The Complete Guide to Amazon Echo & Alexa Devices

Oct 4, 2021

Category: Tech

It’s hard to imagine now, but just two short decades ago Amazon was known mainly as an online bookstore. Now, it’s the world’s largest online retailer, one of the world’s most valuable companies, and a world-leading developer of artificial intelligence. Since debuting in the original Echo smart speaker in 2014, Amazon’s AI assistant, Alexa, has been a massive success for the company and is arguably the most ubiquitous of the “big three” smart home AI assistants, with the others being Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri. With Amazon having sold well over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices and new products being released all the time, it can be difficult to keep track of all of the options available. That’s why we came up with this complete guide to Amazon Echo and Alexa devices.

There are literally tens of thousands of products from various manufacturers that support Alexa, but don’t worry, we’re not going to cover them all in this guide. Instead, we’ve limited the scope of this article to cover only the devices that Amazon manufactures themselves where Alexa is the main focus. These devices fall into five categories: Echo-branded smart speakers, Echo-branded smart displays, miscellaneous Echo and Amazon-branded smart devices, Alexa-enabled Fire TV products, and finally, Echo and Amazon-branded accessories that require an existing Alexa device to operate to their full potential. So have a look below to see the complete rundown of Amazon’s current Echo and Alexa devices, along with a bit of the history behind Amazon’s involvement in AI.

Meet Alexa

How Amazon Came To Dominate AI

Alexa was not the first of the big three AIs to be released to the public. It was Apple’s Siri who first got everyday people interested in virtual assistants when it debuted on the iPhone 4S in 2011. But Siri’s applications were limited, and its performance buggy. The door was open for another manufacturer to step in and improve upon what Apple had started. And, surprisingly at the time, that company ended up being Amazon. Alexa first arrived on the original Echo smart speaker in November 2014, when it was made available to Amazon Prime members exclusively. What set Alexa apart from Siri immediately was its practicality. It was Amazon that realized the most natural place for a virtual assistant wasn’t on our phones but in our homes. With Echo, you didn’t have to take out your phone and press a button to get the information you needed, you simply spoke in your normal voice — waking your device with the word “Alexa” — and your virtual assistant would answer you.

While originally intended solely as a smart speaker that could provide a plethora of information and entertainment, along with functionality like setting timers and alarms, it soon became clear that Alexa had another major use that wasn’t being realized. With its natural place in the center of a room, Alexa was the ideal hub for smart home devices. At the time of the first Echo’s release, smart home devices were very niche, as there was no simple shared platform on which to control them. Alexa became that initial platform, giving Amazon a major head start in the smart home industry and making Alexa the most widely compatible virtual assistant among smart device manufacturers. If you have a smart home set up, odds are that you’re controlling it with Alexa. Once other manufacturers got on board with Alexa, so did consumers, and it was off to the races for Amazon, who quickly came to dominate this nascent market.

Echo Smart Speakers

The Basics

The original category of Alexa devices remains one of the most essential. If what you’re looking for is a basic virtual assistant to control your smart home, play music, and answer your random questions, then one of these smart speakers is really all you need.

Echo Flex

If you’re looking to get some Alexa in your life for as little money as possible, then the Echo Flex is the way to do it. The $25 mini plug-in speaker houses the same Alexa tech as more expensive speakers, meaning it can still provide information and control your smart devices. Since it’s so small, the sound is going to be pretty weak and not exactly room-filling, but you can’t really expect any better for the price.

Purchase: $25

Echo Dot

The most popular Alexa device is this compact yet powerful speaker. The current fourth-generation adopts a grapefruit-sized spherical silhouette, replacing the prior generations’ hockey puck-like dimensions. The newer Dot has much more powerful sound than before, with surprisingly decent volume and bass. Its small size allows it to fit nearly anywhere, while it’s more than adequate sound makes it a decent option even in a one-Echo home. In addition to the basic version, there is an alarm clock variant with an embedded LED display, along with several themed editions.

