REVIEW: Amazon's $150 Echo Plus speaker is the absolute quickest way to make your home smarter

Echo Plus, SilverAmazonAmazon Echo Plus is taller than a normal Echo, and more metallic than the current model.
  • Amazon Echo Plus is a new $US150 smart speaker that connects to many smart-home gadgets right out of the box.
  • Its simple-setup feature is great, but limited in some areas, and to certain devices.

This holiday season, Amazon and Google are going to war for your wallet, with the Amazon Echo and Google Home smart speakers both vying for a spot on your end table or in your kitchen.

Key to this war is the idea of the smart home. While the Amazon Echo began as a simple voice-activated speaker, even CEO Jeff Bezos thinks its brightest future is as a hub and operating system for internet-connected appliances, like the Nest learning thermostat or Phillips Hue smart light bulbs.

Enter the Amazon Echo Plus, a $US150 smart speaker that’s available now. It shares most of the same features as the $US49 Echo Dot or $US99 flagship Echo, but carries one extra feature: It makes it way easier to set up a smart home.

I’ve been trying the Echo Plus for the last few weeks, and it really does work very well.

Aesthetically, the Echo Plus is a taller, thinner version of the Echo, available in a few metallic colours. All the normal functionality is the same, letting you play music, compete in Jeopardy, set timers, control an Amazon Fire TV, and more, all with your voice. It has good sound quality, but not vastly better than the $US99 Amazon Echo.

The real reason to get a Plus is the smart-home aspect. Just take (certain) gear out of the box, including Samsung SmartThings and Phillips Hue gadgetry, plug it into the wall, and ask the Alexa voice assistant to set it up (“Alexa, detect devices”). Within a minute or two, Alexa has found it and set up for you. Compared with how much of a pain it can be to connect this stuff, it’s a huge relief.

Amazon echo plus phillips hueMatt Weinberger/Business InsiderA Phillips Hue light strip providing backlighting for a dinner spread at our house. The light strip was controlled by the Amazon Echo Plus, using it to adjust brightness and change colours just by using our voices.

It can also save you some money and sanity. Normally, to hook up Phillips Hue lights, you need a $US50 bridge device first, which plugs straight into your router. You need another hub for SmartThings. However, the Amazon Echo Plus acts as kind of a universal hub for both kinds of devices, meaning you don’t need to buy any extra hardware.

However, the Echo Plus comes with some limitations: This simple-setup feature can only be used with smart-home gear that supports the ZigBee wireless standard, which is only a subset of what’s available, and means customers have to read the fine print on new devices carefully. You can still connect non-Zigbee devices normally, like you would with any other Echo, though, using the manufacturer’s own apps to make the connection.

And with this simplicity, you lose a little bit of control. For example: Setting up a Phillips Hue light strip was a total snap. Alexa found it and set it up, no problem. But, the Hue app has a neat colour picker that lets you choose from literal millions of colour combinations. The Alexa phone app does not have that sophistication — you can have it adjust brightness, and you can tell it to turn blue or even aquamarine, but it’s lacking in that fine detail.

Amazon echo plusMatt Weinberger/Business InsiderThe Amazon Echo Plus is a little taller and thinner than the current $US99 Amazon Echo base model.

Speaking of the Alexa app, Amazon has given it a makeover around smart home gear, too. It’s fine, letting you turn lights and other gear on and off as you need. But it’s not phenomenal, and still requires you to scroll through your home gear until you find the specific device you’re looking for.

So, in short, if you just need a speaker, you’re probably fine with a cheaper Echo. But if you want to get started building a smarter home, the Echo Plus is a great place to start. Even if you push the boundaries of the easy-setup options, it’s still compatible with the whole wide world of Alexa-compatible smart home gear.

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