Voice assistants are poised to become our home’s digital butlers, and Amazon’s Alexa is a strong contender in the race to be the best.
Initially released in 2014, the voice-operated personal assistant has found its way into an array of smart speakers, giving them new functionality. Music playback, making 'to-do' lists, setting alarms, providing real time information of many kinds - this is the sort of stuff that makes Alexa so powerful.
While other voice-assistants offer similar features, Alexa is still ahead. It has a wider range of functions, and greater consistency across its platforms, than Apple’s Siri on the HomePod, and Google’s Assistant is a little more awkward still - and its Home speakers don’t sound quite as good as Amazon’s equivalent.
But for those looking to get voice control into their homes, it can be a little daunting deciding which product to get. There are so many Echo-brand products available, including the ‘classic’ Echo, the Spot, the Plus and the Dot.
Each has its positives and its pitfalls, so we’re here to show you the path through Amazon’s range…
Amazon Echo Dot (£40)
The Echo Dot is the smallest, and the cheapest, member of the Echo family. For many people, this is their introduction to voice control with Alexa.
About the size of a hockey puck, this wireless speaker has a 15mm driver for voice feedback. As such its sound quality is notably poorer than competing speakers and, although it’s fine for giving you quick voice feedback, you certainly shouldn’t be using it as your main means of hi-fi.
However, that’s not too much of an issue: its Bluetooth connectivity and 3.5mm output mean it can be connected to better-sounding equipment. This will give your system everything Alexa has to offer.
Why should you buy the Echo Dot?
If you’re looking for voice control at an entry-level price, and are already happy with your system, then this is the one to go for. Its range of functions more than makes up for its substandard audio quality, but be aware: despite its small size, it’s not battery powered and thus needs to be near a plug.
ALSO CONSIDER: Google Home Mini
More after the break
Amazon Echo (£90)
If Echoes were ice cream, this would be vanilla. Amazon’s middle-of-the-road option is made for those that want a good, standalone wireless speaker with all of the added functionality of Alexa.
With its increased size (about as tall as a water bottle) and bigger drivers (a 65mm woofer and 15mm tweeter), the Echo offers better sound quality than its smaller sibling.
This speaker plays it safe at both ends of the audio spectrum, delivering more bass and a beefier sound than the first-generation Echo (although it compromises on clarity) and a significantly more convincing experience than the Dot.
It also comes in a number of different styles: charcoal or heather fabrics, plus oak, sandstone or walnut finishes.
Why should you buy the Amazon Echo?
If you’re looking for a decent wireless speaker with smart functionality – and want to make sure it gets updated with every new feature – the Amazon Echo is one to consider.
Amazon Echo Plus (£140)
While it might look like the first-generation Echo, don’t let appearances deceive you. The Echo Plus sounds better, for a start. Improved ‘Dolby processing’ means it has more robust sound quality than its predecessor while retaining the already pleasingly comfortable character we know.
The midrange comes across with greater clarity, while a sense of space and distance is rendered quite well. Funky drums and rhythmic guitar licks are handled better than by other Echo products, too.
But it’s really the built-in smart-home hub that justifies that extra cost. If you’re using some smart lights, for example, you’ll usually need an external control panel to link them to your wifi and then have to add them through an app on your phone.
Not so with the Echo Plus, which allows you to detect internet-of-things devices through a voice command (“Alexa, discover my devices”). Ping! Your Philips Hue lights – one example of the Plus’ smart-home capabilities – are connected.
However, this does come with some downsides: it doesn’t have the full range of commands compared to an external hub (changing the light colour, for example), and functions only with devices that use Zigbee – a common type of wireless protocol but not the only one.
For most people that won’t be an issue, but as more smart-home devices come on stream it’s something you’re going to have to think about.
Why should you buy the Echo Plus?
If you want a relatively inexpensive way to get into the smart home game, and with Alexa too, this is the best speaker Amazon has to offer.
Amazon Echo Spot (£120)
You might want a screen, of course. Which is where the Echo Spot comes in.
It has a small (480x480 pixel) touchscreen, which gives visual feedback to all your Alexa commands.
Ask it to read your news briefing, and it’ll be accompanied by a little video. Setting alarms shows a countdown timer. You can even make video calls, using the small camera at the top of the device.
For a little more personalisation, the clock face is adjustable and each design is well judged – whether it’s the vinyl style, the owl or its various analogue and digital formats. It’s a more homely than the uniform style of the Echo speakers, giving the device a touch more character.
You can also use it to watch Amazon Prime Video content, if you’re a Prime subscriber. Not particularly immersive when it’s so tiddly, granted, but still a nice addition.
Also, when playing music, some tracks will have the lyrics scroll across the screen – no more need you be caught out singing “we built this city on sausage rolls” or “dancing queen, feel the beat from the tangerine”. Happily, all expletives are beeped in case you have children present.
Why should you buy the Echo Spot?
If you want a great alarm clock that can read you the news and play your favourite Spotify playlist, the Spot is perfect for you (and those that are picky about their privacy settings can disable the camera).