Tech Review: Amazon Echo Plus: Practical magic

If Amazon has an ace up their sleeve in the race to produce smart speakers for the home, its that they currently boast a larger model line-up than any of their competitors. While having plenty of options is great, this may only complicate things for consumers that aren’t especially savvy when it comes to the still relatively new world of smart speakers. The Amazon Echo Plus will be the one that most punters are drawn to when looking at Amazon’s range, and for good reason — it looks cool, it sounds great and it offers first-rate functionality.

So really, what do you get in the Echo Plus that you don’t get in the other models? As I said in the intro, better sound. It’s much louder and far bassier than its smaller cousins, and you can move it around the house to change the sort of sound you’re getting from it. On sound alone, can it compete with other Alexa-enabled speakers like the Sonos One? Absolutely not, but where it does compete is on price. At $229 AUD, the Echo Plus is quite a bit cheaper than the Sonos, and it comes with a Phillips Hue lightbulb so you can start turning your lights on and off with your voice.

Physically, the device looks almost the same as the original Echo model Amazon released back in 2015. The design is cool and there wasn’t much reason to change it up, a tall, thin, black drum that sits on your desk without taking up too much space. At 235mm H x 84mm wide, it can be placed just about anywhere in your home you like, and while there’s no internal battery, it can go from room to room with you provided there’s a power point nearby. At the top is a circular ring that can be rotated for volume up and down, with buttons for mute and manually telling Alexa you want to speak to her. There’s also a ring light that runs around the top of the volume ring that will turn a variety of different colours to indicate everything from volume level and connectivity to mode selected.

Alexa is the digital assistant the Echo Plus uses, the same as the other products in Amazon’s Echo line, and she can link into a panoply of different smart home enabled gadgets and devices.

Like most smart speakers, to use Alexa all you have to do is get her attention by saying her name. Alexa uses numerous microphones to pick you up, even when you’re speaking quietly. The device listens with seven mics, all far-field, which means it’s well placed to her you speaking to it across the room with a lot of background noise. It’s very effective, perhaps too much so — while Alexa was always ready for me to call on her, similar sounding words like America and even, on one occasion, the phrase Heck Yeah were enough for her to helpfully chime in.

The drum houses a .08-inch tweeter with an 2.5 woofer, Bluetooth and a 3.5mm audio jack in case you want to hook it up to other devices or an external speaker. As stated, you will need a constant source of power as there’s no internal battery, which hampers portability but means you don’t have to manage a battery. Finally, the device does need a constant Wifi connection and a phone with the Alexa app installed to operate.

From an operating standpoint, its all very straight forward. Once the device is set up, you’re ready to start asking the device questions or demanding it play your favourite music, and it can do this things with ease. It’s the other things, the extra functionality, that’s most impressive. Amazon call these features Skills and there’s over 30,000 of them already available to try. They all connect into the Alexa app with the idea being that you can converse with the speaker, making it more of a digital butler than an assistant. There’s exhaustive lists of these Skills all over the internet and they’re well worth trying out.

My personal favourite of these actions is the Routines function that allows you to bind multiple actions to a single phrase. You haul yourself into the house after a long day at work and as you throw your keys onto the shelf by the door you say “Alexa, I’m home.” This will run your pre-programmed Routine, turning specific lights on, playing some music, setting the thermostat and telling you what you’ll need to get out of the fridge for dinner. This is functionality that will only improve and expand as more applications are added to the platform. It’s the part of the device I’m probably the most excited for. I want my ridiculous Tony Stark house and this feels like the most direct route to it.

You can also plug in certain third party software like Spotify or TuneIn Radio if you’re looking for music, though the device defaults to Amazon Music. You can connect it to most major smart home devices, like smart thermostats or lights. Questions land an impressively high rate of runs in terms of accuracy and speed — though Alexa likes to pull from Wikipedia which would get her marked down by all my old uni professors. But you can go even further! Alexa can order you food or book you an Uber! She can even wake you up with an alarm if you want!

As I say, while the more basic actions aren’t all that impressive, it really is the smart home connectivity that makes you feel like a wizard. I spent half an hour enjoying the simple act of turning the supplied lightbulb on and off with nothing more than my voice. It’s wild and it feels a bit like magic. While the device does have everything it needs to understand my Australian accent, a remarkably poncy one by Aussie standards, Alexa did still have some trouble understanding what I was saying from time to time. It didn’t happen often and in fairness to her, the Australian accent isn’t the easiest one to decode for a human being let alone a piece of cloud-based language software. I’ve heard some (hilarious) horror stories from other Echo owners, tales of Alexa laughing apropos of nothing or misunderstanding a question and ordering expensive game consoles with express shipping in response, but thankfully I ran into nothing of the sort. In this area at least, Google seems to have Amazon dead to rights, I haven’t run into these issues on Google Assistant with anywhere near the regularity I have with Alexa.

So, in total, where does Alexa stand ranked against its competitors in the crowded smart speaker market? For first time owners or the merely curious, it’s up there. This will be a fabulous, interesting toy for most consumer-level adopters,. For the hardcore smart home enthusiasts, those determined to have a space age home controlled entirely by their voice, it will simply be a good place to start. The price is right and the functionality is sound.

Alexa, based on this review, what would you score yourself?

Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Solid design; Good sound; Routines and Skills are great
Lowlights: No internal battery; Some difficulty with Australian accent
Manufacturer: Amazon
Price: $229 AUD
Available: Now

Review conducted using a retail model and Phillips Hue light bulb supplied by the manufacturer.