Amazon Echo Plus (2018) review: A refined upgrade

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  • Editors' rating
    7.8 Very good
  • $149.99

Pros

  • Easy setup
  • A single device to manage smart home accessories
  • Alexa Skills and features

Cons

  • Sound quality is good, not great

In September, Amazon held an event to announce what felt like hundreds of new products. It announced a microwave and a clock, both of which have built-in Alexa. There were also new Echo devices, new Ring cameras, plugs, and a handful of audio products. Oh, and there was a DVR box for recording over the air programming.

For the past couple of weeks, I've been using one of the recently announced products: The Echo Plus.

It's the second iteration of the smart speaker that includes technology to connect to smart home accessories, instead of relying on third-party equipment.

The Echo Plus is every bit a modern Echo device, with its value coming down to a single question.

Amazon Echo Plus (2018): Design

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(Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

This second-generation Echo Plus has a new look. The first-generation model was a tall, metal cylinder that looked much like the original Echo. Only instead of black finish, it was a dark gray. It didn't look horrible, but as Amazon slowly transitioned its Echo line to a more modern look, the Echo Plus looked out of place.

The second-generation Plus measures 5.8-inches tall and 3.9-inches round. On the inside is a 3-inch woofer and a 0.8 tweeter. The Echo Plus is equipped with Wi-Fi 802.11 ac and has Zigbee connectivity built in for connecting to Zigbee-compatible smart home accessories.

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Also: Top 5: Ways Alexa can help you get work done TechRepublic

The top of the Plus has four buttons, two to adjust volume, another to trigger Alexa, and a mute button. There are seven microphones on top, as well. On the back is a 3.5 mm audio jack, and the power port. The audio jack can be used for input or output and is configurable via the Alexa app.

Amazon also added a temperature sensor to the new Echo Plus, making it possible to ask Alexa for the temperature of a given room.

A cloth material covers the perimeter of the Echo Plus, and is available in sandstone (white), heather gray, or charcoal (black).

Amazon Echo Plus (2018): Home automation

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(Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

Amazon's Alexa service is more than just a personal assistant that can help you with trivia questions or weather forecasts. The company has spent the past couple of years working to make Alexa a central hub for controlling various connected devices around your phone.

The first Echo Plus doubled as a hub, and Amazon has continued that approach with the second generation Plus. By including Zigbee technology, the Plus can connect directly to products the Philips Hue lightbulbs, forgoing the need for users to buy a separate Hue hub.

Setting up a Hue lightbulb in the Alexa app, controlled by the Echo Plus, is simple. Insert the bulb into a receptacle, ensure it has power, and then tell Alexa "discover new devices." Roughly a minute later, Alexa will give you the name of the device(s) it discovered, and you can begin controlling it immediately.

Also: Amazon Echo: The smart person's guide TechRepublic

You can use the Alexa app on your phone to change the name, assign the lightbulb to a room, or use the more granular home automation controls if you want to.

Zigbee connectivity isn't limited to just lightbulbs. Smartlocks, plugs, and sensors are also compatible with Echo Plus sans a proprietary hub.

The addition of a temperature sensor inside Echo Plus adds another tool in the home automation process. For example, I created a routine that whenever the room's temperature reaches 65-degrees, Alexa says "It's getting cold in here" through the Echo Plus.

Of course, you can create far more complicated routines that rely on the sensors data, such as flashing a light, or reading out the weather forecast, or adjusting a thermostat.

Amazon Echo Plus (2018): How important is sound quality?

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(Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

Outside of smart home features and answering questions, Echo devices are used to listen to music. The small speakers tucked away in various rooms make it convenient to install an affordable sound system, streaming music from popular services.

The Echo Plus features speakers powered by Dolby and improves upon the sound of last year's Echo Plus. There's a nice amount of bass and a clarity that can fill a room.

Where the Echo Plus kind of stumbles, however, is when you take into consideration that the Sonos One, a speaker with high-quality sound and Alexa integration, is only $50 more.

Also: Best Alexa-compatible Smart Home Gadgets for 2018 CNET

The only thing you'll give up should you opt for the Sonos One, besides a little extra cash, is the Zigbee hub integration.

Essentially, the decision you're faced with is: How important is sound quality to you? If you'd rather have a speaker that sounds amazing, and you don't care all that much about home automation, then it's likely worth spending the extra money for a Sonos One.

However, if you want a device that will fill the room with sound, all the while let you control lightbulbs without extra equipment, then the Echo Plus is your best pick.

Amazon Echo Plus (2018): Conclusion

The second-generation Echo Plus is a solid upgrade from last year's effort. Its appearance alone makes a big difference, combine that with upgraded audio and a small touch like the temperature sensor, and the new Echo Plus is an appealing smart speaker.

For those who already have a few Echo devices spread throughout rooms, the Echo Plus is the logical addition. For everyone else, you'll need to figure out how much you care about sound quality and go from there.

Previous and related coverage:

Yes, Amazon, I've always wanted to talk to my 1980s microwave

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Alexa's land-and-expand strategy is racking up the numbers

While Google is outselling Amazon in global units of smart speakers, other numbers show Amazon is doing just fine in expanding Alexa's reach and usage

Hands-on with four new Alexa Blueprints for keeping the peace at home

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