Which Amazon Echo to buy? How to pick the best Alexa device for your needs

Amazon now has an entire army of Echo devices. Some listen to you. Some also watch you. Which should you choose? We help you decide.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in May 2017. It was republished in June 2018 with all the new Alexa options Amazon introduced in the first part of the year, and then updated again in September of 2018 with yet more new Alexa and Echo options, 'cause the folks at Amazon never sleep.

You know what Alexa does. She turns on your lights. She plays your songs. She answers your math questions. She wakes you up. She sets timers. She's your canister of helpfulness wherever your voice can be heard in your house. She's your BFF.

She's benign AI. She does everything you need, that you should be able to do yourself. And, as long as she doesn't wake up one morning, decide to take over the world, and murder us in our beds, she'll be a friend to us all.

Must read: Meet Amazon's new Echo devices: Prices, release dates, and features

But Alexa is more than the Echo, that black Pringles Can of Doom we met back in November 2014. Since the Echo was introduced, Amazon has been fielding a plethora of Alexas, a veritable Alexapalooza of devices. Since Alexa answers "Sorry, I don't know that one," to "Alexa, which Alexa should I buy," we figured we'd help out.

By the way, if you're confused about why I might interchangeably talk about Echos and Alexas, it's this: most Alexa-enabled devices sold by Amazon are called Echos. They all respond to the name Alexa. It's like having a litter of dogs, whose names are all Pixel. Except that Alexa is not nearly as cute, but is way less yappy.

As we'll show toward the end of this article, there are other Alexa-enabled devices by companies other than Amazon that do not use the Echo brand, but are still Alexa devices.

TL;DR guide

If you want an Echo, but don't want to spend much, get an Echo Dot for under $50. You'll get some audio playback, but nothing special. On the other hand, you get all the Alexa smart assistant features.

Also: How to sell your old Amazon Echo CNET

If you want better sound, get an Echo. For $50 more than the Echo Dot, it has more speakers and sounds better. It's also twice the price of the Echo Dot.

If you want the better sound of the Echo, but also want to control smart devices without buying a hub, get the Echo Plus. It's an Echo plus a hub. That's it. It'll set you back about $150.

If you want Echo capabilities and a tablet-like screen (but that's wired to wall power), get an Echo Show. At $229, it's pricey. It also has a camera, so you might want to cover that up.

If you want a tiny Echo video display (and a camera), get the Echo Spot. It's $129 and replaces you night table clock nicely. Did we mention it's got a camera? You might want to cover that, too.

If you want Amazon to suggest fashion options to you, get the Echo Look. It's a bank of cameras that make smart recommendations for certain Amazon-sold fashions. It also might be on the way out, but if you want this, you know who you are.

That's the quick view. What follows is a deeper dive into the Alexa family as of later-mid-2018. Before we dive in, we want to mention that, over the past year, the Alexa technology has been baked into devices from companies besides Amazon. We're only only covering the Amazon Echo devices in depth. We're also not looking at the Alexa capabilities built into the Amazon Fire TV, tablets, microwave, and new TVs. We'll look at these accessories in another article.

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The new Echo

Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

The new Echo

This is the one. The device that changed all our lives. Prior to the Echo, we thought it was okay to turn on our lights by touching the dirty switches on the wall. We thought it was OK to set our own alarm clocks. We thought it wasn't the height of crudeness to punch numbers into a calculator using our actual fingers. We were willing to do these simple, basic tasks ourselves.

Also: Everything you need to know about the Amazon Echo CNET

But then we learned that we could set timers for every little thing, with impunity. We learned that having our choice of music at our fingertips no longer required actual fingers. The Echo became the least necessary, most appreciated simple helper in our home. We got to know Alexa, and she became family.

The Original Echo most closely resembled a black Pringles can. This device defined the Alexa concept. It had a ring of powerful microphones, capable of picking up commands from a distance. It had decent quality speakers for room-filling music. It was meant to be both an intelligent assistant, and a spare Bluetooth speaker.

In late 2017, the original Echo was taken off the market, replaced by a new Echo and Echo Plus, which have since been updated again.

The new Echo is about 2/3 the size of the original can. At the offer price of $99, it's also less expensive than the original Echo. If you keep an eye out on Amazon, you can often find it at a lower price, making the product even more cost effective.