Purchase: $50+

Echo

Also in its fourth generation is this latest version of the original Echo speaker that bears little resemblance to its forebears. The original Echo was a monolithic 9-inch tall black cylinder, but the new version looks like a larger version of the current-gen Echo Dot. But it’s far more than just a bigger Dot. The Echo has premium sound, with a 3-inch woofer, dual front-firing 0.8-inch tweeters, and Dolby Audio. It’s also more capable, with a built-in Zigbee smart home hub that gives you control over even more smart devices.

Purchase: $100+

Echo Studio

Apple eventually got into the smart speaker business with the HomePod, a more premium entry in the space that never quite caught on and was recently discontinued. Still, Amazon wasn’t going to let Apple’s fired salvo go unreturned, so they released the Echo Studio. Designed to be the most premium Echo smart speaker, Studio ups the sound quality considerably. The device has a 1-inch tweeter, three 2-inch mid-range speakers, and a 5.3-inch woofer. Its five speakers produce 3D sound, it supports premium audio formats like HD, Ultra HD, and Dolby Atmos, and it automatically fine-tunes its sound to its environment.

Purchase: $200+

Echo Smart Displays

Sight & Sound

A step up from the smart speaker, Echo smart displays add a visual element to the smart speaker experience. These devices operate basically the same way as Echo smart speakers, but they also incorporate touchscreen displays that can display information and stream entertainment.

Echo Show 5

The smallest Echo smart display, the Show 5 has a 5.5-inch touchscreen that’s roughly the size of your smartphone’s display. So what’s the point of this if you already have a phone with a virtual assistant? Well, for one it’s always on and there is no battery to charge. Secondly, it has much better sound — even better than the Echo Dot. And third, it just performs so many functions. It’s a digital picture frame, a bedside alarm clock, a home security camera, and more. It’s quite a versatile device for under a hundred bucks.

Purchase: $85+

Echo Show 8

Moving up in size and price from the Echo Show 5, we have the Show 8. The Show 8 boasts an 8-inch HD screen with 1280 x 800 resolution, giving you a crisper picture than the smaller Show. But outside of the bigger and sharper screen, the Show 8 — which is a generation older than the Show 5 — doesn’t really offer anything more. It lacks some of the newer tech of the 5, and its camera has a lower resolution. Honestly, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the Echo Show 8 updated or even discontinued in the near future.

Purchase: $110+

Echo Show 10

While previous generations of the Echo Show 10 have functioned mainly as larger versions of other Echo Show devices, the 10-inch smart display got a major redesign in 2021 that added some unique functionality. Design-wise, the Show 10 now resembles a Kindle Fire 10 tablet mounted horizontally on an Echo Studio, but the biggest overhaul comes in the form of a handy new feature. This is the first Echo device to move on its own, as its smart-tracking technology enables the screen to rotate so it’s always facing you. Whether you’re running around your kitchen while following a recipe or giving a presentation on a work video call, the Show 10 will intelligently keep you in the frame.

Purchase: $250+

Echo Show 15

Amazon recently unveiled the largest Echo Show yet, and it makes an even more compelling case for an Alexa device to become the new center of the home. The Show 15 has a 15.6” HD screen and can be mounted on a wall, essentially making it as much of a small smart TV as a large smart display. It can be mounted in either landscape or portrait mode, whichever works for your space, and features new Alexa-powered widgets that give you at-a-glance information on its home screen. These widgets are customizable and include things like notes, calendars, shopping lists, and the like, allowing this smart home hub to effectively function as the new family bulletin board.

Purchase: $250+

Other Alexa Devices

Earbuds & Glasses & Robots, Oh My

Amazon has experimented with a lot of seemingly random Alexa-enabled devices over the past few years. Some, like the Echo Loop smart ring, disappear almost as soon as they’re launched. But others, like the new Astro home robot, show some exciting potential for the future of smart home technology.

Echo Auto

Have you ever been driving and wished that you could use Alexa in your car (assuming that you have a car that doesn’t already have Alexa built-in, as some new models do)? Well, Echo Auto will make your wish a reality (maybe next time wish for something bigger). The vent-mounted device connects to the Alexa app on your smartphone and plays audio through your car’s speakers via either Bluetooth or auxiliary input. This essentially gives your car voice control functionality, allowing you to play music, make calls, get information, and more, all hands-free.

