“Echo Flex has a mini built-in speaker that is not optimized for music playback.” This message on the product listing page for Echo Flex on Amazon India has caught me off guard in a big way. Most often, it is not difficult to find out who a product is meant for but with Echo Flex, the answer seems difficult.
Amazon, the leader in e-commerce and on-demand cloud computing services, wants to be a leader in hardware as well. If the decade 2010-2019 was defined by smartphones then the next decade will be defined by smarter devices. Amazon, which lost mobile this decade, does not want to lose in the smart everything future. Among all the tech companies, Amazon is the one that sees this transformation with clarity.
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In line with that mission, Amazon is doing the obvious thing – release new hardware. Amazon’s smart home devices are called Echo and they come with a digital assistant named Alexa. While Echo Dot and Echo Show have become popular, the company has introduced two new devices in India – Echo Flex and Echo Input. The Echo Input is designed as a portable Alexa smart speaker. The Echo Flex, on the other hand, is designed to bring Alexa to every room in your household. You might be wondering how is it different from Echo Dot? Read on as we figure that out.
What is Echo Flex?
At Amazon, the company works as if every day is day one. So, for Echo devices, the company sees as if it is just getting started. While smart home devices started their journey with smart speakers, the Echo Flex is basically a plug-in Alexa for home. Think of it like the adapter that you use to charge your smartphone. Now, if you make that adapter a little bigger, chunkier, add Alexa and buttons to control it, the result will be an Echo Flex. You would be wondering why Amazon is going this route. The answer, actually, seems both simple and straightforward.
The early Alexa devices, like the Echo Dot and Echo Plus, have shown the potential of smart home devices to consumers. They have proven so useful that smart speakers were the most popular product category this holiday season. So, what if you already have a couple of smart speakers and now want to bring only Alexa to one particular room in your home. Echo Flex might well be a limited but good option. If one of your requirements with a smart device is a decent speaker then you should not read this review any further. I would recommend reading our review of Google Nest Mini and Echo Dot instead.
In terms of design, it is a big adapter that plugs into a power socket. There is a tiny speaker but as Amazon explains, you should not really play music on it. There are two buttons, the first one being able to summon Alexa. The second is to turn off the microphone. There is a USB-A port at the bottom that can be used to charge other devices including smartphones or plug accessories. It is a simple design in white color and immediately tells you that Alexa wants to be everywhere. The ideal scenario for this to be in homes with multiple rooms and one where Alexa is already available in the form of other Echo devices.
What can Echo Flex do?
Let’s first think of a scenario where the Echo Flex can be used with success. Imagine a three-bedroom apartment where there is an Echo smart speaker in every room. Now, you want to bring Alexa to the kitchen as well. The obvious choice would be to buy an Echo Show but if you don’t want to spend a lot then Echo Flex could be ideal. I also see it to be more appropriate as the first thing you interact with as you enter the home. I just realized that my home does not have an electrical connection to use as soon as you enter through the door. In this situation, it could be used to turn on lights using smart lights made by Xiaomi, Syska or Philips and Alexa. Or turn on other smart devices like air conditioning or a fan.
In the kitchen, you could use this to listen to a recipe or announce that dinner is ready. So, I found this rather intriguing and very much useful. With Echo Spot in the bedroom and Alexa via Fire TV Stick, I was able to summon Alexa to announce that dinner is ready. It played the announcement on both Echo Spot as well as on TV. If you have a big family that eats together then this feature will be a godsend. If Ekta Kapoor made Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi now, this feature would have been shown almost every day.
You can also use Alexa’s drop-in feature to talk to friends or family who also have an Alexa-enabled smart speaker. However, for most features involving sound, I found Echo Flex to lack the motivation to do well. Take an example of settings. As soon as you setup Echo Flex for the first time using Alexa app on your phone, the volume is set to 70 percent by default. If you want to increase volume to 100 percent, then you cannot simply slide the volume rocker to 100. In order to do so, you first need to play some kind of sound (only music works) and then change the volume. You cannot summon Alexa, ask a question and change volume while she is answering your question. I would have also liked to see a physical volume button on the plug-in device itself.
Who is it for and should you buy?
The smart home market is like a card game. While Amazon wants in, it also wants to serve the Ace. Every Alexa-enabled device, whether made by Amazon or others, shows that it has an upper hand in this game. The challenge for companies like Google and Amazon is not how to sell these devices. The real challenge is how to make existing devices smarter. In the case of Amazon, the challenge is how to make any room smarter. We have seen such attempts before as well. With Chromecast Music, Google tried to add capabilities like multi-room support and casting to older speakers. Amazon tried something similar with Echo Input, which brought the smartness of Alexa in the form of a plug and play device to old speakers. Now, with Echo Flex, it is trying to make any space smarter. It can be your living room, child’s room, kitchen or even a closet.
All that it needs is a socket to plug into and you have Alexa in that room. While it does an excellent job of turning any space smart, the overall usability is limited. For instance, the sound output is so tiny that it is not meant for large spaces. Yes, it has a 3.5mm audio jack to connect an external speaker but rather than going through that hassle, you could get an Echo Dot instead. No device proves Amazon’s ambition to be inside your home and control your smart home devices like the way Echo Flex does. However, I don’t see a way to justify Rs 2,999 for this device. Amazon also does not offer add-ons like a motion detector or night light in India just yet. If you want to make your home smarter, then Echo Flex is a good place to start. However, you will soon want a better speaker and that brings us to Amazon Echo Dot. This tiny device costs only Rs 500 more and not only brings Alexa into your home but also a usable smart speaker.