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- Amazon's new Echo comes with a variety of improvements, such as upgraded sound, a new spherical design, an integrated smart home hub, and a new Amazon-made processor.
- The boost in sound quality is a big step up from the third-generation Echo, as the fourth-generation model can pump out tunes that are louder and more open than its predecessor.
- The updated design also makes the new Echo fit more elegantly into your home decor, although it doesn't come in as many colors as Google's Nest Audio.
- Overall, the new Echo feels like what Amazon has been working toward for years — an Echo that doesn't make major compromises when it comes to sound quality or smart home functionality.
It's 2020, and Amazon's popular Echo speaker is getting a makeover.
Nearly six years after Amazon quietly unveiled the original Echo, the company has completely changed the speaker's look, marking a big departure from the glowing cylinder that we've come to associate with the Echo since late 2014.
But the new Echo is far more than just a cosmetic upgrade. Amazon's latest entrant to the smart speaker space also features a boost in sound quality, its own dedicated Amazon-designed processor that should make Alexa more responsive, and other extras, like a temperature sensor and a built-in smart home hub.
Taken together, the improvements represent the most significant upgrade to the standard Echo we've seen in years, helping it stand out in Amazon's lineup. It's a much more notable update than last year's third-generation Echo, which didn't add much to the speaker other than improved sound quality.
But the new Echo is also launching at a time when Google and Apple are investing more heavily in their own smart home speaker line. Just days after Amazon unveiled the new Echo, Google introduced its $100 Nest Audio. Apple, meanwhile, announced a smaller and less expensive version of its HomePod smart speaker for $100 called the HomePod Mini.
Here's a closer look at what it's been like to use the new Echo.
Amazon Echo 2020 specifications
- Dimensions: 5.7 inches x 5.7 inches x 5.2 inches
- Weight: 34.2 ounces
- Colors: Charcoal, white, and blue
- Processor: Amazon Az1
- Speaker: 3-inch woofer and dual 0.8-inch front-facing tweeters
- Input/output: 3.5mm line in/out
- Other features: Integrated smart home hub, temperature sensor
To say the new Amazon Echo looks different than its predecessor would be an understatement. Gone is the cylindrical shape that's been a hallmark of the smart speaker series so far. Instead, the new Echo takes the form of a compact, fabric-laden orb that glows at its base when Alexa is listening.
The new Echo looks less like a traditional speaker than its predecessor, and that's a good thing. It has more of a standout look that differentiates it from rivals, like the Nest Audio, and the spherical shape enables it to fit more naturally into my home decor. The placement of the glowing ring at the bottom of the speaker rather than at the top also feels less distracting.
But unlike the Nest Audio, which comes in black, white, green, pink, and blue, the Echo is only available in three colors: charcoal, white, and blue. For a device that most people will be prominently displaying in the living room or kitchen, it would have been nice to see a broader range of color options like those offered by Google.
Amazon's new Echo has received a big boost when it comes to its most important job: serving as a home speaker. Amazon says its new speaker can now detect the acoustics of the room it's in and adjust the audio accordingly, just like the $200 Echo Studio.
The new shape also gives the Echo better sound projection and richer bass thanks to its surface area to volume ratio, the company says.
The upgrade is certainly noticeable when compared alongside the third-generation Echo. Across the board, music sounds louder and much more open and full-bodied compared to its predecessor, with better bass as well.
The older Echo sounds a bit shallow in comparison, and isn't able to fill the room with audio nearly as well as its successor. This is true whether I listen to pop, rock, or hip-hop on the new Echo.
It's not quite as loud and clear as the $200 Sonos One, but it certainly comes a lot closer than the standard Echo ever has before.
Smart home hub
If controlling smart home devices is one of the primary reasons you're interested in Amazon's smart speaker, the new Echo will feel like a step up.
Amazon has built a smart home hub into the device much like it did with the Echo Plus speaker it introduced in 2017. That means you can quickly set up devices that use Bluetooth low energy or the ZigBee protocol — one of the major protocols that allows smart home devices to communicate with one another — without requiring a separate hub or bridge. It will also support Amazon's Sidewalk platform later this year.
Getting a Philips Hue light bulb up and running with the new Echo requires virtually no set up since it's compatible with Zigbee. I simply screwed the light bulb into my bedroom lamp and asked Alexa to discover new devices.
After a few short moments, Alexa confirmed that my Echo had discovered the new light and added it to the "My devices" section of the Alexa app.
