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Ever since I saw “Iron Man,” I’ve wanted a robot butler that could manage my entire house. And while we aren’t there quite yet, Amazon’s Alexa has simplified dozens of mundane tasks from playing music to adjusting your lights and thermostat. But if you head to Amazon to buy an Echo, you’ll be inundated with more models and variations than you could possibly sift through. So we decided to try and help. First, let’s clear up the difference between Alexa and Echo, two brand names that often get confused for one another.
- Alexa is the name of Amazon’s voice assistant — the digital lady that tells you the weather, or answers your burning questions about Taylor Swift’s height (5-foot-11-inches, by the way).
- The Amazon Echo, on the other hand, is the name of the actual device you put in your kitchen, containing the far-field microphones that listen for the all-important “Alexa” wake word.
Amazon’s Echo devices aren’t the only gadgets with the built-in Alexa assistant, but if you’re looking to run your house with a voice assistant, you’ll almost certainly want a few of them. These are the most current models to look at.
Amazon’s standard Echo is the jack-of-all-trades. Its mid-size body allows it to pump out music at a reasonable volume through its 360-degree speaker setup, answer questions and control your smart home. This is the Echo speaker I recommend for most people, at least for the main areas of your house. It comes in four colors, and you can grab it refurbished for a small discount, too.
If you want access to Alexa in a certain room but don’t necessarily need the larger speakers, the more affordable Echo Dot is perfect. It does everything the Echo does but at half the price. Here’s the catch: Its speakers don’t have the volume and depth of the standard Echo. It’s fine for weather reports but less ideal for music. You can get the Dot with a built-in clock or in a kids edition with parental controls, too.
The Echo Plus looks nearly identical to the standard Echo, but it contains a built-in smart home hub that can control certain devices using the Zigbee protocol. It does not, however, support other popular smart home protocols like Z-Wave, so while it can serve as a rudimentary smart home hub, it’s not as powerful as something like Samsung’s SmartThings.
While the standard Echo sounds decent for music, the Echo Studio is a larger speaker designed for higher fidelity audio. If you’re in a spacious room and need the extra volume, the Echo Studio could be a good purchase — though true Hi-Fi enthusiasts may want to use the Echo Link (see below) paired with a separate set of speakers.
The Echo Flex shrinks the Echo even further: It’s half the price of the Dot, plugs straight into the wall and sports even smaller speakers. This Echo device is best for spaces where you don’t plan on getting music or information from Alexa, but you want to be able to control the lights with your voice. A USB port on the bottom allows for accessories like night lights and motion sensors, too. Amazon just launched an Echo Flex Smart Clock Accessory that you can plug into the Echo Flex's USB port. Once attached, the accessory automatically displays time in a 12-hour or 24-hour format.
If you like the idea of playing music with your voice but want to use your own set of Hi-Fi speakers, you want the Echo Link. It doesn’t contain built-in microphones but will allow you to ask another Echo to stream music to your stereo. If you don’t already have an amplifier or a receiver, the Echo Link Amp can power your speakers as well. Note that these devices aren't always as seamless as dedicated Echos when it comes to multi-room music, so be sure to test it with your setup if you plan on playing music in sync throughout the house.
The Echo Show brings all the voice control of traditional Echo device and adds a screen that allows you to video chat with friends, keep an eye on your home security cameras, or watch YouTube videos as you cook in the kitchen. You can grab it in 5-inch or 8-inch sizes.
Like the Echo Show, the Echo Spot has a screen built-in, though it’s only two-and-a-half inches — Amazon pitches it as a high-tech alarm clock, with the ability to see the weather or your doorbell at a glance.
Those are the primary members of the Echo family, but this really only scratches the surface of what Amazon offers in the smart home universe.
- The Fire TV Cube is an Echo and Fire TV in one, so you can watch Netflix on your TV using only your voice.
- The Echo Auto brings Alexa voice control to your car.
- And experiments like the Echo Frames, Echo Loop and Echo Buds bring her out into the world with you.
- That’s not to mention non-Amazon devices that have Alexa microphones built-in like the Sonos One, ecobee SmartThermostat, or Netgear Orbi Voice mesh Wi-Fi router.
These devices have some limitations when compared to the standard Echos, especially when it comes to voice messaging and multi-room music, so I generally prefer to stick to the standalone options. But if you’re looking to make your robot butler available everywhere, there is no shortage of Alexa-enabled devices to choose from.