Beyond the size reduction, the new Echo also adds the ability to change skins. Personally, I like the black look for pretty much everything, but if you're trying to make the Echo blend in with your surroundings, the Amazon-designed skins might prove appealing. That said, there are a lot of different skins available from third parties for nearly all the Echo devices.

Amazon did not sacrifice sound quality when it reduced the Echo's stature. I have a new Echo in my garage and its sound is strong and clear. This is a case of a product that simply improved over time, as well as reduced its cost.

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Second generation Echo Plus

The Echo Plus

With the introduction of the second generation Echo Plus, Amazon has officially retired the Pringles Can of Doom Echo form factor. In terms of physical size difference, the current-generation Echo and Echo Plus are now nearly identical. The Echo Plus is just about half an inch thicker.

Also: Amazon Echo Plus is the smart home hub of the future CNET

What do you get for the additional size? A smart hub. If you're not familiar with smart home devices, this will take a second to explain. Basically, in almost all cases, when you add a smart home device (like the Alexa-controlled Philips Hue bulbs), you need to add a hub to your network to control them.

While hubs aren't that difficult to set up, one disadvantage is the extra device, wire to your router (or WiFi link), and power dongle. The Echo Plus eliminates the need for this extra device for most common smart home devices.

You're not going to buy the Echo Plus because you want to save money over a hub. Most hubs are about $50 and the Echo Plus is just about fifty dollars more than the new Echo. Instead, you'll get the Echo Plus if you simply want to eliminate one more gadget you have to manage, deal with, plug in, and cord manage.

You also get a slightly larger woofer (3.0 inches vs. 2.5) and a teensy bit larger tweeter (0.8 inch vs. 0.6 inch). You're unlikely to hear any real difference in sound quality, but it might give you some bragging rights.

The new 2018 Echo Plus also has not only a line out cable 3.5 mm jack, but it can also support line-in as well.

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Echo Dot

The Echo Dot (and Kids Edition)

Dot looks like an Echo that went through a can crusher. It has all of Alexa's intelligence, but doesn't have the powerful speaker that Amazon says, "fills any room with immersive 360-degree audio."

Also: Amazon's Echo Dot: Still a crown jewel of the modern smart home CNET

The Dot is the essential Alexa, trimmed down to the bare minimum needed for the full Alexa experience. At $49.99, it's also a lot less expensive. In the September 2018 refresh, Amazon made the Dot slightly rounder and claims it has slightly better audio.

We have two earlier generation Dots in our home, and they're not really as good as either the original Echo or the new Echos. By biggest criticism is we've found we sometimes have to speak louder or aim our mouths at the Dot for it to properly hear commands.

We didn't buy the Dots for music playback, and while it will play tunes from Amazon Music or Spotify (the services we use), it's, as expected, not nearly as "soundy" as its bigger brethren.

That said, for a device that can be had for real cheap (we've seen them on sale for as little as $29), you can't go wrong bringing a Dot into your family. If you want to get started with a smart home and spend less than $100, the Echo Dot will be the cornerstone of your installation.

There's also a Kids Edition of the Echo Dot for $79. The extra $30 buys parents a lot of piece of mind. There's a kid-friendly (read: robust) case, a year's subscription to Amazon FreeTime Unlimited (Amazon's library of kid-safe content), parental controls, and a two-year warranty. The big value is the warranty.

Note that the Kids Edition doesn't appear to have been updated in Amazon's September 2018 refresh and is no longer listed in Amazon's main Alexa Echo line. It may be on its way out.

Basically, if your kids decide the Echo Dot looks like a hockey puck and then treat it like a hockey puck, Amazon will replace it. Its replacement policy is for two years, no questions asked.

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Amazon's Echo Look device.

The Echo Look

If you don't mind a giant AI in the cloud watching your every move with a camera in your bedroom closet, you might be comfortable with the Echo Look. On the other hand, well, you really should read or watch Colossus: The Forbin Project to be truly weirded out by what can happen if an artificially intelligent being can observe your every move and mood.

Also: Amazon's Echo Look camera turns Alexa into a fashion stylist CNET

For those who aren't wearing tinfoil caps, the Echo Look is $199.99. For more than a year after its introduction, it was only available for the beautiful people. You could only buy this fashion accessory if Amazon sent you an invitation. As of this month, however, Amazon opened up its ordering process and anyone can buy one.

Look, I need to confess something. As soon as I typed "fashion accessory," I could feel my keyboard trying to pull away. I am not exactly qualified to talk about fashion. I did wear a shirt with buttons once in the past year (actually, in 2017, once), but I am not the "target demo" for the Look.

