Our editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, ZDNet may earn a commission.

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.

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.

New Alexa devices

Everything Amazon announced: Prices, release dates, and how to buy

There's a new spherical Echo, Echo Show 10 with a Portal-like display, Ring drone and car alarm, Luna controller, and more.

Read More

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.

There are now many other Alexa-enabled devices by companies other than Amazon that do not use the Echo brand, but are still Alexa devices. In this article, we're only focusing on the Amazon-produced and branded products.

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. The 4th Generation Echo replaces the Echo Plus, but at the pricing of the Echo. Basically, you get fifty bucks of new features for free.

If you want Echo capabilities and a tablet-like screen (but that's wired to wall power), get an Echo Show. This gadget went up $20 in 2020, from $229 to $249, but now it turns on a motorized swivel to follow you as you move -- because that's not creepy at all. It also has a camera, so you might want to cover that up.

Amazon has apparently killed off two products (three if you count the Echo Plus) from 2018: the tiny Echo video display (and a camera) that came in the Echo Spot. Another addition to our dead-list is the fashion-focused  Echo Look. It's a bank of cameras that make smart recommendations for certain Amazon-sold fashions. Apparently, consumers didn't react well to a Big Brother camera looking at them model clothing. Who would have guessed that?

The Echo Dot comes in two variations beyond the basics: a version with an on-board clock and a kids version that looks like a box of Animal Crackers crashed into the assembly line and has resulted in animal-style skins.

We'll end with a quick discussion of the Echo Flex and Echo Studio, two slightly more specialized units for those who want them.

That's the quick view. What follows is a deeper dive into the Alexa family as of later-mid-2020. 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.

The 4th Generation Echo

new-echo.jpg
Amazon

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.

$99 at Amazon

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. Now both the Echo and Echo Dot are spheres instead of cylinders.

I'm not sure I like the change. I don't have either in my hands yet, but both now have the lighted ring at the base of the unit instead of the top. I'm betting that's going to be a lot harder for people to see because it will be blocked by...everything.

The new 4th Generation Echo is shorter and wider than both the original Pringles Can of Doom and the 3rd Generation Echo cylinder. At the offer price of $99, it's also less expensive than the original Echo and the now-discontinued Echo Plus. If you keep an eye out on Amazon, you can often find it at a lower price, making the product even more cost effective.

The previous generation Echo also added the ability to change skins. That's gone away with the spherical Echo. You can choose from Charcoal, Glacier White, and Twilight Blue (which doesn't look at all like twilight and is really kind of a bluish-gray two-tone thing). 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 alternate colors might prove appealing. That said, the spherical shape make make it harder to fit in your space than the previous cylindrical versions.

Amazon did not sacrifice sound quality when it reduced the Echo's stature. I have a 2018 Echo in my garage and its sound is strong and clear. The 4th Generation Echo's sound has improved above that, including an upward-firing woofer and dual tweeters.

The 4th Generation Echo also adds the smart hub capabilities previously only offered in the $150 Echo Plus. 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. One thing to keep in mind is that the 4th Generation Echo (like the previous Echo Plus) supports the Zigbee smart home standard, but not Z-Wave. My blinds are Z-Wave, so I had to pick up a Samsung Smarthings hub to manage those.

The new 4th Generation Echo has a low power mode that will work in most configurations and uses 50% post-consumer recycled plastics. It also uses 100% post-consumer recycled fabric and 100% recycled die-cast aluminum, proving that even Big Brother can care for the environment. Finally, this model also has a 3.5mm audio jack input and output.

The Echo Dot (and Kids Edition)

dot.jpg
Amazon

If the new Echo is the size of a large grapefruit, the new Dot is the size of a baseball. 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." We're showing one of the two animal-styled kids edition above. The adult Dot shares the same colors as its bigger Echo sphere brother.

$50 at Amazon Amazon

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 2020 refresh, Amazon made the Dot into a sphere. Audio seems to be the same, although the speaker is specified as "front firing".

We have two earlier generation Dots in our home, and they're not really as good as either the original Echo or the 2018 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. I do have a 3rd Generation Dot in my office and its music output for that room is quite nice.

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 $59 ($20 less than the previous Kids Edition), which is in the image shown above. The extra $10 buys parents a lot of piece of mind. Amazon is now also offering a $2.99/mo (you'd think this would be included in Prime) upsell for FreeTime Unlimited (Amazon's library of kid-safe content), parental controls, and a two-year warranty. The big value is the warranty. 

