Amazon Echo Plus (2nd Gen) Review

Compatible Voice Assistants:
Protocols: , ,
Manufactured by:
Amazon Echo Plus Hub (2nd Generation) - Color Options: Charcoal, Heather Gray, and Sandstone
Amazon Echo Plus Hub (2nd Generation) - Color Options: Charcoal, Heather Gray, and Sandstone

The Amazon Echo Plus is the newest in a line of voice-controlled devices that includes home automation capabilities. When it comes to versatility in both hardware and software applications, Amazon’s devices have a reputation for meeting and exceeding user expectations. The Plus is worth considering as your smart home hub.

This review covers the Echo Plus 2nd Generation, which is available as of October 11, 2018.

Our Verdict

Ideal for Amazon users who want a smart home hub in addition to voice access to their music, audiobooks, and online shopping, the Amazon Echo Plus is the latest and greatest from the digital giant. It is almost plug-and-play out of the box, though using the companion Alexa app adds even more utility to the device.

An upgraded look, cohesive compatibility with a long list of Bluetooth devices, and family-friendly features make the hub a top choice for households that are relatively new to home automation.

With the technological expertise of Amazon behind it, the Echo Plus comes highly recommended for a variety of smart home needs. However, from a pure home automation standpoint, you may be better served by a hub that includes Z-Wave support.

What We Like:

  • Stylish design (fabric covering and three color choices)
  • Over 50,000 Alexa skills available via voice command with the Alexa app
  • Improved speaker over previous versions — room-filling sound
  • Built-in Voice Control - no additional hardware required
  • You can use the Alexa App to control your smart home accessories without an Echo device so you can test before purchasing

Flaws:

  • No Z-Wave radio so many third-party peripherals are incompatible
  • Some voice commands have to be very specific, otherwise Alexa doesn't understand
  • Geo-fencing isn’t readily available, but Skills try to cover the gap
  • Missing a native vacation mode, but Away Mode Skills help achieve this
  • Some users may be concerned about privacy

Before You Buy:

  • Make sure you are comfortable with Amazon's privacy policy

Alternatives:

Description

In a departure from previous Echo designs, the Echo Plus comes in three colors and features a cloth-like exterior. It is 5.8 inches tall, 3.9 inches in diameter, and weighs 27.5 ounces. It is a bit stocky in nature, but the color options — Charcoal, Heather Gray, and Sandstone — blend better with a variety of décor than prior plastic models.

You will recognize the same light-up feature at the top from previous models. The light activates when the device is “thinking” or “listening” to voice commands.

The unit uses a substantial 3-inch neodymium woofer and a 0.8-inch tweeter to deliver optimal sound. This is a clear upgrade over past editions, even without the addition of an external speaker.

A 30W power adapter keeps it constantly powered on, and you can use either Bluetooth connectivity or plug in music players via the 3.5mm audio output cable.

Amazon Echo Plus Hub (2nd Generation) - Front, Back, and Top
Amazon Echo Plus Hub (2nd Generation) - Front, Back, and Top

Inside the box you will find the Echo Plus, the power cable, and a Quick Start Guide.

Features

With strong compatibility both within and outside of Amazon’s product line, the hub is a sleek and multi-functional unit. It connects to audio devices, home security systems, lighting, thermostats, and a variety of apps with simple syncing and commands.

Unlike other similar hubs, Amazon’s devices come with their proprietary voice assistant — a bot named Alexa. Issuing voice commands is simple, connecting devices is straightforward, and an array of “skills” allow Alexa to cater to your every home automation and entertainment whim.

Speaking of entertainment, there is also an upgraded speaker that allows you to stream music with more flexibility when it comes to equalizer settings. Most other smart hubs don't have built-in streaming of audio content like music and podcasts.

Other Amazon smart home devices, most smartphones, Bluetooth-enabled devices, and Zigbee products are all compatible with the Echo Plus. Once you have the unit set up, connecting additional devices is simple via voice commands and doesn’t require endless password entry. Also, there are plenty of ways to limit the device’s use to specific users, such as password protection for purchases and content filters that appeal to families.

Protocols Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee
Multi-User Yes
Voice Control Yes, built-in Alexa
Local Control Yes
Geo-Fencing No, but possible with Alexa Skills
Vacation Mode No, but possible with Alexa Skills
IFTTT Yes
Battery Backup No

Alexa Skills

Before we get to the Echo Plus features, we need to discuss Alexa Skills. Skills help Alexa understand complex commands that are not programmed into the Echo by default, especially commands for third-party devices. These Skills allow Alexa to adjust the temperature, turn the lights on, or control the window shades.

Amazon has released a Smart Home Skill API, which lets manufacturers link their home automation devices to Alexa for voice control. The API is very technical, but all you need to know is that many smart device manufacturers use the API to incorporate voice control into their product line.

Alexa has thousands of Skills, which require activation before you can utilize them. This is because the permissions per skill vary. We will discuss Skills a lot during the rest of this article.

Radios / Protocols

Though the Echo Plus utilizes the same protocols as its Echo siblings (Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity,) the latest version also includes the home automation protocol Zigbee.

