Alexa can now learn "Routines," which let you set a group of actions for the assistant to carry out when you say a specific phrase -- just like the Google Assistant already does. For example, tell Alexa, "Start my day," and she will rattle off the weather forecast, the traffic report and a news briefing. I tried to create a routine called "Goodbye" that would turn off my lights and stop my music. The latter isn't an option at the moment, which is too bad, but at least I could set Alexa to switch off my lights when I said "Goodbye."
I can also use the Echo to call and send messages to other Alexa-enabled devices. I had fun chatting with my colleague Chris Velazco, who received my dictated messages as both texts and audio files. The latter is necessary, since Alexa's speech recognition isn't always very accurate: She translated "Does it work?" to "Was at work?" Voice calls over the Echo are a somewhat strange experience. Carrying on a conversation with a speaker five feet away feels awkward, and your friend will really have to crank up the volume to hear you when you're so far away.
Also useful, if slightly creepy, is the Drop In feature, which lets you call your Echo via the Alexa app (or vice versa). You can hear what's going on in your home or talk to people in your apartment while you're out. If your device has a camera, like the Echo Show, you can also get a visual feed. This could be helpful, but the way these calls are connected is problematic. Instead of requiring an answer before putting the call through, your Echo simply rings once, glows green, and voilà -- you're listening to what's going on at home. Since it's your Echo and your home, and you can't violate your own privacy, I guess it makes sense? But it feels weird if you're calling in to check on unwitting friends or guests.
My favorite thing about Alexa, though? The girl has sass. I asked how she was doing one day and she said she'd been thinking about a friend lately -- a self-driving car. Her humorous, somewhat rambly response almost made it seem like I was talking to a real person. I also liked how her response to my question "What's up?" was a breakdown of my day, followed by "That's what's up." Little touches like that go a long way toward making Alexa feel conversational and real.
The new Echo faces direct competition not only from rival companies, but from within Amazon itself. If you already have a speaker that you love and only want to add Alexa's smarts, the Echo Dot makes more sense. Those who want better sound but don't want to stray from Amazon hardware should consider the Echo Plus, which is $50 more but has a slightly larger tweeter and a bigger body that should provide a more rounded audio profile and better resonance.
If you like Alexa, but Amazon's hardware leaves you feeling cold, you can always opt for the Sonos One. That speaker offers true high-quality audio and smarts, but it costs twice as much and can be difficult to set up. The Sonos is also missing a few voice command features at launch.
If you want another assistant to manage your life altogether, the Google Home is a capable device that, as I've mentioned, delivers better audio for $30 more. The big difference is the software, but both Alexa and the Google Assistant work with the same major smart home brands. It all boils down to which company you've invested in. Those who own a Chromecast will prefer the Google Home, while Fire TV users should pick the Echo.
Ultimately, the new Echo's biggest drawback is subpar audio. Those who want a smart speaker with better sound have plenty of options, whether it is the more expensive Sonos One and Echo Plus or an Echo Dot that adds Alexa to an existing speaker. But for people who just want an Alexa-enabled speaker that looks good and does its job well, the second-generation Echo is a solid, affordable option.