Finally, there's also a $59 version Amazon creatively calls Echo Dot + LED display. This is a version of the Echo Dot with a digital clock built into the side. I always ask Alexa what time is it, so it's not a big deal for me. But my wife loves this and we have two of them (in the 3rd Generation version).

The Echo Show

echo-show.jpg
Amazon

And then, 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. 

$230 at Amazon

We have two of these. It started with one in the kitchen. No, we didn't use it for recipes. Or news. Or stories. It's just there, with a screen. I'm not sure why we have the Show instead of a regular Echo, but that's what my wife wanted. She also wanted one in the laundry room. And no, she doesn't watch videos on it. But she likes it. A lot.

So here's where we stand with the Echo Show in late September 2020. There four models of this thing. Three are last-gen, and range from a 5-inch at $84.99, an 8-inch at $104.99, and a 10-inch at $229.99. We have the 8-inchers.

imac-g4.png

Introduced in the early 2000s, the new Echo Show looks remarkably like this old iMac design.

Apple

But now, there's new new 2020 Echo Show and it looks like it was separated at birth from a 2002 iMac G4. Except the Echo Show has a gimmick: it follows you around.

No, it doesn't rove around the room under its own power (that's the Ring Always Home Cam, which flies). But this Echo Show spins on its base so it's always facing you. If you've ever had a small dog stare at you with 10,000 watts of attention, all attempting to will you to drop that piece of chicken, then you know, probably, how it will feel to have the new Echo Show stalk you on it stalk.

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.

This becomes particularly poignant in our pandemic-infested setting. Many of our seniors won't get to see their families for the next few holidays. Having the ability to reach out and see them via video may help soften the blow. Amazon is now supporting both Skype and Zoom, making the Echo Show a particularly helpful part of the new normal.

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. 

While I find the physical follow feature of the new Echo Show a little creepy, I'd love to use one in filming my YouTube videos. There are smartphone gadgets that auto-pan to follow a speaker, but with all of Amazon's great AI, the Echo Show is probably going to do a better job of it. The question is how you can capture that video for later desktop use. We'll see. It's an interesting application, but certainly not mainstream.

Weirdly odd Echos

Kudos to Amazon for experimenting with new ideas. The company offers six additional Echo products in varying degrees of usefulness and weirdness. We'll just run them down quickly here, because if you're buying your first Echo, none of these should be that Echo. But, if you are already considerably invested in the Alexa ecosystem, then you might want to pick one of these up.

Echo Flex

This is an Echo on a wall wart. At $24.99, it's got a tinny speaker and a mini microphone, but it's water resistant and you can plug it into any socket. An add-on includes a motion detector which you can program with Alexa routines.

$25 at Amazon

Echo Studio

At the other end of the price spectrum at $299 is the Echo Studio, Amazon's answer to Apple's HomePod. It checks off most audiophile's requirements for a home speaker, plus it has Alexa built in.

$299 at Amazon

Echo Auto

This is Amazon's first attempt to get Alexa into the car and, well, it's not a barn burner. You're far better off with CarPlay than this hack of wires and aux ports. That said, if you're dedicated and you only want to spend $50, go for it.

$50 at Amazon

Echo Buds

These $129 ear buds are basically AirPods for the rest of us, with Alexa built in. According to our own Matthew Miller, they're not spectacular, but the also don't suck.

$129 at Amazon

Echo Loop

This is a $129 invitation-only Echo device you wear on your finger. Do you, Reader, take this AI, to be your lawfully networked constant companion? If so, you might want to try out the Echo Loop. 

$129 at Amazon

Echo Frames

No, these aren't the AR Erikas I foretold back in Reality shock: The #FakeWorld future of ubiquitous AR. Not yet, anyway. These are just eyeglass frames with a mic/speaker built into the frame. Still, it's a step in that direction.

$180 at Amazon

See what I mean? They a bit weird. None of them will be My First Alexa contenders. But if you're into Alexa, you might want to take that interest a bit further with one of the above products.

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, also consider the new Echo. It's now comes with smart hub features built into the price and as long as you don't need Z-Wave, it can help reduce 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 baseball, get the Kid's Edition. You'll have better parental controls and when Junior inevitably launches the Dot against a wall 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 caring for elderly parents, or want to see the people you're connecting to at a fixed place and location, get an Echo Show. 

The bottom line

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. We've always been a bit iffy about the Echo Show, but given the number of models and the pandemic, we think this new model may be a hit.

And yet Alexa 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.

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. Now, in September of 2020, we're looking at yet more new Alexa and Echo options, because the folks at Amazon never sleep.  


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.