The Echo Look is, at least today, a device designed to help clothes-conscious consumers keep track of their wardrobes, make decisions on what items look best together, and take full-length mirror-style selfies with a blurred background to, as Amazon describes it, "make your outfits pop."

So, the Echo Look is, in my opinion, a beginning. Amazon embedded a camera and some LED lights into an Echo, and found one good application for a specific target market. By limiting the scope of the machine vision challenge to wardrobe, the company can get a feel for how extensive this opportunity might be.

Over time, I expect the Echo Look to expand beyond clothing. I can certainly see one in the kitchen, used to show the device what products are being consumed or are needed. I can even see one in the workshop, helping to provide measurements and catalog tools. Today, though, the Echo Look is merely a wardrobe assistant.

Keep an eye on the Echo Look. Either it's a flash in the pan, or there's a lot more to this than Amazon is showing us right now. For example, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Amazon didn't come out with a pet cam or home security cam application for the Look once it's ready for volume sales. This would make some sense, especially since Amazon has invested heavily in its Cloud Cam and related operations.

Here's a quick warning: We think this device might be on its way out. It's still for sale, but it's not listed on the main Alexa Echo device page, and it did not receive either an upgrade or a mention in recent Amazon announcements.

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The new Echo Show

The Echo Show

Speaking of a lot more to it than Amazon is currently showing, there's the Echo Show. The Echo Show is an Echo with a screen and a camera. Remember all the hype about video chat back in the 1990s? That's the Echo Show. Except, I think, maybe more.

Also: Amazon's second-gen Echo Show looks sleeker CNET

First, let's talk price, because that tells us a little about how Amazon wants this thing to sell. The Echo Show lists at $229.99 but is regularly available at $159. In September 2018, Amazon substantially overhauled this, adding better sound, a sleeker form, and a substantially bigger display. Essentially the new Echo Show is all that, and more, compared to the first version.

So, what is the Echo Show? It's an Echo that is aimed at video chat and monitoring. At least that's its starting application. Let's deconstruct that for a moment. We've all used FaceTime or some similar video chat capability on our phones. The Echo Show does the same thing, except it has to be plugged in and must sit in one spot.

Does this remind you of anything? If you're a Millennial or older, you remember telephones. These were devices tethered to the wall that were rock-solid reliable. They allowed us to talk (with our voices) to other people, who also had telephones.

While there were eventually wireless phones, for years, most of us had to walk to the location where the phone was, dial the party we wanted to talk to, and stay within the reach of the cord. We could only talk, not text.

There was no panic over where we put down our smartphone. There was no concern over whether the battery was charged. We rarely uttered, "What? I can't understand you." It was a simpler time.

OK, I know I'm being a bit facetious in my description, but there's a point here. My mom, who spent the last 30 years of her life using computers actively, kept getting confused trying to use her smartphone. She kept hitting the red button, then wondering why her calls kept dropping. My dad didn't trust his smartphone at all, and insisted I install a landline for him when he moved to a new house.

Neither my mom nor my dad liked the idea of the contact list in the phone. They had a few numbers memorized. For everything else, there was a sheet of paper with phone numbers next to, you guessed it, the telephone.

There are two immediate and powerful applications for the Echo Show: Checking on elderly family members, and being able to easily look in on the kids. The Echo Show easily allows you to use voice activation to contact, talk to, and see a family member.

If on the approved list, you can establish a connection immediately. This gives concerned middle-agers the ability to quickly ascertain the health of an elderly parent. It gives parents and grandparents the ability to easily connect with, talk to, and see the kids and grandkids. It bypasses the whole smartphone thing completely. While many of us might find the idea of a fixed, plugged-in phone to be an inconvenience, it also provides a hands-free calling experience, from a set place, a known location, and a predictable setting.

Like the Look, only time will tell with this one. Yes, there are privacy issues. But since the Show requires the consent of the parties at each end on setup, it's a great way to keep tabs on someone you're concerned about.

Let's go farther, though. What might someday be on that screen? Right now, you can ask Alexa to time things and calculate things, but you can't tell her to show you the next item in the recipe. But with the addition of video and image skills, I'm betting that's not far off.