Under the Zigbee protocol, users can control many smart home devices like lights, locks, sensors, and other accessories. The built-in hub eliminates the need for multiple apps to control multiple devices. However, Zigbee devices do require a bridge in some instances, such as for Hue light bulbs and light switches.

Unfortunately, the hub is missing a Z-Wave radio. Z-Wave is a popular protocol among home automation enthusiasts. It is similar to Zigbee, but it is currently a bit more popular. Therefore, you may have trouble using some of your existing devices and you may be limited in choosing future upgrades. Be sure to check your current components to make sure they are compatible before you purchase the Echo Plus Hub. If you are looking for a new device, check Amazon's list of Simple-Setup options.

Multi-User

This device supports multiple users through the Alexa app. Family members can be added in the app. To create an Amazon Household, select Manage Your Household. Then:

  1. Select Settings from the menu
  2. Scroll to Accounts and click Household Profile
  3. Follow the on-screen instructions

Adult profiles are authorized to work with Alexa and the Echo Plus. Children's profiles can access supported content through Amazon FreeTime on specific compatible devices.

Any authorized user on your Amazon Household can make purchases via the Alexa app, but you can require a password to confirm purchases. To switch accounts, use the voice command “switch accounts.”

Setting up multiple accounts does require selecting authorizations, choosing passwords, and verifying information in-app. However, once it’s set up, any member of the family can use the Echo Plus in any room of the house.

Voice Control

Like other Amazon hubs, the Echo Plus includes built-in voice control via Alexa. To set up your new hub, and any connected devices, you’ll need to use the Alexa app.

You can also use voice control to issue commands to connected devices, such as dimming lights, setting timers, playing music, and more. A smart outlet allows you to control small appliances or other items that don't have built-in smart functions.

One complaint we have seen is that your voice commands must be very precise. Alexa is still learning how to use natural language so you might have to adapt when asking the hub to perform commands. You may also have to train Alexa to understand your commands. As the technology improves, so will Alexa's understanding of natural language.

Local Control

The device has local control, meaning it does not need internet connectivity to function. You can still utilize select features with the Echo Plus if your internet is down. In addition, many commands don't require a round-trip to the server and back. This makes your devices respond quicker. We didn't experience any lag times during our Alexa tests.

Geo-Fencing

While it’s not a built-in feature, the device does allow for geo-fencing with the addition of Alexa Skills.

Geo-fencing allows you to use apps and services that automate tasks (such as unlocking doors or turning on lights) depending on your location within (or outside) your home. Its functionality will depend on the associated devices and those devices’ capabilities. Setup can take some trial-and-error as you learn how to use Alexa Skills.

Vacation Mode

The Echo Plus allows for the Alexa Skill “Away Mode,” which simulates users being at home via automated processes such as turning lights and music on and off. However, the function is not touted as a vacation security solution by any means; its main feature involves playing audio tracks of simulated conversations or dogs barking. The idea is that intruders will be scared off since they’ll assume people are home.

Aside from Away Mode, your vacation settings will depend on what devices you have connected to your Echo Plus and what settings, automated or otherwise, they use.

If you have recurring events for lights, music, or any other settings, you can let them run their course even when you’re away. You can also use the Alexa app on any compatible device to control your hub when you’re away from home. As long as the Echo Plus is plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi, you can communicate with it from any Alexa app-enabled device.

We believe more Away Mode skills will be developed over time. These should offer more granular control over how you want your home to act when you are on vacation.

IFTTT – If This, Then That

The web service IFTTT allows Echo Plus users to dictate unique voice commands to perform a range of tasks on multiple devices. For example, IFTTT enables communication between the Echo Plus and Philips Hue lightbulbs, so you can give Alexa the voice command “Alexa, trigger party time" and the Hue bulbs will start a color light show. The capabilities depend on what technology you use in conjunction with the Echo Plus, but the possibilities are practically endless.

Alexa is one of the most well-covered IFTTT services. There are lots of IFTTT triggers and applets for you to explore.

Battery Backup

This version of the Echo does not have battery backup and requires a constant power source to function. If your home loses power, you’ll need to wait for the electricity to be restored, then reboot the hub. Once power comes back on it only takes a few minutes for the Echo Plus to be ready to go again and you won’t lose any information since it is all stored in the cloud.

This isn't an issue in our mind since most smart hub manufacturers are moving away from battery backup. Most residential installations can survive without the hub while the power is out.

Compatible Devices

Like other Amazon hubs, the Echo Plus is compatible with a long list of Bluetooth-enabled devices. Any device with Fire OS, Android, or iOS can connect via the Alexa app. Other items such as Bluetooth speakers, smart bulbs, smart plugs, motion sensors, locks, in-wall switches, and more are compatible with the unit.

As we've already mentioned, Zigbee compatibility is a highlight. Zigbee capable smart home devices easily connect with Echo Plus. Being the great retailer they are, Amazon has a nice list of compatible smart home devices that you can purchase.

The Amazon Echo Plus Alexa App

The device uses Amazon’s Alexa app for functionality. It is compatible with Fire OS, Android, and Apple iOS devices and is available in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese.

