Amazon’s new Echo packs powerful sound and smarter features into a $100 speaker, signaling a big upgrade for the company’s popular smart home device

If you buy through our links, we may earn money from affiliate partners. Learn more.

Amazon Echo (4th generation)

  • Amazon’s newest Echo feels like the most meaningful upgrade in years.
  • The smart speaker has better sound, a new design, and an integrated smart home hub.
  • It’s the right balance of convenience and solid audio quality for most people.
  • Check out our guide to the best true wireless earbuds for more audio product buying advice.

Table of Contents: Masthead StickyEcho (4th Gen) (small)

Amazon’s popular Echo speaker has finally gotten a makeover.

Nearly six years after Amazon quietly unveiled the original Echo, the company has completely changed the speaker’s look, marking a big departure from the glowing cylinder that we’ve come to associate with the Echo since late 2014.

But the latest Echo is far more than just a cosmetic upgrade. Amazon’s most recent entrant to the smart speaker space also features a boost in sound quality, its own dedicated Amazon-designed processor that should make Alexa more responsive, and other extras, like a temperature sensor and a built-in smart home hub.

Taken together, the improvements represent the most significant upgrade to the standard Echo we’ve seen in years, helping it stand out in Amazon’s lineup. It’s a much more notable update than 2019’s third-generation Echo, which didn’t add much to the speaker other than improved sound quality.

But the new Echo also launched as Google and Apple have been investing more heavily in their own smart home speakers. Just days after Amazon unveiled the new Echo in September 2020, Google introduced its $100 Nest Audio. Apple, meanwhile, announced a smaller and less expensive version of its HomePod smart speaker for $100 called the HomePod Mini.

Here’s a closer look at what it’s been like to use the new Echo.

Amazon Echo 2020 specifications

Amazon Echo 2020 Specifications
Dimensions 5.7 inches x 5.7 inches x 5.2 inches
Weight 34.2 ounces
Colors Charcoal, white, and blue
Processor Amazon AZ1
Speaker 3-inch woofer and dual 0.8-inch front-facing tweeters
Input/output 3.5mm line in/out
Other features Integrated smart home hub, temperature sensor

Design

New Amazon Echo vs. Old
The third-generation Amazon Echo (left) vs. the new Amazon Echo (right)

To say the new Amazon Echo looks different than its predecessor would be an understatement. Gone is the cylindrical shape that’s been a hallmark of the smart speaker series so far. Instead, the new Echo takes the form of a compact, fabric-laden orb that glows at its base when Alexa is listening.

The new Echo looks less like a traditional speaker than its predecessor, and that’s a good thing. It has more of a standout look that differentiates it from rivals, like the Nest Audio, and the spherical shape enables it to fit more naturally into my home decor. The placement of the glowing ring at the bottom of the speaker rather than at the top also feels less distracting.

But unlike the Nest Audio, which comes in black, white, green, pink, and blue, the Echo is only available in three colors: charcoal, white, and blue. For a device that most people will be prominently displaying in the living room or kitchen, it would have been nice to see a broader range of color options like those offered by Google.

Sound quality

Amazon Echo Top
The new Amazon Echo

Amazon’s new Echo has received a big boost when it comes to its most important job: serving as a home speaker. Amazon says its new speaker can now detect the acoustics of the room it’s in and adjust the audio accordingly, just like the $200 Echo Studio.

The new shape also gives the Echo better sound projection and richer bass thanks to its surface area to volume ratio, the company says.

The upgrade is certainly noticeable when compared alongside the third-generation Echo. Across the board, music sounds louder and much more open and full-bodied compared to its predecessor, with better bass as well.

The older Echo sounds a bit shallow in comparison, and isn’t able to fill the room with audio nearly as well as its successor. This is true whether I listen to pop, rock, or hip-hop on the new Echo.

It’s not quite as loud and clear as the $200 Sonos One, but it certainly comes a lot closer than the standard Echo ever has before.

Smart home hub

Phillips Hue Smart Lighting
Philips Hue light bulbs and connectivity bridges

If controlling smart home devices is one of the primary reasons you’re interested in Amazon’s smart speaker, the new Echo will feel like a step up.

Amazon has built a smart home hub into the device much like it did with the Echo Plus speaker it introduced in 2017. That means you can quickly set up devices that use Bluetooth low energy or the ZigBee protocol – one of the major protocols that allows smart home devices to communicate with one another – without requiring a separate hub or bridge. It will also support Amazon’s long-range Wi-Fi network called Sidewalk when the feature launches on June 8.

Getting a Philips Hue light bulb up and running with the new Echo requires virtually no set up since it’s compatible with Zigbee. I simply screwed the light bulb into my bedroom lamp and asked Alexa to discover new devices.

After a few short moments, Alexa confirmed that my Echo had discovered the new light and added it to the “My devices” section of the Alexa app.

