With Amazon launching a new Echo device almost every two months these days, it’s clear that the popular American multinational company wants to rule the Indian market for smart speakers and – more recently – small displays. The company’s portfolio recently saw the addition of some very unique models, such as the Echo Input Portable Edition (Amazon’s first battery-powered Echo device in India) and the Echo Auto (an Echo device designed to be operated in the car). The Echo Flex is also such a device.
Amazon’s goal is to make its popular digital assistant Alexa as easily accessible to the user as possible, even if that means cramming her into a small ring or glasses. This goal is undeniably reflected in the new Echo Flex. On the product page, it’s billed as a plug-in Echo device intended for smart home control. Amazon even clarifies on its product page that the Echo Flex is not designed for playing music, just for voice commands. What the company doesn’t mention is that it’s also the cheapest Echo device you can get in India today. It costs Rs 2,999 on Amazon.in but it retails for Rs 2,499 at the time of writing this review. With that, let’s take a look at the new Echo Flex.
Design and build
As you can probably see, the Amazon Echo Flex has a unique form factor, which can’t quite compare to its brethren. In fact, the portable little device can more easily be mistaken for a mosquito repellent machine or a Wi-Fi range extender. The Echo Flex is undeniably wall-mountable, which is both good and bad. It’s good because it won’t clutter your house with one more power cord and adapter. It’s bad because it forces you to use it directly from an easily accessible wall outlet; a power strip tucked under your bed or table, for example, won’t do much good.
When conveniently placed in the kitchen or bedroom, the Echo Flex can prove to be an attractive little piece of technology. In its compact rectangular white plastic housing, the device houses a small 0.6-inch speaker, an array with two microphones, the Action and Microphone Off buttons, a small LED light bar for status indications, a 3.5 mm jack for audio output and a USB-A port for charging other devices. While the short pill-shaped light bar doesn’t show the status of the device, it’s not as effective or attractive as the multicolored light ring on the regular Echo series. The Echo Flex also lacks physical volume control buttons, requiring you to use your voice every time.
Setting up the Amazon Echo Flex is no easier or more difficult than setting up another Echo device without a display. The setup process, which usually takes up to twenty minutes, begins with the installation of the Amazon Alexa smartphone app. The app is available for free on both Android and iOS platforms and will guide you through the installation process. For reasons unknown, the review unit talked me through the setup process in Indian English, but then automatically switched to British English. Along with it, the location and time zone changed. This switch happened even though my default account language was set to Indian English and is reflected in all other Echo devices. I think I attribute that to a bug in the system.
Like most other devices in the Echo family, the Echo Flex has a 3.5mm audio output jack on the right side of its body. I’m happy to see the inclusion of this jack on a device as simple as the Echo Flex. By contrast, none of Google’s smart speakers or displays in India have a 3.5mm jack for audio output. This feature is sure to set audio enthusiasts free as they can connect the Echo Flex to their favorite set of speakers while still retaining the power of Amazon Alexa.
Surprisingly, the Echo Flex even has a USB-A port on the underside of its body for charging low-power devices. This is something we don’t see on other Echo devices, not even the most expensive Echo Studio. The USB port on the Echo Flex can deliver up to 7.5 watts, which is comfortable for charging wireless headsets and fitness bands, but not for fast charging your smartphone. Nevertheless, it’s a handy feature that won’t go wrong on other Echo speakers too. Our review unit managed to charge a pair of Mi Sports Bluetooth earphones in about two hours.
Like every other Echo device in Amazon’s stable, the Echo Flex is powered on the inside by the Amazon Alexa voice assistant. With Alexa, you can give her commands such as “What’s the weather?”, “Tell me a story,” “Book a taxi on Uber,” “Play Beatles songs,” and “Turn off the bedroom light.” It’s important to note that some of these commands only work if a certain ‘skill’ is enabled in the Amazon Alexa app. These skills basically allow Alexa to use your personal accounts for data access, such as Uber and Domino’s Pizza. Compared to Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa comes with a few unique features like whisper mode (for when you don’t want to wake your parents or partner) and a custom wake-word setting (for when you’re bored of calling her Alexa) . In my experience, Amazon Alexa is a friendlier digital assistant than Google Assistant.
Audio quality and voice response
The Echo Flex comes with a single tiny 0.6-inch mini speaker that is best reserved for alarms, reminders, and voice responses from Alexa. The output is flat and weak at best for all genres of music. In contrast, the Echo Dot has a larger 1.6-inch speaker driver, which is good for casual music listening. Amazon even candidly writes on the product page of its wall-mountable speaker: “Echo Flex has a built-in mini speaker that isn’t optimized for music playback.” Fortunately, there is a 3.5mm jack connection for output to external speakers. You should definitely hook up the Echo Flex with some good speakers if you’re looking for good sound quality. You can read our review of the Echo Dot with Clock here†
The Echo Flex uses a two-microphone array to record ‘Alexa’ calls from its users. The third-generation Echo, on the other hand, uses an array of seven microphones for better range and sensitivity. The microphone setup on the Echo Flex isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either. The review unit responded to “Alexa” calls as expected when I sat about six feet from the device and spoke with moderate softness. But the device couldn’t record my calls when I went even a little further away from where I was before. In other words, the Echo Flex should be able to hear you if kept fairly close to you in the bedroom or kitchen. But if it’s plugged into an outlet on the other side of the room, you’ll have to take a deep breath and yell at Alexa.
As I mentioned in the Design and Build section of the review, the fact that the Amazon Echo Flex is a wireless wall-mountable smart speaker is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Which one of them it’s for you depends on how you plan to use the Echo Flex. To make sense, the device should be plugged into an outlet in an area of your home or office where you spend a lot of time. It should also be within reach. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself calling Alexa over and over in an increasingly louder tone. In other words, the Echo Flex is strictly a near-field device.
Even when conveniently placed, the Amazon Echo Flex is not without its limitations. It has a weak speaker that is only good for voice responses, making it disappointing for music playback unless you have a set of better external speakers to hook up to. It wins a few brownie points by offering a USB-A port for charging other devices. In summary, the Echo Flex is for you if you are aware of its physical limitations and still want an inexpensive Echo device for bedside companionship. Its biggest selling point is the friendly price of Rs 2,999.
- The Amazon Echo Flex comes in a small blue box that appears smaller than the device itself