The new Amazon Echo is cheaper, smaller and has a less imposing stature, but is it still the best smart speaker going?

Amazon's voice assistant Alexa has improved greatly since the Echo's introduction to, altered behind the scenes without users needing to do anything thanks the virtue of being a cloud-powered product. It has gained new skills, routines and other smart home control abilities. Its voice recognition and understanding has improved, and it is now a little more conversational, remembering certain topics that you're talking about the way a human would.

But the outside of the speaker has not changed, until now. The new Amazon Echo for 2017 is just under 9cm shorter, standing 14.8cm tall and is covered in your choice of fabric, wood or metallic finish, standing in stark contrast to the monolithic black or white towering cylinder of the previous generation. It looks more friendly, blending into the fabric-covered surrounds of the home a little easier, but in some way looks a little less unique and impressive.

The attractive and useful LED light ring is still there in the top, cycling round when Alexa is listening to you or performing an action. The volume ring that physically turned at the top has been replaced with buttons joining the mute and action buttons in the top, mimicking the look of the smaller Echo Dot. It's functional, but feels less futuristic somehow. I will miss it.

Whether you find the new Echo more or less attractive than the old one or rivals such as the Google Home will be personal taste. I like the design, although the fabric covered variants will be slightly more difficult to keep clean. At least the mottled grey color won't show dust quite as readily.

What Does It Do?

An array of seven microphones in the top listens out for a wake word, which is “Alexa” by default, and then starts listening to your commands, be they questions, smart home demands or entertainment requests. The new Echo will do everything the old one does: play music via the internet (Spotify, Amazon Music, TuneIn or Radioplayer), tell you the weather, the news or what's on your calendar, give you information about your commute, answer general knowledge questions, set timers and alarms, control the lights or other smart home devices and generally act as a voice-controlled helper.

You can shop from it, use third-party skills (apps) such as the Guardian, or voice call other Echo or Alexa users. There's also a line-out for attaching the Echo to another set of speakers, and Bluetooth connectivity for both playing music to the Echo and from the Echo to another Bluetooth speaker.

Does It Work?

The new Echo hears you just as well as the old one, even when music is blasting out of it, or the cooker hood is going hell-for-leather as you concoct your latest culinary creation. If you have more than one Echo device it'll "echolocate," meaning only the nearest one will respond to you, and you can play one source of music in multiple rooms using groups of Echo devices.

The new smaller Echo sounds better than the previous version. The audio is slightly clearer, and of a higher quality all round -- particularly at louder volumes -- and thanks to a recent software update has more bass too. The smaller size has not diminished the sound, then.

Price

The 2017 Amazon Echo costs [$99] in fabric or [$119] in metallic or wood finishes.

For comparison, the original Echo launched at [$200], while the Echo Plus with integrated smarthome hub costs [$150], and the Echo Dot costs [$50]. Google's Home costs [$129] and the Google Home Mini costs [$50]. The Sonos One with integrated Alexa costs [$200].

Verdict

The new 2017 Amazon Echo is an absolute bargain. Alexa is still the best voice assistant for smart home control, still hears you better than any other over noise and music, and is still getting better with feature updates and improvements behind the scene.

There are now better-sounding, more expensive smart speakers available, and Google Assistant still beats Alexa on general knowledge, but the Echo undercuts the competition by some margin and sounds pretty good for the money.

Amazon has once again bucked the trend of ever increasing prices by practically cutting the price of its primary Alexa speaker in half. If you want a great smart speaker that won't break the bank, the new Amazon Echo is it.