The third-generation Echo, on the other hand, requires a bridge in order to connect to the same Philips Hue light bulb. The Echo also has a leg up over Google in this regard since Google devices don’t offer voice setup for smart home devices and require you to connect through the company’s app.

Other features

Amazon Echo New

The Echo series may be nearly six years old, but Amazon is only just introducing its own custom processor for its smart speaker line. Amazon’s new AZ1 processor promises to make Alexa faster and more responsive when processing requests. This functionality wasn’t available at launch but has since begun rolling out to the fourth-generation Echo and Echo Show 10.

However, the fourth-generation Echo is only slightly faster than the third-generation Echo at answering basic questions in my experience, often only beating it by less than a second.

The new Echo also comes with another unexpected addition: a temperature sensor. This makes it possible to not only ask Alexa for the weather outside, but also the temperature indoors.

For many, the decision to side with an Echo device or Google Nest device will largely depend on what ecosystem best suits your needs.

Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant can both handle many of the same tasks, but also offer their respective perks. Alexa, for example, supports a wider variety of smart home devices, as the company says there are more than 140,000 gadgets that work with Alexa. Google, on the other hand, supports more than 50,000 internet-of-things devices.

Alexa also has some extra skills, including the ability to detect sounds, like breaking glass and alarms, when you’re not home. Google requires a Nest Aware subscription for this, whereas Amazon offers these features as part of the free tier of its Alexa Guard service. And of course, Alexa makes it incredibly easy to shop on Amazon via your voice.

The Google Assistant, however, has generally performed better when it comes to answering general knowledge questions, which should come as no surprise considering it has the world’s most popular search engine at its disposal.

In a 2019 test conducted by Loup Ventures that involved asking the Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, and Apple’s Siri 800 questions, Google answered 93% of those queries correctly. Alexa answered 80% of them correctly while Siri correctly responded to 83%.

Google’s smart speakers also have extra features, like an interpreter mode that translates full conversations into another language, which is more sophisticated than Alexa’s ability to translate individual phrases and words.

Privacy

Amazon Echo Light

Privacy is also crucial for a microphone-equipped device meant to sit in your living room or bedroom. Amazon, Google, and Apple have all come under scrutiny in the past over their previous policies when it comes to sharing saved recordings with human annotators for the purposes of improving their voice assistants.

Both the new Echo and Google’s Nest Audio include a physical button for turning off the microphone.

But unlike Google and Apple, you must opt out if you don’t want your voice recordings to be used by Amazon to help improve Alexa’s functionality. You can do this from the Alexa app under the Alexa Privacy section in the settings menu.

Google doesn’t retain audio by default, and announced last September that users would have to opt in to a setting that enables the search giant to share recordings with human reviewers to improve the Google Assistant.

That said, both Amazon and Google have announced privacy updates over the course of the past year. Amazon now allows you to choose to automatically delete your voice recordings after Alexa has processed your request.

You can also delete all of your previously saved voice recordings just by asking Alexa, or you can ask Alexa to send you a link to privacy settings for your device in the Alexa app.

Google also launched new features earlier this year for telling its voice assistant to forget an utterance that was detected by accident and asking the Google Assistant for more information about Google’s data collection policies.

Google recently announced a Guest Mode for the Google Assistant as well, which, like Incognito Mode, prevents Google from saving queries to your account or offering personalized responses.

The bottom line

Amazon Echo New

With improved sound, a sleek new design, and a built-in hub for setting up smart home devices, the new Echo feels like a significant upgrade for Amazon’s smart speaker.

The standard Echo model has inherited some features from its more premium predecessors, such as the $200 Echo Studio’s ability to adjust audio to match a room’s acoustics, and the integrated smart home hub that debuted on the $150 Echo Plus from 2017.

As a result, the new Echo feels like the right balance of quality audio and convenience for most people in need of a basic smart home speaker that’s not quite as high-end as the Studio, but more powerful than the $50 Echo Dot.

That could make it more difficult for rivals, like Apple and Sonos, that specialize in offering superior sound quality to compete with Amazon’s latest Echo. It also feels like an execution of the vision that Amazon has been working toward for a while when it comes to the Echo: a home speaker that doesn’t make big compromises when it comes to audio quality or smart home features.

If you have a third-generation Echo, you probably don’t need to upgrade immediately. But if you have an older model or were thinking about purchasing a second Echo anyway, you’ll certainly appreciate the upgrades.

Pros: Improved sound, attractive new design, built-in smart home hub makes it easy to set up devices

Cons: Not as much choice when it comes to color selection compared to Google, Amazon still saves and uses your voice recordings by default

Echo (4th Gen) (button)

Read the original article on Business Insider

Jeff Bezos used to test Amazon’s Echo Show by asking Alexa to play videos mocking Trump

Jeff Bezos and Donald Trump
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, left, and former President Donald Trump.

