Part of Amazon’s big overhaul of its Echo smart speaker line-up is the Amazon Echo Plus, a super-charged version of its original smart speaker.
While the new second generation Echo has been downsized (and down priced), the Echo Plus now inhabits the classic Echo case. And with it the Echo Plus offers expanded smart home functionality and a bigger, beefier speaker. But is it worth the extra outlay? We’ve spend a couple of months with the Amazon Echo Plus to find out.
Amazon Echo Plus: Design & features
As briefly mentioned, the Amazon Echo Plus embodies the same classic design as the original Amazon Echo speaker. That tall, lanky case with holes dotted around the base remains, and only the silver colour introduced with the Echo Plus would be any clue to its hidden powers. If you plump for black or white, the other Plus colour options, there’s no way to tell it apart from older Echos.
Essential reading: Amazon Alexa super guide
For those new to the Echo range, there are several elements to the design. The top features the microphone array, a button to manually awake Alexa, the reset and connect button and a twist ability for volume control.
At the bottom is the power socket, hidden underneath, and a 3.5mm jack output, for connecting to external speakers.
Inside things have been improved. The speakers have been given a marginal upgrade, with a bigger 0.8in tweeter included, over the 0.5in of the standard Echo. Does it make a difference? Sure, sound is beefier than the original Echo, but it’s far from an audio revelation – our pocket-size JBL Bluetooth speaker is just as good – and it’s set to leave audiophiles wanting more.
And the final piece of the puzzle here is Alexa. Naturally, Alexa is Alexa, the best voice assistant currently available – but the same one you’ll get across all Echo devices. Buying the Plus doesn’t give you access to a better, more intelligent or feature-rich Alexa than owners of a standard Echo or even the diminutive Echo Dot.
She still sets timers, searches the web and controls your smart home – and if you’re looking for a more conclusive and complete rendition of her powers, you’re best reading our complete guide to Amazon Alexa.
But the improved tech in the Echo Plus does add one new dimension. A built-in smart home hub has the power to automatically connect to devices in your home and make your whole set-up simpler.
Amazon Echo Plus: Smart home
The biggest addition to the Amazon Echo Plus is its shiny new smart home hub, which can detect and control devices within your home.
The idea and rationale is simple. A growing smart home could, in theory, involve a number of different hubs that control individual families of products. Think Philips Hue smart lighting, Hive thermostat, Blink cameras – you get the idea.
While any Amazon Echo device can control these, it does that by communicating with that product’s hub. The Echo Plus builds in a Zigbee controller – a standard communication between smart home devices, favoured by a large portion of the market. In this instance, Hive for example can do away with its hub, freeing you from clutter and unsightly white boxes taking up valuable plugs.
And it works well. The big winners are Philips Hue owners, and you’ll often see Philips bulbs bundled with Echo Plus speakers. Fit your bulb, turn it on and Echo Plus will find it if you say “Alexa – find my devices”. It then appears in the Alexa app, can be controlled via voice and can be mapped to groups within your home.
It’s a vision of how simple the smart home could be – one day – but right now, there are issues.
Issue one is that while Zigbee devices are popular, it’s just one of a handful of standards out there. That doesn’t mean that other devices won’t work – Alexa pretty much works with anything – it’s just you often have to do things the old-fashioned way: set up a hub, connect your products, install the Alexa skill, use your device. When it’s listed like that it’s clear why Amazon sees a simplified future, but it’s only backed half the horses in this smart home steeplechase.
The next issue is over control. Take Philips Hue. Once connected, hublessly, to the Echo Plus it’s possible to turn on/off and change brightness. But what about fine tuning? What about the carefully arranged scenes you enjoy in the Philips app? Well, they don’t work, so it’s a simplified procedure for a simpler outcome – good for some people, a pain for others.
But the big question is whether or not the Echo Plus is worth it. Well, some will obviously find a move to a hubless smart home appealing, but for our money, the Echo Plus doesn’t quite have the power.
Support isn’t ubiquitous enough across different smart home standards to definitively say that the Amazon Echo Plus is the last hub you’ll need. Sure, you could dedicate your life to Zigbee technology, but it’s way too early to make that kind of call. And nobody should be planning their life around a IEEE 802.15.4-mesh. In short, by all means use Alexa to control your smart home devices, and worry about ditching your hubs in a few years time.
Amazon Echo Plus: Smart home control
No matter how you add your smart home devices into your Alexa ecosystem – be it via the built-in hub or using old-fashioned skills – there are several nuances to the control on offer. You can turn devices on and off by voice, but you can also now take advantage of groups, routines and scenes from within the Alexa app.
Routines within the Alexa app enable you to set a series of smart home actions under one voice command: for example, “bed time” could turn off a series of lights and plugs downstairs, while turning on the light in your bedroom light to a dim 20%.
This, along with the new groups which enable you to bundle together control of multiple devices to create sets such as “living room lights” and “downstairs lights” is a big step toward truly smart homes, and given that nearly every smart home device can be made to work, makes it one of the best experiences out there. But it could still be better.
Firstly, the huge array of sensors out there don’t really have much place under Alexa’s spell, so there’s precious little in the way of recipes or IFTTT-style control. Secondly, while routines are great for turning things on and off, you can’t add media into the mix. Turning on Alexa’s many sleep time songs would be a no-brainer for a bed time routine, likewise, control of Amazon Fire TV stick would also be great for “movie time”. You can summon an Alexa news bulletin – quite a painful experience at the best of times – but that’s about it.
- Smart home made easy
- Simpler set up
- Slightly improved sign
- Design a little dated
- Only Zigbee devices supported
- Not necessarily future-proof