Purchase: $50

Echo Buds

Most premium earbuds these days offer support for multiple virtual assistants, including Alexa. But if you prefer to keep your Alexa devices Amazon-branded, then the Echo Buds are the smart earbuds for you. The buds have Alexa built-in — that’s a given — giving them plenty of hands-free functionality. But, somewhat surprisingly, they’re also pretty compelling from an audio perspective. The sweat-resistant Echo Buds feature Dynamic Audio and Active Noise Canceling with Passthrough Mode, along with an optional wireless charging chase.

Purchase: $120+

Echo Frames

Whether we like it or not, smart glasses are almost certainly going to become a thing at some point. Google Glass may have prompted jokes and criticism years ago, but the space has come a long way since then. Apple is believed to have been working on a pair for some time, and Facebook just released a collaborative product with Ray-Ban. And believe it or not, Amazon already has a pair of Alexa-enabled smart glasses in their arsenal. The Echo Frames, unlike other smart glasses, have no display or camera. Instead, they’re basically open-ear headphones in a pair of prescription-ready glasses. They function largely like Echo Buds, but with inferior audio and no noise cancelation. Truth be told, these haven’t really caught on.

Purchase: $250+

Amazon Glow

Technically, this isn’t an Alexa device as it doesn’t feature Alexa technology. But it is a very unique smart gadget that shows how Amazon is continuing to innovate the way we live our lives through technology. Amazon Glow is a combination smart projector/video caller that’s aimed at children. Kids can call or receive a call from parent-approved people on the device — say, a grandparent — and then engage in interactive activities with them. The adult just needs a tablet running the free Glow app to participate, while the kid plays games and completes tasks on a floor or table-projected “touchscreen” produced by the Amazon Glow. It’s a unique approach to keeping kids engaged and in touch with relatives in the Covid age, and while it’s not an Alexa device, it’s hard to imagine Amazon taking a big swing like this without already having their Alexa infrastructure in place.

Purchase: $300

Amazon Astro

If you’re looking for the future of Alexa, this is it. The recently-unveiled Astro is Amazon’s first home robot, and the company expects most people to have something similar in their homes in the next five to ten years. Roughly the size of a small dog, the three-wheeled Astro has a 10” HD display for its “face,” and it’s loaded with Alexa-powered functionality. It can do everything other Alexa devices can do, but it can also follow you around, carry things for you, and — probably most usefully — patrol your home as a security bot, utilizing its periscope camera to investigate strange noises. It might be a little creepy, but if you’ve been waiting for the promised future of The Jetsons to arrive, this is the first step in getting there.

Purchase: $1,450+

Fire TV

What’s On?

As the center of most living rooms, the television makes a natural fit for a smart home base of operations. Amazon knows this, which is why they’ve doubled down with their Alexa-powered TV subbrand, moving from basic streaming devices to full-on TVs that are built around the AI assistant.

Fire TV Stick

If you’re looking for the most affordable and easiest way to add Alexa capability to your TV, the Fire TV Stick line is for you. These are simple, USB drive-like devices that plug into your TV to turn it into a streaming device. The Alexa capability comes from pressing a button on the remote control, which offers some limited voice control capabilities. There are four levels of Fire TV Stick currently on offer — Lite, Regular, 4K, and 4K Max. Lite and Regular are nearly indistinguishable, with the latter offering a few more buttons on the remote and Dolby Atmos support. The 4K version adds 4K support, naturally, while the 4K Max adds a slightly faster and more robust processor and WiFi 6 support.

Purchase: $30+

Fire TV Cube

If you’re really looking to transform your television into a smart home hub, you’re going to need more than a Fire TV Stick, and that’s where the Fire TV Cube comes in. This aptly-named device — it is literally a small black cube that measures a little over 3 inches across — is equipped with eight microphones for far-field voice control. You can tell it to turn the TV on and off, ask it to stream shows, or even use it as you would an Echo smart speaker when your TV is off. The Cube is also the fastest and most powerful Fire TV streaming device, as it’s powered by a hexa-core CPU.

Purchase: $120

Fire TV 4-Series

In 2021, Amazon unveiled their first-ever televisions. These are ideal for people who prefer a smart TV with built-in streaming capabilities over having to hook up a separate streaming device to a non-smart television. Of the two LED TV lines introduced by Amazon, the 4-Series is the more basic. Available in three sizes — 45”, 50”, and 55” — the 4-Series TVs support 4K resolution on a number of premium formats, plus Dolby Digital Plus Audio, and it offers button-activated Alexa capability through a Fire TV remote.