  • Jeff Bezos used to test the Echo Show by asking Alexa to play videos making fun of Donald Trump.
  • Bezos and Trump have long been at odds, stemming from Bezos’ ownership of the Washington Post.
  • Trump also criticized Amazon over matters like the USPS and its attempt to win the JEDI contract.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and former President Donald Trump have never exactly seen eye-to-eye. And while Trump’s animosity toward Bezos was more public, it appears that Bezos, too, poked fun at Trump behind closed doors.

Brad Stone’s new book, “Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire,” chronicles much of Amazon’s last decade, including Amazon’s shift into new product categories, like the Amazon Echo. Bezos was the mastermind behind the creation of the Echo and its built-in virtual assistant, Alexa, and was hands-on in the testing process for new devices – including the Echo Show, Amazon’s first Echo with a video screen, in 2016.

According to Stone, Bezos demoed a prototype Echo Show on multiple occasions and would ask Alexa to play videos that mocked Trump: “Alexa, show me the video, ‘Donald Trump says “China,'” and “Alexa, play Stephen Colbert’s monologue from last night.”

A vice president who was at the demos told Stone that Bezos would then “laugh like there’s no tomorrow.”

‘I’m an inexperienced trash talker but I’m willing to learn. :)’

Bezos’ and Trump’s animus toward one another extends at least a year earlier, to the winter of 2015, when Trump began tweeting about the Washington Post, which Bezos purchased for $250 million in 2013. Trump tweeted that Bezos only owned the paper to keep “taxes down at his no profit company, @amazon,” adding in a follow-up tweet that the Post is a tax shelter. (There’s no evidence to support these claims, and Bezos’ ownership of the post is separate from his role at Amazon.)

According to Stone, Bezos emailed his senior vice president of corporate affairs, Jay Carney, later that morning with the subject line: “Trump trash talk.”

“Feel like I should have a witty retort. Don’t want to let it go past,” Bezos wrote, according to emails obtained by Stone. “Useful opportunity (patriotic duty) to do my part to deflate this guy who would be a scary prez. I’m an inexperienced trash talker but I’m willing to learn. :)”

Carney recommended that Bezos say nothing back, but Bezos still wanted to engage with Trump, eventually responding with a tweet that offered to reserve Trump a seat on a Blue Origin rocket, also owned by Bezos, and included the hashtag “#sendDonaldtospace.”

A spokesperson for Amazon declined to comment on Bezos and Trump’s relationship.

Read more: Jeff Bezos responds to employee question about his resignation as CEO, says Amazon can ‘out-survive any individual in the company, including, of course, myself’

Trump and Bezos clashed several more times during Trump’s presidency

The squabble would play a role behind the scenes during several high-profile incidents in Bezos’ personal and professional lives.

In January 2019, Bezos announced his divorce from his wife of 25 years, MacKenzie – soon after, his affair with TV host and helicopter pilot Lauren Sanchez was outed by the National Enquirer. The ensuing tabloid scandal led to speculation that there were political motivations behind publishing the story: David Pecker, then the publisher of Enquirer-owner AMI, is a longtime Trump ally.

Trump’s antipathy toward Bezos would impact Amazon’s business dealings as well. Trump alleged in 2018 that Amazon was hurting the US Postal Service by not paying it enough to deliver packages, a claim he repeated several times over the years. Amazon produces billions in revenue for USPS, according to documents that leaked last year.

Trump later became involved in the competition between Amazon, Oracle, Microsoft, and others to secure a lucrative Department of Defense contract known as JEDI. Trump spoke publicly about complaints he was hearing about Amazon, and Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., called Amazon “shady and potentially corrupt” in a tweet about the situation.

Microsoft ultimately won the $10 billion contract in 2019, and Amazon has publicly stated that it believes Trump’s “repeated public and behind-the-scenes attacks” against Amazon and Bezos are the reason it wasn’t awarded the contract.

Amazon later challenged the decision in federal court, and the ongoing litigation may now result in the Pentagon pulling the contract altogether.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Amazon trained Alexa in secret by hiring unsuspecting people to ask questions in a room filled with hidden prototypes

Echo Dot
  • The Amazon Echo was an ambitious project for the company and took years to create.
  • Author Brad Stone broke down how Amazon created Alexa in his new book.
  • The company collected speech data from thousands of workers while keeping the project a secret.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Amazon quietly laid the groundwork to eventually leapfrog Google and Apple in the virtual-assistant race by secretly collecting data on speech patterns from thousands of unsuspecting workers, a new book reveals.

When the idea behind the Amazon Echo was first pitched in 2011, executives expressed doubt.

“This is going to be hard,” Amazon’s senior vice president of device, Dave Limp, told Insider’s Eugene Kim he recalled thinking at the time. “It foretold a magical experience. But it would require a lot of inventions.”

