How to buy the right Amazon Echo

Alexa seems to be everywhere. Since Amazon’s voice assistant was introduced three years ago, it’s grown and grown in size and scope. Alexa is now on dozens of devices, has over 15,000 “skills,” and is quite possibly the name you think of when a digital assistant comes to mind — which is some really bad news for Siri.

If you haven’t tried Alexa yet, all this attention may have you interested in picking up one Amazon’s many Echo devices. But at this point, there are a whole lot of options that all do slightly different things and give Alexa slightly different abilities. Here are the differences between them and why you might want to pick one over the other.

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If you want a speaker...

If the main thing you want out of an Alexa device is a loud, clear speaker for playing music and podcasts, the original Amazon Echo is still the way to go. The Echo is built around being a smart speaker, and before Alexa became well-versed at doing all kinds of other things, being a solid speaker was what the Echo excelled at.

Now, the Echo is not the absolute best speaker you can buy for $180. At that price, you can do a lot better if pure sound quality is all you’re looking for. But no speaker can match the level of convenience that comes with the Echo: to listen to music, all you have to do is ask it to start playing something. And it’s loud enough to fill a room, even if you have it placed in some out-of-the-way corner.

This version of the Echo is always listening for commands and questions and can take advantage of nearly every Alexa skill out there, so you can have it read the weather or news or have it hail you a cab. It can also use Alexa’s calling and messaging system, which lets you send voice messages to some of the other Echo devices.

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If you want a screen...

Sometimes, you actually want to read the news. Or watch a video. Or view the ingredients in a recipe. That’s what the Echo Show is for.

The Echo Show takes the regular Echo’s voice-first approach to Alexa and tries to give everything a simple interface, so you can look at the information it’s presenting, too. This is really great in instances where there’s a lot to look at, like your calendar, detailed weather information, or instructions.

And there are new things the screen can be used for, too. It’s able to play YouTube and Amazon Prime videos. And if you know someone else with an Echo Show, you can video chat with them. Like the traditional Echo, Alexa is always listening for commands here, too.

There are some downsides, though. It’s more expensive than every other Echo, at $229. And it’s still a pretty new product, so developers haven’t really taken advantage of the Show’s screen yet. That means in a lot of cases, you’re going to be using it pretty much the same way you’d use a regular Echo — with just your voice. So unless some of the built-in functions are really appealing to you, it may be worth waiting for Alexa skills to catch up.

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If you want a digital assistant...

If all you want is Alexa, or if you’re just curious to see what Alexa can do, the place to start is the Echo Dot. At $50, the Echo Dot is Amazon’s cheapest core Alexa product. It can do everything the $180 Echo can, except it’s just way, way quieter, because it’s a tiny little puck instead of a big, tall speaker. That also means it’s great if you have a bigger Echo in one room and just want to bring voice control into another.

Because it’s much quieter, you won’t want to use use the Dot as traditional speaker. So while you can play music on it, it won’t be a great experience. That said, you do have the option of connecting the Dot either wired or wirelessly to a bigger speaker, which essentially turns it into a full-fledged Echo. But if that’s not a possibility for you, the Dot’s speaker is still strong enough to let you hear what Alexa is saying, so you can still get by with the tinier Echo as a way to listen to the news or weather.

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If you want something a little different...

Fortunately, Amazon lets other companies build Alexa into their products. So if you’re interested in Echo devices, but don’t think they’re perfect for you, there are a lot of other places to look. Here are a few of them:

Third-party Alexa products usually support most Alexa skills, but some might be missing. Usually, that’ll be Amazon-specific features, like messaging between Echo devices. That feature isn’t available anywhere else, even though it’s all done over Alexa.

For the most part, though, you’re still best off going with Amazon’s products if you’re looking for the best Alexa experience.

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What’s the deal with [other weird Amazon product with Alexa in it]?

The Echo, Echo Dot, and Echo Show are the three main Alexa products. But they’re far from the only devices Amazon makes with Alexa in them. It’s just that everything else has a much more specific use case.

Amazon Tap. This is primarily a portable speaker, and while it now supports always-on Alexa, it wasn’t built with that in mind. So if Alexa is what you’re buying an Echo for — and, that’s almost certainly a big reason anyone’s interested — this isn’t the best device for that.

Echo Look. The Look isn’t quite like any other Echo. It’s a camera that’s meant to take pictures of you every day to catalog all of your outfits. It can also compare your outfits and tell you which it thinks is better, and it can recommend new clothing to buy (on Amazon, obviously). It also supports Alexa and can be used like an Echo Dot, but the speaker isn’t as good. The product isn’t widely available yet, either — you have to request an “invitation” to buy one.

Dash Wand. This lets you scan barcodes on products around your house to have them added to your shopping cart on Amazon, making it easy to reorder things like soap. It also has Alexa and can be used for all the typical Alexa tasks, but you have to press a button first — it isn’t always listening, like on the other products. Also, you’re totally going to lose this thing in a drawer.

Alexa Voice Remotes. Amazon has a couple of these. They aren’t standalone devices — instead, they have a microphone to let you control other Amazon products, like the Echo or Fire TV. For the Echo, it’s meant to be used when you’re too far out of range for the device to hear you.

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