The third-generation Echo, on the other hand, requires a bridge in order to connect to the same Philips Hue light bulb. The Echo also has a leg up over Google in this regard since Google devices don't offer voice setup for smart home devices and require you to connect through the company's app.
The Echo series may be nearly six years old, but Amazon is only just introducing its own custom processor for its smart speaker line. Amazon's new AZ1 processor promises to make Alexa faster and more responsive when processing requests. This functionality, however, won't be available until later this year.
The new Echo also comes with another unexpected addition: a temperature sensor. This makes it possible to not only ask Alexa for the weather outside, but also the temperature indoors.
For many, the decision to side with an Echo device or Google Nest device will largely depend on what ecosystem best suits your needs.
Amazon's Alexa and the Google Assistant can both handle many of the same tasks, but also offer their respective perks. Alexa, for example, supports a wider variety of smart home devices, as the company says there are more than 140,000 gadgets that work with Alexa. Google, on the other hand, supports more than 50,000 internet-of-things devices.
Alexa also has some extra skills, including the ability to detect sounds, like breaking glass and alarms, when you're not home. Google requires a Nest Aware subscription for this, whereas Amazon offers these features as part of the free tier of its Alexa Guard service. And of course, Alexa makes it incredibly easy to shop on Amazon via your voice.
The Google Assistant, however, has generally performed better when it comes to answering general knowledge questions, which should come as no surprise considering it has the world's most popular search engine at its disposal.
In a test conducted by Loup Ventures last year that involved asking the Google Assistant, Amazon's Alexa, and Apple's Siri 800 questions, Google answered 93% of those queries correctly. Alexa answered 80% of them correctly while Siri correctly responded to 83%.
Google's smart speakers also have extra features, like an interpreter mode that translates full conversations into another language, which is more sophisticated than Alexa's ability to translate individual phrases and words.
Privacy is also crucial for a microphone-equipped device meant to sit in your living room or bedroom. Amazon, Google, and Apple have all come under scrutiny in the past over their previous policies when it comes to sharing saved recordings with human annotators for the purposes of improving their voice assistants.
Both the new Echo and Google's Nest Audio include a physical button for turning off the microphone.
But unlike Google and Apple, you must opt out if you don't want your voice recordings to be used by Amazon to help improve Alexa's functionality. You can do this from the Alexa app under the Alexa Privacy section in the settings menu.
Google doesn't retain audio by default, and announced last September that users would have to opt in to a setting that enables the search giant to share recordings with human reviewers to improve the Google Assistant.
That said, both Amazon and Google have announced privacy updates over the course of the past year. Amazon now allows you to choose to automatically delete your voice recordings after Alexa has processed your request.
You can also delete all of your previously saved voice recordings just by asking Alexa, or you can ask Alexa to send you a link to privacy settings for your device in the Alexa app.
Google also launched new features earlier this year for telling its voice assistant to forget an utterance that was detected by accident and asking the Google Assistant for more information about Google's data collection policies.
Google recently announced a Guest Mode for the Google Assistant as well, which, like Incognito Mode, prevents Google from saving queries to your account or offering personalized responses.
The bottom line
With improved sound, a sleek new design, and a built-in hub for setting up smart home devices, the new Echo feels like a significant upgrade for Amazon's smart speaker.
The standard Echo model has inherited some features from its more premium predecessors, such as the $200 Echo Studio's ability to adjust audio to match a room's acoustics, and the integrated smart home hub that debuted on the $150 Echo Plus from 2017.
As a result, the new Echo feels like the right balance of quality audio and convenience for most people in need of a basic smart home speaker that's not quite as high-end as the Studio, but more powerful than the $50 Echo Dot.
That could make it more difficult for rivals, like Apple and Sonos, that specialize in offering superior sound quality to compete with Amazon's latest Echo. It also feels like an execution of the vision that Amazon has been working toward for a while when it comes to the Echo: a home speaker that doesn't make big compromises when it comes to audio quality or smart home features.
If you have a third-generation Echo, you probably don't need to upgrade immediately. But if you have an older model or were thinking about purchasing a second Echo anyway, you'll certainly appreciate the upgrades.
Pros: Improved sound, attractive new design, built-in smart home hub makes it easy to set up devices
Cons: Not as much choice when it comes to color selection compared to Google, Amazon still saves and uses your voice recordings by default
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