YOU COULD HAVE A ‘GOOD MORNING’ ROUTINE, FOR INSTANCE, THAT TURNS ALL THE LIGHTS IN THE HOUSE ON, RATTLES OFF YOUR TO-DO LIST AND MEETINGS FOR THE DAY, AND GIVES YOU BOTH WEATHER, NEWS AND TRAFFIC UPDATES.
SPEAKERS AREN’T JUST for playing music anymore. At least, not in the world of Amazon. Since late 2014, the online juggernaut has been rolling out a variety of Echo-branded ‘smart speakers’ that let you perform a wide variety of tasks using voice commands.
Using the trigger word ‘Alexa’, which wakes the Echo up, you can ask the time, check the weather, look up your calendar, find out where the nearest Chinese restaurant is, and ask factual questions like “Who is the premier of New South Wales?” and “Who starred in the movie Top Gun?”
This may not sound all that impressive, given you can do these things through your smartphone already. But the beauty of the Echo — and other smart speakers like it — is that you’re no longer dependent on your device. Rather than having to fumble for your smartphone, unlock it, navigate to the relevant screen and tap away on the on-screen keyboard, you can access much of the same functionality completely hands-free. Plus, the Echo uses a high-performance, far afield 7-microphone array that is far better at picking up voice commands — even in a noisy room with the TV on — than a smartphone.
Despite being first to market with a smart speaker, it was only in early 2018 that the Amazon Echo made its way down under. Alas, the full range isn’t available in Australia — notably, the niftier Echos with built-in colour displays are a no-show — but there are more than enough models to take on its main smart speaker rivals: the Google Home and the Apple HomePod.
The Echo Plus is the premium speaker of the range. The main point of difference between the Plus and the regular Echo is that the former comes with a built-in ZigBee hub for controlling smart home gadgets. This is a nice marketing ploy, but it’s not as impressive as it sounds. The things is, you don’t actually need to plump for the Plus in order to control smart home devices; this has always been possible from the entry-level Echo Dot and upwards — it just requires a bit of extra configuration.
The Echo Plus promises to make the process simpler with out-of-the-box support for smart home devices that use the ZigBee standard. But many popular gadgets don’t use that standard, so you’ll need to set these up the same way you would on other Echo speakers anyway. Worse, devices that are supported — such as the Philips Hue smart lights — don’t have as many features available when connecting them via the Echo Plus’ built-in ZigBee hub. Notably, you can’t change the colour of bulbs that support this. This isn’t an issue with the Philips smart bulb that comes in the box, as this is limited to varying shades of white only, but it’s a problem for the multitude of other lights in the Hue range. You’re better off using the Philips Hue bridge and installing the relevant Hue skill instead; in which case, you can save yourself about $80 by opting for the regular Echo. Oddly, several smart devices that work with any Echo configured to a US account — Belkin WeMo, Nest and Sonos — aren’t supported for Australian users.
But you don’t need to have Wi-Fi-enabled light bulbs, smart plugs or cloud-connected security cameras to get a kick out of the Echo. It’s very capable as a device in its own right, and can tap into a variety of information sources — including your own personal data — to do your bidding.
The Alexa skills marketplace opens you up to more than 15,000 additional skills that the Echo can perform once installed, and while many of these are duplicates or duds, there are quite a few gems in there.
The Uber skill is definitely one of our favourites, enabling us to quickly hail a car while getting ready to leave the house. You can also order Domino’s pizza, ask Flight Centre what the cheapest flight to Bali is, check your amaysim mobile balance, find out when your Energy Australia bill is due, and even check your NAB or Westpac bank balance.
Whether it’s as smart as its rivals really depends on what you ask it. It couldn’t tell us what the current price for Bitcoin was (while Siri was smart enough to not only tell us the current price, but tell us how much it went up or down compared with previous days), but it was clever enough to interpret “Is it going to be a scorcher today?’ as an enquiry about the weather (Siri, sadly, is not as well-versed in local vernacular).
One of the cool things you can do is group tasks together into ‘routines’ that correspond to particular times of day or situations. You could have a ‘good morning’ routine, for instance, that turns all the lights in the house on, rattles off your to-do list and meetings for the day, and gives you both weather, news and traffic updates. Routines can be set on a timer or triggered with a set voice command.
Of course, you’ll probably use the Echo most for music playback, and in that regard, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. While it offers native support for the ever-popular Spotify music streaming service, along with Amazon Music Unlimited, you’re out of luck if your preferred platform is Apple Music, Google Play Music, Tidal or even YouTube.
That’s not to say that you can’t play music from those platforms. Since the Echo Plus also functions as a Bluetooth speaker, you can stream that music from your mobile device — you just can’t take advantage of the Echo’s voice commands to control music playback or navigate through the library by song name, artist or genre.
Just don’t expect $229 worth of sound quality. With much of the budget blown on the fancy voice recognition technology and built-in smart hub, its audio capabilities are almost an afterthought. The Echo Plus is certainly loud enough to fill a room (although it distorts at full volume), but the sound it produces is quite flat, and particularly lacks depth at the bottom end. It’s perfectly capable for pop music, but if you want to be moved into some serious head banging or bobbing, the Echo Plus won’t get you there.
Amazon has had a number of years to work on the Echo, and it’s a legacy that shows with the wide variety of functions it can perform, as well as the breadth of the speaker range — even if some of those models aren’t yet available in Australia. We’re especially impressed with all of the localised skills available at launch, and this is a significant point of difference compared with other smart speakers in the market, which are far more limited when it comes to controlling third- party apps and services.
As for the Echo Plus, we’re not convinced it’s a worthwhile investment compared to other speakers in the range. If you’re an audiophile, you’re actually better off with the entry-level Echo Dot and using the audio line-out to connect it to a superior speaker. And whether you use a lot of smart home gadgets or not, the regular Echo actually comes out on top.
AMAZON ECHO PLUS
ZigBee certified; dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac; Bluetooth A2DP and AVRCP; 7-microphone array; 2.5-inch woofer, 0.8-inch tweeter; 3.5mm audio output; 23.5 x 8.4 x 8.4cm; 954g