There are now five Amazon Echo devices you can buy in the UK. Here’s our guide to help you pick the best one
Credit Amazon / WIRED
Amazon’s range of Echo speakers keeps growing and growing. There are now five of Amazon’s Alexa-enabled devices on sale in the UK: the Echo, Echo Plus, Echo Show, Echo Spot and Echo Dot.
In a self-imposed surveillance nightmare, the WIRED team have been living with Amazon’s personal assistants for months – so if you’re looking to buy one here’s our simple guide.
Amazon has dubbed its 2017 Echo the ‘all-new Echo’ and it’s intended to replace the original device that came to the UK towards the end of 2016. The product has shrunk in size and been given an aesthetic overhaul.
None of Amazon’s Echo products are particularly pleasing to the eye, but the 2017 Echo is by far the best looking. It stands at around 15cm tall and is roughly the size of a pint glass. The £90 device is the only Echo that comes with a fabric finish, a touch which is similar to that of the Google Home products and one that easily blends into different rooms without looking overly obtrusive. (There are three shades of grey fabric and also metallic and wood-finish options available).
As well as a design overhaul, Amazon has also improved the far-field voice recognition. The difference is noticeable. Now you don’t find yourself impatiently saying “Alexa” five times to get the device to pay you any attention. Voice recognition is much more sensitive and detected utterances of the wake word, spoken at a normal volume, from an adjacent room.
The speakers are what you would expect from a mid-sized device – average. They’re better than the ones on the original Echo but not going to cut it for audiophiles. But unlike the original Echo, alongside the Bluetooth functionality there’s a 3.5mm jack that allows you to connect a proper set of speakers.
Overall, this is the Echo for people who want a decent Bluetooth speaker that will be good enough to serve an average sized room and also have the added perk of an AI-assistant built-in.
Verdict: The best all-round Echo
The newest member of the Amazon Echo family to launch in the UK is the Spot. It’s a small globular device which has a 2.5-inch screen. Priced at £119 its around the mid-point in the affordability of all the Echos and is only the second to have a screen.
This Echo is billed as being an ideal bedroom alarm clock, which has a built-in voice assistant in the form of Alexa. From my experience of the device this is an accurate reflection of its capabilities. The screen isn’t so big that you will want to watch anything substantial on it, although it is a good size for video calls.
When the lights in a room are turned off, or it gets dark, the screen dims to a level that isn’t annoying. And Amazon has managed to fit a decent speaker into the device. It isn’t the sort of speaker you’d want to listen to for a long session but for idly listening to the radio or having background music playing it’s more than reasonable.
As with the Echo Show, there’s no killer app for the Echo screen but in the smaller format it’s nice to have. The screen works perfectly as a clock and Amazon has made multiple faces that can be used. The big downside? You’re putting a camera in your bedroom.
Verdict: Perfect for the bedroom
While Amazon gave the new Echo a redesigned look, its bigger sibling, the Echo Plus, wasn’t afforded the same luxury. The 23.5cm cylinder is the same size as the original 2014 Echo and it has the same plastic-style covering.
At £140, the Echo Plus is at the higher end of the pricing range for Amazon’s products, only being eclipsed by the £200 Show. For the extra cash, you get a 0.8in tweeter (rather than 0.6in tweeter in the new Echo) and not a huge amount more. The sound quality is admittedly better than the smaller device, but that’s not a huge surprise, and like the Echo it has better voice recognition than predecessors.
What Amazon has done to differentiate the Plus from the ‘all-new Echo’ is making it the smart-home product that’s designed to be hub for your other connected devices. The Echo Plus adds Zigbeeintegration. For people not familiar with smart-home technology – which accounts for most of the UK – Zigbee is a standard used by multiple manufacturers to get their products to speak to each other. This means it is easy to hook-up supported products to the Echo Plus.
The Echo Plus is Amazon’s premium offering in an ever-growing range of smart-home AI speakers, but its predominantly going to appeal to those who are willing to buy smart-home products. If you’re into easy-to-set-up connected lightbulbs, doorbells and more, this is the Echo for you.
Verdict: For smart home fanatics
It’s the most expensive Echo (£200) but also the one with the biggest potential. Unfortunately, as Amazon added a 7in touchscreen to the Echo it transformed the device into a tremendously ugly black box. Admittedly, it doesn’t look quite as bad in person, but for a device with a high price tag, it’s still not stylish.
The screen itself isn’t particularly high-resolution, but the nature of the device means you probably aren’t going to be using it for a huge amount of time in one go. You won’t be watching films on the Echo Show. Amazon adding a screen to the Echo was a logical step of progression (which is rumoured to be copied by Google) and it adds a lot to the device.
When living with the Show, I couldn’t help but constantly look to the device to see the time and news headlines were shown on the display. News updates, which were first introduced in the Echo, are now in video format and offer a quick any-time catchup from the BBC and other services. When the Show plays songs it can show lyrics on the screen, a fun but far from necessary feature.
But there’s one big thing missing from the Show, and that’s proper YouTube support. It would be ideal to show videos in answer to questions: for instance, you’re in the kitchen cooking and you want a refresher on how to knead dough. There’s a YouTube video for that. However, Amazon and Google’s spat means this functionality isn’t likely to come anytime soon. (A web view of YouTube.com can be shown but it isn’t the same as fully integrated support).
You can also make video calls to contacts with another Echo Show, which is still fairly limited at this stage. For this, where you position the Show is important as it isn’t a cordless device that can easily be transported around a property. It needs to be near a plug, and you need to be relatively close to its camera. The device could do with support from Skype or other video-calling services to help it take off properly.
Overall, the Echo Show was a sensible move from Amazon. But should you buy it? In all honesty, it’s probably too early in its lifetime. There needs to be more applications (skills, in Amazon’s developer talk) taking advantage of the screen and a full use case needs to be developed. It’s likely that competitors will release their own home AI assistant devices with screens, and Amazon’s got a head start on them.
Verdict: Only for early adopters
The Echo Dot is the smallest of all the Echos and consequently the cheapest (£50). This makes it the device that most users dipping their toe in a new market are likely to buy. And with the Echo range, this isn’t a bad thing at all.
As Alexa is the same across all of the Amazon cannon there’s no loss of functionality, and the only thing that really suffers with the Dot is the sound quality. This isn’t a device that produces great audio. Playing music from it is similar to that of a high-end laptop: you can listen to it for a short while but you probably don’t want it to be providing the soundtrack to a dinner party. There’s a 3.5mm jack that solves this problem.
For asking the Dot questions and getting answers the speaker is more than good enough. The whole system is only the size of a hockey-puck and, like the Google Home Mini (which is better looking), the Dot is small enough to be in your home and not have an obvious presence.
If you’re looking to get a home digital assistant device from Amazon but aren’t sure where to start, don’t want to break the bank, and already have a decent speaker set, the Dot is the answer.
Verdict: The Echo for everyone (even your Nan).