What Is Alexa? What Is the Amazon Echo, and Should You Get O: Wirecutter Reviews

An echo pluss sitting next to a second generation amazon echo.
Photo: Michael Hession

Our pick

Amazon Echo (2nd Generation)

All Amazon Alexa devices offer essentially the same Alexa functions, but they differ in enough ways that you can’t simply substitute one for the other, or go with the cheapest.

If you want music without hooking up any additional speakers, the second-generation Echo offers the complete range of functions, minus the screen features of the Show and Spot. As a speaker, it’s good for kitchens, offices, dens, bedrooms, and other places where convenience and size (it’s about the size of a Foster’s beer can) is more important than audio performance. The speaker is designed for 360-degree dispersion, so placing it in the middle of the room will give you sound in all four corners.

If you’re a discerning listener, you might find the Echo wanting as a speaker. Its bass is a bit foggy, and details can get lost, though the second-gen Echo sounds a little more detailed than the original. You can also pair the Echo with your smartphone via Bluetooth for playback of your stored tunes or any music service Alexa doesn’t support, but you can’t pair it with another speaker as you can the Dot.

The main Echo, and all other Echo devices, can be used as a multiroom audio system similar to Sonos. You can create groups with multiple Echos and play the same music on all of them at once. Unfortunately, you can’t make two Echos work together as a stereo pair.

The amazon echo dot sitting next to a bluetooth speaker.
The Dot can wirelessly connect with a Bluetooth speaker, such as the UE Boom 2. Photo: Grant Clauser

Also great

Echo Dot

For a lot less than the full-size Echo, and with the ability to connect wirelessly to your choice of speaker or sound system, the Echo Dot 2 is a smart option. The original Dot sold out almost as soon as it launched, but the new Dot 2 began shipping in October 2016. The Dot 2 is only about 1½ inches high and includes volume buttons instead of the turnable knob of the Echo (and the original Dot). Amazon also covers the newer Dot in a glossy black or white finish rather than the flat black of the Echo and the first Dot.

In this smaller package, the Dot gives you all the Alexa control and search features, and it includes a speaker that’s good for hearing the Dot’s voice and alarms or listening to talk radio, but it isn’t nice enough for enjoying music. For music, you connect the Dot to any Bluetooth speaker or use a 3.5-millimeter stereo jack for a wired audio connection. You can plug that into a powered speaker or an audio receiver.

I hooked up my Dot to my home theater receiver so that I could hear music from a 1,000-watt system (the Dot is technically stereo, but with an AV receiver you can output it through all your speakers). The downside of that arrangement is that you must have the connected speaker or sound system turned on to be able to hear the Dot’s voice responses. For example, in my home theater system, the receiver has to be on and set to the Dot’s input for me to hear it say “Okay” when I ask it to lower the room lights. That doesn’t sound like a big deal until you discover that you don’t know whether the Dot received your command unless you see the resulting action. If it didn’t hear you correctly, the only way you’ll know is that you’re sitting on the sofa for 20 minutes and the lights still haven’t changed.

Also great

Echo Plus

If smart-home control dominates your list of reasons for wanting an Echo, the Plus might be your best choice. It’s bigger than the current generation Echo and looks identical to the original (except it’s also available in silver). Its main difference from the standard Echo is the inclusion of Zigbee, a popular wireless system for controlling smart-home devices and that can be found in many smart-home hubs. Building Zigbee into an Echo means you can connect Zigbee accessories, including some smart bulbs, outlet plugs, and door locks without any additional hub.

A silver echo plus sitting in front of a brick wall.
The Echo Plus can work directly with many Zigbee smart devices, including Philips Hue and some Schlage smart locks. Photo: Michael Hession

I tried out an Echo Plus with a Samsung SmartThings Zigbee plug, a Philips Hue light strip and a Philips Hue bulb. Normally, Hue systems require the Hue bridge, but that’s not needed with the Echo Plus. The Plus found and added the Zigbee devices with a simple “Alexa, find my devices” command, then let me add them to groups and routines. Echo’s app doesn’t let you control the devices with as much precision as a smart hub app; for instance, you can’t adjust a Hue bulb’s color with the Alexa app, but you can adjust the color with your voice.