With Amazon's recent move into security devices (they bought Ring and Blink, for example), the Show is also becoming a convenient security monitor. I think we'll see more of that over time. In fact, because my office is upstairs and at the far end of the house from our front door, I'm thinking about getting a Show to quickly be able to answer the Ring doorbell on my door without a mad dash across the house.

Already, Amazon is taking on FaceTime and Skype (especially since plain ol' Echos can now message as well) with Alexa Calling & Messaging. There are a lot of fiddly things about this that still have to be worked out (like managing messages for multiple family members) and why you'd use the Echo instead of, say, iMessage. But it's still interesting.

That said, we bought an Echo Show and, well, used it like a regular Alexa device. My wife insisted she was going to do video calls with her sister, but never did. She also insisted she was going to watch Amazon Prime Video on the Show, but never did. She just talks to the Show like she does to any of our other Alexa devices, and barely ever glances at the screen. That said, we did 3D print a small cover that we keep over the Show's camera. Have Alexa looking at you was just a little too creepy, all things considered.

Echo Spot
Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

The Echo Spot

The Echo Spot is kind of like an Echo Show left in the dryer for too long. It's a tiny Echo with a camera and round screen. Fundamentally, the Echo Spot is Amazon's answer for a smart night table clock.

Also: Amazon Echo Spot review: Alexa's touchscreen fails to impress CNET

Speaker quality is roughly akin to the Echo Dot. For $129, the Spot is a bit pricey. I think Amazon made a mistake with this one. I think this would have been an ideal bedside clock replacement -- if it didn't include a camera. With a camera, it's just one more creepy device in your house. But without the camera, it would have made for a very convenient clock replacement. Ah, well. It's not like Amazon isn't updating these things constantly (hello, Apple, take a hint).

How to decide

Now that you've met the Echo family, let's look at which device is right for you.

If you don't have any Alexa devices yet, and you don't need to care for elderly folks or kids (or have friends who want to video chat with this technology), your first device should be the new Echo. It's a little more expensive, but the added speaker is worth it.

If you want an Echo but want to reduce smart home device clutter, consider the Echo Plus. It's more expensive and won't really save you money over a hub, but what price can you pay on reducing the junk factor in your house?

If you want to save money and still get an Alexa, get a Dot. You won't have the music-playing fidelity, but you'll have the rest of Alexa's magic.

If you have kids and are concerned they'll treat your Dot like a real hockey puck, get the Kid's Edition. You'll have better parental controls and when Junior inevitably launches the Dot against the curb at 94 miles per hour, you can rest easy knowing Amazon will simply send you a replacement.

If you already have an Echo and want to add-on a device somewhere where music-playing quality isn't of top importance, buy a Dot. We bought a second regular Echo for the bedroom, where a Dot would have worked. But we do like playing music there as well.

If you're already drooling at the idea of the Echo Look, get one (you know who you are). Otherwise, wait until it does more, or doesn't terrify you.

If you're caring for elderly parents, or want to see the people you're connecting to at a fixed place and location, get an Echo Show. Otherwise, wait for a while. You'll probably get one. We just don't know why, yet.

If you're looking for a bedside clock and also want the video benefits of the Show, consider the Echo Spot. Honestly, I'd skip the Echo Spot. For a few more bucks (at least when its on sale), the Echo Show does the same things, but with a better screen and higher quality sound.

For those of you who follow Amazon's Echo devices closely, you might have noticed we didn't mention the Tap. it's no longer available as a new product from Amazon and is only sold via Amazon Warehouse. We think it's been discontinued.

The bottom line

The bottom line, especially for the Look and the Show, is that it isn't entirely clear how these beasties will change our lives. But I'll tell you this: When I first looked at the original Echo, I thought it was ridiculous and unnecessary. Now, if you want my Alexa, you'll have to pry her from my cold, dead hands.

And she still doesn't do anything that I couldn't do if I wasn't self-enabling myself to new levels of laziness. I mean, really? I should be willing to flip on a light switch with my actual hands.


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Previous and related coverage:

Unnecessary Alexa tricks: Controlling a picture frame with your Echo

In a world where a sentient Pringles can listens to our every utterance and grants our every wish (subject to certain restrictions), do we really need to enable even more laziness? Heck to the yeah!

4 first impressions of the Fire TV Cube

Is it an Echo or a streaming box? Turns out, it's both.

Amazon Alexa: Cheat sheet TechRepublic

Amazon Alexa is the leading digital assistant on the market. Find out more about this machine-learning innovation with our Alexa cheat sheet