The device was stuck in Amazon laboratories for years before the company had a major breakthrough and launched the program that made Alexa “smart.” Author Brad Stone broke down the process of how Amazon created Alexa in his new book “Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire.”

“Internal testing with Amazon employees was too limited,” Stone wrote. “They would need to massively expand the Alexa beta while somehow still keeping it a secret from the outside world.”

In 2013, the team tasked with developing the Amazon Echo launched a data-collection program in partnership with the outside firm Appen, Stone reports. Appen rented out homes and apartments in Boston and filled the rooms with different kinds of electronics, from microphones and TVs to tablets and gaming consoles, according to the book.

Meanwhile, they hid around twenty early versions of the Amazon Echo throughout the rooms. A spokesperson for Appen was not immediately available for comment.

Temporary contract workers were then paid to walk through the rooms, reading scripted questions from tablets. Stone said the scripts asked participants to ask “open-ended requests.” The Echo speakers were off, so Alexa did not respond to the requests, but collected the data and sent it back to a team of Amazon employees who broke the requests down into specific queries that Alexa could easily understand.

The process was repeated six days a week for six months, according to Stone. The data-collection process was so successful that Amazon expanded into 10 other cities.

“It was a mushroom-cloud explosion of data about device placement, acoustic environments, background noise, regional accents, and all the gloriously random ways a human being might phrase a simple request to hear the weather, for example, or play a Justin Timberlake hit,” Stone wrote.

The program was not without its struggles. Stone said neighbors at the various locations would often get suspicious of the people going in and out of the residential locations. At one point, a neighbor in Boston called the cops concerned that the residence was being used as a drug-dealing or prostitution ring. The police were shown around the house and the location was quickly shut down after they left, according to Stone.

Some of the contract workers themselves were even suspicious of the program, he reported. There were often instances when the workers would refuse the job immediately after seeing the setup of the rooms. Others mocked the program.

“One Amazon employee who was annotating transcripts later recalled hearing a temp worker interrupt a session and whisper to whoever he suspected was listening: ‘This is dumb. The company behind this should be embarrassed,'” Stone wrote.

But Amazon’s covert project was far from a waste, about a year later the Amazon Echo was released and eventually became a major hit for the company.

Through Alexa’s savvy, the company was able to overtake Apple and Google in the virtual assistant space, even though Siri was released three years before the Amazon Echo. In 2019, the Amazon Echo accounted for the largest portion of the global smart speaker market share at 31.7%, according to consumer electronics research expert Lionel Sujay Vailshery.

An Amazon spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Jeff Bezos once got so frustrated with Alexa’s lack of intelligence that he told Alexa to ‘shoot yourself’ – and Amazon’s engineers heard it

Amazon Echo
Amazon’s Alexa is set to answer people’s queries, from the weather to CDC guidelines.

  • The test models of Amazon Alexa-powered devices frustrated employees and even Jeff Bezos.
  • Engineers once heard Bezos tell the device to “shoot yourself in the head.”
  • Other testers said it was a stupid product and would hardly respond correctly.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When Amazon was first testing what would eventually become “Alexa,” some workers and even the company’s CEO Jeff Bezos were frustrated with its performance, according to a new book about the business.

Bezos tested the Alexa-powered device – then a project referred to as the “Doppler” – at his home in Seattle.

“In pique of frustration over its lack of comprehension, he told Alexa to go ‘shoot yourself in the head,'” according to author Brad Stone’s new book, “Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire,” which was released Tuesday.

Engineers who reviewed interactions with the device heard Bezos’ comment and thought the project was done for.

Read more: Big Tech has a new battleground: self-driving cars. Here’s how Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, and Sundar Pichai hope to capture the $290 billion market.

Hundreds of Amazon employees also tested out the device and complained of its lack of intelligence.

One manager, who had to fill out a spreadsheet every week explaining what questions he asked and how the device responded, said, “It would hardly ever give me the right answer.”

Another tester said it was a stupid product, adding that the device was “doomed” because it “didn’t work for shit.”

But eventually engineers at the company figured out how to make the “Doppler,” smarter. In 2014, Amazon released the first version of its novel Alexa device. Within five years, the company sold more than 100 million devices with Alexa built in.

Use of the Alexa devices soared during the pandemic, as people started using them more to connect, and even to find out what day of the week it was. Now, it has helped people find where to get a COVID-19 vaccine and schedule an appointment. Amazon didn’t immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment on this story.

In his last shareholder letter, Bezos said that when he started the company in 1997, “we hadn’t invented Prime, Marketplace, Alexa, or AWS. They weren’t even ideas then, and none was preordained. We took great risk with each one and put sweat and ingenuity into each one.”

Read the original article on Business Insider