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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.

Amazon Echo Show adds a touchscreen to the Alexa experience

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in May 2017. It's been republished in June 2018 with all the new Alexa options Amazon introduced in the past year.

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 all of us in our beds, she'll be a friend to us all.

Everything you need to know about the Amazon Echo (CNET)

But Alexa is more than the Echo, that black Pringles Can of Doom we met back in November of 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 towards 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.

Here then, is the Alexa family as of 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, and new TVs.

amazon-echo.jpg

The original Amazon Echo.

The Original Amazon Echo (retired)

This is the one. The first. 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 okay 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.

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 the new Echo and the Echo Plus.

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The new Echo

Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

The new Echo

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.

Amazon Echo: New look, new price, same Alexa smarts (CNET)

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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Choose the Echo Plus that fits your style.

Image: CNET

The Echo Plus

The Echo Plus retains the size and form factor of the original Pringles Can of Doom Echo. While the new Echo is 5.8" tall, the Echo Plus is 9.2".

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.

Review: The Amazon Echo Plus doesn't quite add up (CNET)

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 fifty bucks 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.

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The new Echo Dot lineup. Via Amazon.

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° audio."

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.

Echo Dot Review: Still a crown jewel of the modern smart home (CNET)

We have two 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 thirty bucks 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.

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. Their replacement policy is for two years, no questions asked.

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The Amazon Echo Tap

The Echo Amazon Tap

In the past year, the Echo Tap has been moved out of Amazon's Echo product line and renamed the Amazon Tap. No matter what you call it, it's a bit of an oddity. It provides Alexa capabilities on the go, but you originally had to touch it to make it respond. That's why its name is Tap -- you originally had to tap it to wake it. As of last year, that's no longer the case. With a simple setting in the Alexa app, you can now enable Hands Free Mode, which makes the Tap work like an Echo.

Amazon Tap's hands-free update makes a world of a difference (CNET)

So why the Tap to begin with? Well, the Tap is a portable, chargeable Echo. As long as you have a WiFi access point or a hotspot, you can use the Tap anywhere. It provides its own power. The reason for the tapping action was to save battery life. The less time it spent listening for the wake word meant less battery usage.

With Hands Free Mode, the $129.99 (often on sale for $99) Tap is a full-fledged Echo device. But because Amazon no longer considers it part of its main Echo line of products, it may still be on the end-of-life path we tentatively predicted last year.

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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.

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.

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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.

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The Amazon Echo Show comes with a new video calling feature.

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.

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.

So what is the Echo Show? It's an Echo that is aimed at video chat. 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.

Echo Show review: It's more Echo than Show (CNET)

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.

Okay, 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.

Would you place an Echo on your desk for easy voice calls? Or for quick lookups that don't require your main screen? Or to replace the calculator that you still have somewhere in your drawer? I'm not sure. But I'm guessing that this, too, is an experiment. We'll see where it takes us.

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.

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 want a portable Alexa, don't want to plug it in, and have good wireless internet available, get a Tap. Just be aware that Amazon doesn't appear to be favoring this device as much anymore.

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.

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.


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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.