REVIEW: Amazon's newest Echo is better than the original in every way, but you don't need it if you already have one

Amazon echoAmazonThe new Amazon Echo lets you replace the outer casing with tasteful ‘shells.’
  • The new Amazon Echo, which costs $US99 normally, will be $US80 on Black Friday.
  • It’s way better than the first Echo, with a slimmer profile, better sound, and an auxiliary jack in the back to plug in your own speakers.
  • However, if you already have any Echo, there’s not a lot of reason to upgrade. All Amazon Echo devices have access to the best Alexa features as it is.
  • While Google is also deep-discounting its competing Google Home, the Amazon Echo is a fine choice for anybody who wants a smarter speaker.

This Black Friday, Amazon is going to offer the newest version of its Amazon Echo smart speaker for $US80, a 20% discount from its normal $US99 price tag.

For those who’ve been on the fence about an Amazon Echo, this should be a no-brainer: I’ve been using the new-model Echo for about a week now, and it’s an improvement from its predecessor in every single way. However, if you’ve already got one, you probably don’t need to rush out to upgrade.

So what’s new in this newest version of the Echo?

The sound is better and louder, with deeper bass. Aesthetically, it’s a total revamp. It’s now short and stubby, only a little larger than a soda can, and available in either metallic or fabric-covered finishes. New is the ability to snap on multi-coloured cases to give it a personal touch. And it has an auxilliary port in the back, such that you can plug in your own speakers with a standard headphone jack.

Oh, and that retail price of $US99 is a solid $US80 cheaper than the original Amazon Echo.

Amazon echoMatt Weinberger/Business InsiderThe new Amazon Echo fits neatly in the palm of your hand.

Here’s the important thing, though. So much of what makes the Echo more than just another speaker is the Alexa voice agent that powers it. And Amazon has been very aggressive about making sure that all upgrades to Alexa come to all Echo devices, simultaneously.

So if you already own an Echo, you’ve been getting a steady drip of new features — including Echo-to-Echo calling, the ability to call landline phones, and even notifications when your Amazon order ships. All of those features will work with any Echo, whether you bought the old one on Day One, or the new one tomorrow.

Which is to say, unless you’re a total stickler for sound, or you just like to have the most current model, there’s no great reason to get the new one. But if you don’t have one at all, and you want in on Amazon’s grand vision for voice computing, then this is probably the right place to start.

OK, but what the heck is an Amazon Echo? What does it do?

In case you’re not familiar, the Amazon Echo is a smart speaker, powered by Amazon’s Alexa smart agent.

Think of it like a smarter, more useful version of Apple’s Siri: Alexa can play music; set timers and alarms; answer simple questions; control internet-connected lightbulbs, thermostats, and the like; control an Amazon Fire TV; and even let you shop on Amazon.

Amazon echo alexa lineupMatt Weinberger/Business InsiderThe complete lineup of Amazon Echo gadgetry.

It’s really neat! We’re big fans of the Amazon Echo product family at Business Insider. Our own Dave Smith keeps a master list of the best things Alexa can do for you, right this way. For many people, it should be noted, that smart home gear control is the killer app, letting the Echo act as a universal remote for a growing selection of gadgetry.

Amazon now makes a whole range of Echo speakers, including the $US50 Echo Dot, the $US150 Echo Plus for smart-home enthusiasts, and the $US229 tablet-like Echo Show. This flagship Echo is a good starting point — the Echo Dot is smaller and cheaper, but with worse sound. The others are a little more niche, for specific uses.

Amazon echoAmazonThe original Amazon Echo was taller and more metallic.

And what’s the difference between this and Google Home?

Google has offered its competing Google Home line of speakers since 2016. And this Black Friday, Google is going to be offering the flagship Google Home speaker for $US80, same as the Amazon Echo.

The Google Home operates on the same principle as the Amazon Echo. Only instead of getting access to Amazon Music, Amazon shopping, and the Amazon Fire TV, you can use Google Play Music, shop with Google partners like Target and Walmart, and control Google Chromecast streaming devices.

Personally, I prefer the Google Home over Amazon Echo — not for hardware reasons, but because Google search is that much better. Still, lots of people feel differently, given that the Amazon Echo is leading the still-small smart speaker market. And the Amazon Echo is getting better, all the time.

Google homeHollis Johnson/Business InsiderThe Google Home speaker will also be $US80 on Black Friday.

In a lot of ways, it’s a matter of taste — though I will say that while the two speakers have comparable sound, the newest Amazon Echo has a slight sonic edge over the Google Home. Still, I’d say that true audiophiles probably won’t be especially happy with either, and should perhaps consider a high-end device like a Sonos.

If you’re considering both, it’s worth noting that Amazon offers exclusive daily deals that are only accessible via Alexa. If you’re a big shopper, that could be the edge. Also, Amazon Alexa currently supports a wider range of smart home gear, though Google is closing that gap fast.

And, to bring it back around, if you’re looking to see what all the fuss about the smart speaker movement is about, the new-model Amazon Echo is a great way to do it.

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