Users can manage alarms, music, shopping lists, accounts, Wi-Fi connectivity, and connected devices via the app’s interface. You can also send SMS messages, access GPS location information, allow device and app access, and more. Amazon clearly wants Alexa to be your digital personal assistant.

While the app is brain for all of your entertainment needs, you can also control your home from it. Simply tap the menu icon (three horizontal bars) in the top-left of the screen and then select Smart Home. You can also tap the Home icon in the lower right of the app. You will then see the three main home automation sections: Devices, Groups, and Scenes.

Amazon Echo Plus Alexa App - Devices, Groups, Scenes, Light, Thermostat
Amazon Echo Plus Alexa App - Devices, Groups, Scenes, Light, Thermostat

The Devices tab is where you add and control the different smart components in your system. It is also the place where you can add and control Alexa Skills. The app will start by trying to auto-discover devices when you tap the Plus icon.

Groups allow you to link a number of smart devices together. Many people like to group their devices by room so you can tell Alexa to turn everything in the kitchen on or off together.

Scenes allow you to fine tune any number of devices or groups to your liking. For instance, you can create a Movie Scene that adjusts the lights, turns on your Amazon Fire TV, and adjusts the temperature. You can also have the scene adjust other groups, like turning off all of your music devices.

Keep in mind that the app stores all voice queries that pass through the Echo Plus. This is helpful for reviewing your history...or spying on your family. Be careful what you tell Alexa.

Overall, the app earns decent feedback from users; the most common complaint is users being unable to access the features or understand the interface. And it’s true — some settings are less than intuitive. Still, user-friendliness ranks high for most of Amazon’s devices, so if you’re already familiar with a Fire tablet or other Amazon-branded device, it might be a more seamless transition to using the Alexa app. We aren't big fans of the all-black theme, but that is just a personal preference.

Setup

Thanks to the Echo’s built-in voice control, setup is as simple as answering a few questions with voice commands.

To set up the hub, plug it in with the included power cable. Use the Alexa app to connect to your Wi-Fi signal. Then, give voice commands to complete the setup, including such tasks as “Discover my devices.” The Alexa app will automatically connect your devices to the Wi-Fi network without requiring multiple password entries.

Users can begin issuing voice commands to the Echo Plus without the Amazon Alexa app on their phone. With the addition of the app, however, you’ll have access to all your Amazon subscriptions such as audio books, Amazon music, and Prime ordering.

To get set up with the Amazon Alexa app, you will need your Amazon account login credentials. Although, once you connect you won’t have to reconnect — the hub will retain its settings unless you adjust them.

We had an issue trying to get Alexa to recognize the smart devices in our setup. We had the Skills installed for two light switches and the Nest thermostat, but the app wouldn't discover them. Unfortunately, Alexa requires your Wi-Fi network to have Universal Plug and Play (uPNP) enabled to discover devices. uPNP allows devices to find each other on your network. However, it is a security risk so we recommend that you turn it on when you are configuring a new device and then turn it off. Everything continued to work after we turned off uPNP.

System Security

We are not aware of any security breaches affecting the Echo line of products. However, Amazon did experience a hack in 2016 where 80,000 user credentials were leaked. The issue has since been patched and does not affect any current products.

Amazon does have a very strong security team in place. In addition, they provide detailed information when issues are detected and fixed. You should not be concerned about the security of the Echo Plus or Alexa, but you should continue to practice safety when it comes to your own system setup.

Previous and Other Versions

First Generation Echo Plus
First Generation Echo Plus

The original (first generation) Echo Plus came out in October 2017. The original Echo was a taller cylinder with a volume function that required spinning the top of the unit. The first-generation Plus added buttons on top of the unit, better microphones, noise cancellation, and Zigbee compatibility with smart home devices.

In comparison with the older version, the second generation Echo Plus has an upgraded design—fabric covering, an embedded temperature sensor, and improved speakers.

The Echo line of products also includes the standard Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Spot, and the Echo Show. However, it is important to note that only the Echo Plus and Echo Show include a Zigbee radio so they can connect to compatible accessories without built-in Alexa support. The Echo Dot and Echo do not include a Zigbee radio — however, they still function as a voice controller for your home automation system. While they may work well for many people, the Plus and Show (with the Zigbee radio) will allow for future growth if you decide to expand to other home automation products.

About the Manufacturer

Amazon started in 1994 as an online book retailer. The company has since expanded significantly and is one of the most valuable companies in the world. They heavily rely on technology to run their retail business and they have turned that into many other products, such as Amazon Web Services. Given their expertise with technology, it makes a lot of sense that they would venture into the home automation field.

With a line-up that includes not only multiple versions of the Echo Plus, but also the Dot, Look, Show, Spot, Auto, Input, Link, and Tap, Amazon is no beginner in the home peripheral market. The company began rolling out their Alexa-backed home hubs in 2014. All of their devices include the Alexa voice assistant as an integral part of their offerings. However, the company has faced controversy over the fact that the voice assistant is “always listening” — it has to so that it can respond to the “wake word.” So far, the company is transparent about its privacy policies and how many customers are affected by the legalities surrounding the cloud-stored voice recordings.