Smart speakers and displays litter every surface of my home at the moment, thanks to Amazon and Google, which have both released new sub-$100 smart speakers leading into the holidays. Amazon sent me a fourth-generation Echo ($99.99) and an Echo Dot with clock ($59.99) to test. We’ll focus mostly on the Echo, which also came with a Philips Hue light and a Zigbee sensor to test its smart home capabilities fully.
If you’re an Amazon home and need a new Echo, the latest generation is a solid choice. It boasts a new, round form factor and has powerful bass that really lets you feel the music. As a digital assistant, the device is responsive, and latency between a spoken command and action is on par with earlier Echo devices. This product does have a new machine learning chip on board that’s supposed to provide a faster response, but that’s not actually working just yet. Amazon says the faster speech processing that happens locally on the device will be out later this year.
My family didn’t notice a change in how responsive Alexa was, but they did notice the new sound. As a speaker, the new Echo is loud, offering a lot of bass and acceptable separation at the mid and higher ranges. It did tend to get a little muddy when a song had a lot going on, especially compared with the Nest Audio, which had less bass but much better and consistent separation. But, my family preferred the Echo with its showy bass and the ability to project music across a fairly large room. My living room and dining area is one giant 20-by-23 square-foot space, and nothing really fills the entire room, but the Echo wasn’t embarrassing. Amazon touted the Echo’s ability to adapt the sound to the room’s contours, but it was tough to hear much of a difference. I suppose that means it’s doing its job.
The speaker also has a 3.5 mm audio jack for those who want to connect the Echo to other speakers, which is handy (the Echo Dot with clock also had a line out, which is a decided upgrade as well.) Compared to my first-generation Echo, there’s no contest. This speaker is worth an upgrade.
The Echo also has a few surprises, including a temperature sensor. I briefly wondered if that meant I could soon use it as an external sensor for my Ecobee thermostat, which would be pretty cool. For now, I can use it to ask Alexa the temperature inside the room it’s in and set up temperature-related routines. Like earlier Echo devices it also has a Zigbee radio to connect to sensors and lights. (Some of the lights can also connect to Alexa using Bluetooth). I will say that I wish Amazon would adjust the Alexa app to make it easier to clean up old devices. Currently, I have two of everything and half a dozen older devices that haven’t been on my network for a year but need me to delete them manually.
But that has nothing to do with the Echo hardware. There’s not much more to say about this except that set up is so much easier than it used to be. If you have an Amazon Echo already, adding the new one involves plugging the Echo in, opening the app, and letting the Bluetooth connection on your phone and the Echo connect. From there, it will let you select a Wi-Fi network. If you let it, Amazon can automatically fill in your password, and then the device is online. The only irritating bit is clicking through the screens offering you 30 days of Amazon Music and another screen offering you a trial for Audible.
If this is your first Echo device, the process should still be friendly because it will connect via Bluetooth to your phone to get access to the Wi-Fi credentials. You’ll have to type in your Wi-Fi password, though. I think most of us will be able to manage that.
So let’s talk about the cons. The biggest issue I have with the device is the four physical buttons on the sphere’s top. They are ugly, protruding from the surface like plastic pimples disfiguring the contour of the speaker. The best thing I can say about them (and this is a very nice thing) is that I imagine if you were blind, they make it really easy to tell what each button does with a physical plus sign for volume up, a minus sign for the volume down, a mic off switch and a round button to trigger Alexa with a touch. The same button interface is on the Echo Dot and the Echo Dot with clock.
If you’re all in on the Amazon ecosystem, then you probably are okay with having a microphone in your home that’s always listening for a specific wake word. But if you’re concerned, it’s easy to tap the microphone off. You can also ask Alexa to delete everything you said for the last 24 hours, but you will have to go into the Alexa app to enable that setting before you can do it via voice. Later, you will be able to delete everything you’ve ever said to Alexa, but I have my own questions about how that will work.
Finally, since I had one of the Echo Dots with clock, I wanted to say a few words about that. It’s smaller than the Echo coming in around the size of a softball. It doesn’t provide bass-heavy sound, and it’s not really enough to fill my small bedroom with music. I was worried that the LED lights comprising the clock would be too bright in the dark at night, but they are fine. They are also adjustable and can be turned off with a voice command. But the numbers are also small. Small enough that I can’t read the numbers from across the room where I keep the clock. They are a little over half an inch high. And I am old.
If the Dot with clock is right next to you on your bedside table it should be fine, and then you can use the tap-to-snooze function on the alarm. We found that the alarm was much louder than the music volume, so much so that if you like music before bed you may want to remember to turn the volume to one or two before you set your alarm. Or maybe I’m just a light sleeper. Because I’m old.
The Echo Dot with clock costs $10 more than the new version of the Echo Dot, which is great if you need/want the clock, and you plan on keeping it by your bed. I’m not sure if you should junk some of the older Echo dots for this form factor since I only have a second-generation Echo Dot. This one sounds better, but not so much so that I would dump it. After all, if you wanted rich sound, you probably wouldn’t have gone with an Echo Dot.