The Amazon Echo smart speaker just got chubbier. It also got smarter, and way better-sounding writes PAT PILCHER.
Has Alexa been sneaking off to the fridge for midnight snacks? You see, she’s become a bit rotund. You even say she’s gone spherical. Then again, its 2020, so who could blame her for wanting a few sugary goodies?
Amazon’s latest smart speaker line up might be a bit chubbier than the original Echo. Still, it’s also smarter, and best of all, that extra girth equates to improved audio.
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Design-wise, the new Echo represents a significant rethink on previous models. The cylindrical shape is gone, and now Alexa’s new home looks like the love child of R2D2 and a lampshade. She’s got nicer clothes too, being done out in a two-tone ensemble of charcoal fabric, with her lower half fitted out in a dusky blue plastic. The light ring that tells you when she is listening (or thinking) is now located on her base. This adds a cool effect of illuminating the surface she’s placed on when Alexa is doing her thing.
Both the Echo and Echo Dot have gone spherical. The Dot is the smaller of the two. It features a white LED clock/timer and reminder display under its fabric covering.
There are also buttons on top of both. These consist of volume controls, command and mute buttons. Muting Alexa makes her light ring glow red. All told, the new design feels more subtle, and even though she might have a larger diameter, she feels more compact. Less height also means that Alexa is now easier to place on a shelf too.
The new Echo also comes with a built-in Zigbee hub. Anyone wanting to up their smart home game with the likes of Philips Hue smart lights should see this as a bonus. It means they won’t have to splash out on an additional hub. As well as the hub, there’s a digital thermometer.
Another handy feature is what Amazon calls Routines, which let you operate multiple tasks from a single command. Because of this, Routines bring a new level of smarts to any smart home. A routine could, for instance, set the temperature sensor to tweak your heat pump temperature and adjust the colour of your smart lights.
One of Alexa’s big selling points is the vast catalogue of third-party Skills which expands her capabilities. Some are genuinely useful, others not so much. If music is your thing, you’ll be pleased to note that there is support for TuneIn out of the box and Spotify/Sonos skills are available. Equipped with these, the Echo is an excellent widget for playing music. Her new shape means there’s extra room for a second 0.8-inch tweeter alongside the 3-inch woofer. The use of the additional space as a tuned cavity also means that she now sounds beefier than her small size would indicate. Her improved audio capabilities are helped along by auto-tuning technologies in a trickle-down from the high-end Echo Studio. Alexa listens as she plays a series of test tones to analyse the acoustics of the room, tweaking her audio equalisation.
Being a spherical device, I was expecting a 360-degree sound field. Instead, I found her audio was surprisingly directional, possibly because her two tweeters point outwards, which also helps her deliver a wide soundstage. In hindsight, this is a practical design as I don’t have any mains power sockets in the middle of my room. Like most people, I’ve placed Alexa on a shelf, so her forward-firing audio makes much more sense.
The new Alexa also comes with new silicon. This takes the form of Amazon’s AZ1 Neural Edge processor, which seems to make the Alexa a little more responsive. I suspect this is due to her processing the “Alexa” wake work locally, instead of in the Amazon cloud.
Smart speakers like the Echo are a great idea, especially when they have such great smart home integration thanks to the inbuilt Zigbee hub. Smart speakers used to mean a compromise when it came to sound quality. With the redesign, this has been reduced to the point where most people could use the Echo as a music player for casual listening. If you’re looking at getting into the smart home game, or are an existing Amazon Echo user, the new Echo range has a lot to offer.