Amazon announced its first ever update to the original Echo today — and it’s split the device in two. There’s now a smaller, cheaper, redesigned Echo with all the features of the original one; and there’s a more expensive Echo Plus that offers new smart home features and looks just like the original model.
Aside from a new silver color option, the Echo Plus really does look identical to the original model, but that hides just how much has changed inside. The Plus has a new speaker architecture that offers what Amazon is calling “enhanced sound,” and it includes Dolby sound processing this time around. We weren’t able to get a good sense for its improvements though in the busy demo area.
The more interesting thing about the Plus is its smart home abilities. In addition to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, Amazon has now built in Zigbee networking — a wireless protocol commonly used by small connected home gadgets, like light bulbs. Amazon is also trying to make these gadgets, which have typically been adopted by a nerdier crowd, much easier to set up and install. To do that, Amazon says you’ll be able to ask the Plus to discover nearby devices, and it’ll start looking across all three of those wireless standards, theoretically making it really easy to get new products hooked up to Alexa.
Amazon isn’t able to do all of this on its own, however. It needs developers to get on board and set up their products to tap into the Echo Plus’ API. But Amazon insists this should be a low lift for developers. And if the past couple of years have shown us anything, it’s that developers are more than happy to put Amazon’s smart home tech into dozens and dozens of products.
Even with the upgrades, the Echo Plus will sell for less than the original Echo, at $149 instead of $179.
The other Echo offers an option for people who may be interested in the device as a speaker but not as a smart home hub. The new Echo (that’s its name, just plain Echo) is shorter and squatter than the tubular Plus. It will ship in different materials, like fabric and wood. They’re more reminiscent of something like Apple’s forthcoming HomePod or the Google Home, which has swappable decorative shells. The wood felt a little cheap, but the fabric seemed like it should be fine — as long as your cat doesn’t get to it.
Because the new Echo is a bit wider, Amazon has redesigned the microphone array. It’ll take advantage of new Dolby sound processing tech, but you shouldn’t actually notice that — it just means it’s supposed to work a bit better. There’s now also a dedicated bass tweeter in the Echo, which should improve the speaker’s sound quality.
Otherwise, the new Echo works exactly like the old Echo; it’s just a bit smaller. It’ll sell for $99 and starts shipping next month. Amazon is leaning into the fact that this is more of a dedicated speaker by offering a $50 discount to anyone buying three at a time, since the speakers can play music in sync.