Echo Plus doesn’t work with all Zigbee devices. Amazon has a curated list of things that it has approved and knows will work as promised.

Using the Plus rather than a smart-home hub might save you a little money and a little setup complication, but most people with basic smart-home needs will probably be just fine with the standard cheaper Echo or even a Dot.

Also great

Echo Show

The Echo Show may appeal to people who like the idea of video chatting with friends or relatives, but who don’t like using a phone’s small screen for it. The Show’s built-in 7-inch display makes it look like an old Mitsubishi rear-projection TV for a dollhouse. In addition to the display screen, there’s a small camera you can use for taking selfies, but the camera’s primary purpose is for free video chats. The display also works with a few Wi-Fi security cameras and Amazon’s new Cloud Cam. A few skills, notably Allrecipes, are optimized for the show, and it will display song lyrics from some Amazon music tracks.

The video chat feature works well, though the angle of the device means you have to stand a few feet away from it to get your head in the picture, so it won’t work well if you’re sitting in front of it at a desk. Both video and sound came through clearly when I used it to call the New York Times’s Brian X. Chen. We could hear and see each other very well.

The display doesn’t improve standard Alexa interactions. When not actively using the Show, the screen displays random news headlines, but you can’t customize them to fit your interests. The few skills optimized for the screen can still be awkward to use.

Get Show only if you really have a good use for video chats, and then get two, because they’re cheaper when you buy a pair.

Also great

Amazon Tap

The Tap is for people who want to take Alexa into the backyard, primarily those who’ve already made the investment in an Echo (or otherwise use Alexa within the home). Smaller than the Echo, the Tap includes a speaker capable of decently reproducing music, a rechargeable battery, and a charging base. Keep the Tap charging in a convenient place near the back door so every time you want to sit on your lounge chair you can grab it on the way out. As long as your Wi-Fi signal is strong enough to pass through your wall, the Tap can tap into its music abilities for all the neighbors to hear. The Tap didn’t originally sport the always-on microphone for receiving voice commands that the Echo and Dot have, but Amazon recently enabled a hands-free mode with a firmware update. If you don’t enable that feature, you need to press a microphone button prior to giving a command, similar to pressing the home button on an iPhone to call Siri to attention (if you don’t have “Hey Siri” enabled on your iPhone). This little inconvenience is meant to make the Tap’s battery last longer. It also makes it unsuitable as your main Alexa interface.

Pull Quote

The Tap didn’t originally sport the always-on microphone for receiving voice commands that the Echo and Dot have, but Amazon recently enabled a hands-free mode with a firmware update.

Both the Echo and the Dot (though not the Tap) devices can be extended with the addition of an Alexa Voice Remote. The remote, as you can guess, is a little handheld remote with a microphone built in. Let’s say you have an Echo in the kitchen, but want to be able to shut off your Hue and LIFX lights from the bedroom. Rather than purchasing another Echo for the bedroom, you can get a Voice Remote. It also includes volume control for the speaker it’s synced with, but because Alexa doesn’t support multiroom audio, it can’t turn down multiple Echo speakers.

There’s one last Amazon Alexa product that most people forget about: the Fire TV. The Voice Remote for Amazon’s media streamers includes a microphone for voice searches of Amazon content, but you can also use the remote to access Alexa, whether to search programming, control smart-home devices, or, perhaps, to order an Echo Dot. If you’re considering media streamers, we much prefer the Roku Streaming Stick (the Fire’s interface feels unfinished and privileges Amazon content), but it’s an interesting option if you do prefer Amazon Prime video or music and want to experiment with Alexa.

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