MEGATech Reviews: Amazon Echo (2nd Generation) with Alexa
An elegant successor to the original smart speaker, the second generation Amazon Echo does what you think it'll do and it continues to learn new skills all the time.
  • "Softer" design fits any home decor
  • Includes Bluetooth and aux-out
  • Alexa is finally in Canada
  • Does not play friendly with Google products
  • Still not quite as smart as I had hoped
8Overall Score

When the original Amazon Echo launched in late 2014, it was offered exclusively to Amazon Prime members. It effectively opened up a whole new product category, introducing the world to the smart speaker and its world of possibilities. The Alexa smart assistant ecosystem has steadily grown since then with new Alexa Skills being added all the time. You can call up an Uber, order some Domino’s, and play Trivial Pursuit too.

But it was only very recently that the Amazon Echo family finally crossed the 49th parallel into Canada, giving us Canucks our first official crack at Alexa. And for that, today we’re taking a closer look at the all-new Echo (2nd generation), which slots comfortably above the cheaper Echo Dot and the premium Echo Plus… without the added twists of the Echo Look, Echo Show and Echo Spot.

Is There an Echo in Here?

Introduced as part of the refreshed Echo lineup for 2017, the Amazon Echo is about two-thirds the height of the original Echo (which is roughly the same size as the Echo Plus) while retaining the same cylindrical shape. The hard exterior, however, has been replaced with a softer cloth material. I prefer this, myself, as it feels less like a cold piece of robot technology and more like a home accessory or decoration.

Even before I got my hands on the smart speaker itself, I was impressed with how Amazon went about with the packaging. When you open up the retail box, you are presented with a tab of sorts that you use to lift the Echo out in its black cardboard cage. It’s almost like lifting a crab cage out of the water. Underneath that is a box with the power cable and so forth.

The version shown here is with the “Sandstone Fabric” cover, which is the lightest of the three available colors in Canada. You can also get it in a slightly darker grey (“Heather Grey Fabric”) or black (“Charcoal Fabric”). Our neighbors to the south still have the option for a metallic silver finish, as well as a couple of different wood grain looks (“Oak Finish” or “Walnut Finish”).

Functionality is identical, of course, but those premium finishes come in at a $20 premium over their cloth-laden counterparts.

Amazon Echo Buttons, Ports and Controls

As much as I really liked the Google Home Mini when I reviewed it, one of the biggest gripes I had was its inability to connect to other speakers. The audio quality from the Home Mini was hardly great, so it would’ve been nice if I could easily hook it up to something better. As it stands, the only way to do that is via a Chromecast Audio.

In this way, one of the biggest advantages that the Amazon Echo has is that it can easily connect to your better speakers via a standard 3.5mm stereo jack or via Bluetooth. Most people probably aren’t going to exercise this option, but it’s certainly nice to know that it’s there. I also appreciate how I can connect my smartphone to the Amazon Echo via Bluetooth, which helps to overcome the current lack of support for Google Play Music.

The top of the Amazon Echo is going to look familiar if you’ve ever looked at anything else in this product family. You’ve got the same four buttons here as you’ve always had: plus and minus for adjusting the volume, the mute button for disabling the microphone, and the action button if you don’t want to use your voice to wake Alexa. The buttons are then surrounded by the seven microphone array, which did a perfectly decent job of picking up my voice from across the room.

How Smart Is Alexa Anyhow?

When setting up the Echo for the first time, you have the option of doing it through the Alexa app on your compatible mobile device or through a web-based interface. The look is a little different, but the functionality is fundamentally the same. It’s here that you can look into your music and books, review your history of requests, enable and disable skills, check your alarms, configure your smart home, and so forth.

The “Things to Try” section is especially useful if you haven’t used Alexa or an Echo device before. There are seasonal offerings, like asking Alexa to sing a Christmas song or to tell you where Santa is. I was able to configure the Echo to work with my existing Belkin WeMo smart home products without a hitch from my phone. It links them up (adding the WeMo skill first helps) and pulls the names accordingly.

One unexpected challenge that I encountered early on was that I had assumed the Echo would recognize my location already based on all the data it already had on me. That was not the case. It kept thinking I was in Westlake, Washington. I was not able to change my location using only my voice; I tried telling Alexa that I live in Vancouver or that my location was in Vancouver and she didn’t understand.

When I went into the Alexa settings via a web browser, I found a place to enter my location, but it didn’t take for some reason or another. It looked like it saved, but it still thought I was in Westlake. I tried again a few days later, again via the web browser, and now it seems to be fine. I can’t really explain why it didn’t work the first time around.

On the one hand, it’s truly impressive just how many Alexa Skills are available now. There are countless guided meditation skills, for instance, as well as ones for playing trivia games or controlling your various smart home products. That’s all well and good, except it can be overwhelming to remember exactly how you go about calling these up again.

I enabled a skill for a guided meditation, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what it was called. If I just say, “Alexa, give me a guided meditation,” she’d respond with, “Sorry, I’m not sure about that.” I’m sure this will improve as I zero in on exactly how I use the Amazon Echo, but it does mean that you’ll likely encounter a similar kind of learning curve.

The natural language processing isn’t quite there yet, so you need to be more precise with your choice of words.

Brains and Boost

One of the more unique features that you’ll find with the second generation Echo is that you can remove the outer shell like a sleeve. This is so that you can replace it with other covers, should you so choose, without having to purchase a new smart speaker altogether. Again, I can’t imagine too many people are going to do this unless they start releasing some rather unique covers (or allow third parties to do the same).

As far as sound quality goes, you get a downward-firing 2.5″ woofer and an upward-firing 0.6″ tweeter. The design is such that you are provided with omni-directional “room-filling sound” powered by Dolby. Several major music streaming services are supported, like Amazon Music and Spotify, but this will not work with Google Play Music.

For the most part, I found the sound profile to be clean and balanced. There are better speakers out there, to be sure, but this is perfectly capable given its size and added intelligence.

MEGATechie Smart Home Savior or MEGATechie Selective Speaker?

The Amazon Echo has practically become the Kleenex and Q-Tip of the smart speaker world. This second generation offering, which is really just the first time around for Canada, builds on what people already liked about the speaker (and Alexa) and puts it into a smaller, more elegant package. Sound quality is perfectly decent for what it is and the seven-microphone array does a good job of picking up your voice from almost anywhere.

But it’s hardly perfect. While the sound quality is a big leap up from smaller devices like the Google Home Mini, it still can’t compete with a more premium offering like the Sonos One smart speaker (which is set to get Alexa next year). For my purposes, I found Google Assistant to be smarter and more useful than Alexa, since it ties in so heavily with the Google ecosystem. I can see how the Echo would be great for people who rely heavily on the Amazon ecosystem though.

The second generation Amazon Echo smart speaker is listed at $99.99 US, but is on sale for $79.99 as of this writing. In Canada, it’s actually a little cheaper at $99.99 Canadian when you factor in the current exchange rate.

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