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Smart home automation is much improved across Alexa platform
Basic hub functionality is disappointing
Ahead of the holiday season, Amazon refreshed its Echo lineup. A smaller Echo is now the main smart speaker, and a bigger, slightly more capable Echo Plus is the middle of the road option for those who don't quite want an Echo Show.
For the past few weeks, I've used an Echo Plus sent by Amazon, along with additional home automation devices that take advantage of the new Zigbee integration in the Echo Plus. On paper, the Echo Plus reads like a dream come true for anyone who has had to deal with smart home hubs and bridges and the lack of compatibility between different branded devices. In practice, the Echo Plus delivers on most of that dream. There's some work to be done, however.
The Echo Plus looks nearly identical to the original Amazon Echo. It's a tall, cylindrical device stands 9.3-inches and measures 3.3-inches in diameter.
Instead of a lone black design, Amazon now offers a silver or white option. A light-up ring at the top of the Echo Plus doubles as a volume control, which I prefer over the Echo's push buttons.
A button to disable the microphone and another button to trigger Alexa are all that are found at the top.
Outside of the different colors, the only way to tell an original Echo apart from an Echo Plus is to look at the back. The Echo Plus has a power port and a 3.5 mm audio-out port. The original Echo's power cord plugs into the bottom of the device.
The overall look and design of the Echo Plus isn't something I'm a huge fan of, as mentioned in my review of the new Echo. I like the customization options the new Echo provides, but the additional color options for the Echo Plus are welcomed.
A hub, of sorts
The main selling point of the Echo Plus over the newly refreshed Echo is that it doubles as a smart home hub for devices that rely on the Zigbee protocol. Think Samsung's Smart Things and Phillip Hue lighting systems. Both platforms typically require a hub, connected to your wireless router, for communication over the Internet.
For some, the appeal of adding a hub is intimidating and expensive. Especially when it comes to controlling a light bulb or an outlet, and that's it. Sure, the idea is that once a user has a hub he or she will rely on a certain brand for future smart home purchases.
With Echo Plus, you don't need a hub. Just connect a Zigbee compatible device to power, wait a few seconds, then ask Alexa to discover new devices. A minute or so later, Alexa will inform you of any newly discovered devices and assign a generic name (Ex., 1st Light).
You can then use voice commands to control the light, outlet, lock, or light switches. To use a more specific device name, you'll need to use the Alexa app on a smartphone to edit device details.
The entire process is streamlined, easy to use, and helpful. Add in the ability to create Routines, where a command of "Alexa, good night" can be set up to turn off all lights and lock the door, and it is even more appealing to those who don't want to connect one more piece of equipment to a home network.
The trade-off, however, is that Echo Plus currently doesn't have the same level of integration as a dedicated hub does. For my review, Amazon sent me a series of smart home devices ranging from Phillip's Hue lights to a SmartThings outlet and bulbs.
Setup with the Echo Plus was as simple as Amazon makes it sound: Plug the device in, ask Alexa to discover new devices, and wait roughly 45 seconds.
Where the Echo Plus falls short is in what it can do with found devices. For example, with light bulbs that offer multiple colors and shades of white, there's no way to change or alter colors within the Alexa app. So you can't set up a Routine to automatically adjust the white balance of light bulbs around the time the sun goes down.
Instead, you have to use voice commands to change the color of a light. It's handy, sure, but it's not as useful as a deeper level of control a product's dedicated hub would offer.
The price of convenience
For $150, the Echo Plus is first and foremost an Amazon smart speaker. It can answer random trivia questions, stream music, give you news updates, help you keep tabs on the weather, and order more dog food from Amazon. It does all of the same stuff any other Echo device can do, and it does just as well.
With the ability to import and control smart home devices into the Alexa app being nothing new, the only added benefit the Echo Plus has over other Echo devices is its built-in Zigbee hub functionality. But with limited support for a product's feature set, the hub portion of the Echo Plus doesn't feel like the headlining feature it once did.
The Echo Plus is about convenience, something Amazon knows a lot about marketing the benefits of. The company built its entire online retail presence around the idea of convenience, after all.
Until Amazon updates the Alexa app with features that mirror those found on a dedicated hub, the Echo Plus is a fantastic starting point for someone who wants to simply dabble in home automation and lighting. However, anything beyond that, you're better off - at least right now - opting for the smaller Echo and getting a dedicated, more capable, hub for your home automation needs.