Purchase: $370+

Fire TV Omni Series

The Omni Series is Amazon’s more premium line of smart TVs. Compared to the 4-Series, the Omni comes in two additional sizes, 65” and 70”, both of which add support for Dolby Vision. All five sizes of the Omni Series feature hands-free Alexa voice control (there’s also a Fire TV remote included if that’s more your jam), plus support for Alexa Communications two-way video calling with the use of a compatible webcam.

Purchase: $410+

Alexa Accessories

Building Out Your Smart Home

In addition to the Alexa-powered devices themselves, Alexa also makes a handful of accessories that add to your smart home or improve your Alexa experience. These products don’t feature innate Alexa abilities, and they require an existing Alexa device to operate to their full potential.

Amazon Smart Plug

If you’ve dabbled in smart home tech at all, then you are probably familiar with smart plugs. Amazon makes one that works exclusively with Alexa, and it makes for an affordable way to turn your non-smart devices into smart ones. Simply plug the Amazon Plug into an outlet, plug the device you want to control into the plug, and then connect the plug to the Alexa app. Once set up, you’ll be able to turn off and on whatever device you want using an Alexa device.

Purchase: $25

Echo Glow

Not to be confused with Amazon Glow, Echo Glow is an Alexa-enabled smart lamp for kids. Using a compatible Alexa device, you (or your kid) can turn the Glow lamp on, adjust its color, set timers or alarms for lighting, and more. Essentially, it’s a fancy night light.

Purchase: $30

Amazon Smart Thermostat

Given that smart thermostats were among the first smart home devices to hit the market, it’s surprising that Amazon waited until 2021 to release their own. But it’s here now, and it looks like it was worth the wait. Jointly developed with Honeywell, the Amazon Smart Thermostat is controlled by an Alexa device and operates like other smart thermostats. You can set routines, adjust the temperature with your voice, etc. It’s about time, Amazon.

Purchase: $60+

Amazon Basics Microwave

Is a voice-controlled microwave overkill? Perhaps, but we’d be lying if we said we weren’t at least intrigued by this. Despite its name, the Amazon Basics Microwave is actually pretty non-basic for a microwave. When paired with an Alexa device, the microwave can be controlled with voice commands. It’s smart enough to know how long to heat certain things, like a bag of popcorn or a cup of coffee, which takes some of the guesswork out of microwaving. Hey, that’s one less thing to worry about.

Purchase: $75

Echo Sub

Even if you spring for the Echo Studio, you’re still not getting a true premium audio experience from your smart speaker setup. For that, you’re going to need an Echo Sub. This is a full-fledged subwoofer that’s designed to work with an Echo device, providing room-filling stereo sound. The device’s 6” woofer delivers down-firing, 100W deep bass sound that dramatically increases the quality and volume of whatever Echo device you pair it with.

Purchase: $130+

Echo Link

In a way, the Echo Link is the opposite of the Echo Sub. While the Sub transforms your Echo device into a premium audio system, the Link transforms your premium audio system into an Echo device. You simply plug the Link into your existing stereo receiver or amplifier to grant your stereo both hi-fi audio streaming and voice control through an Echo device. It’s a novel way of adding smart capabilities to what is likely one of the more expensive electronic devices in your home.

Purchase: $200

Echo Link Amp

The Link Amp is essentially a larger, upgraded version of the Link. It works the same way and boasts all the same functionality as its little brother, but it goes further by adding a built-in 60W x 2-channel amplifier. In other words, Echo Link Amp doesn’t just add streaming and voice control to your stereo, it also improves your speaker setup if you’re currently lacking an amp.

Purchase: $300

The 15 Best Smart Appliances For Your Home

Looking to flesh out your smart home even more? Then have a look at our guide to the 15 best smart appliances for your home. There, you’ll discover a smart oven, refrigerator, coffee maker, and more — many of which are capable of communicating with Alexa. Before you know it, you’ll be controlling your entire house with nothing but the sound of your voice.

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