Echo 3rd Gen lifestyleSource: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central

Back in the ancient times of 2014, Amazon invited some lucky Prime members to buy a new product it had created called the "Amazon Echo." We weren't sure what to make of the unusual speaker when it debuted, but just a few short years later, it has served as the catalyst for one of the most popular virtual assistant platforms in the world.

Amazon Alexa was at the heart of the original Echo and continues to power all of Amazon's smart devices to this very day. Need a refresher on everything going on with it? We don't blame you.

Here's everything you need to know!

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The Goldilocks speaker

Amazon Echo (3rd Gen)

Improved in almost every way

Amazon improved the sound and design of the latest Amazon Echo and managed to price it competitively for the best overall experience.

Amazon Echo Dot with Clock ($35 at Amazon)

The smallest Echo speaker now comes with an LED clock, and when an alarm comes up, you can tap the top to snooze it.

Amazon Echo Show 8 ($90 at Amazon)

The Echo Show comes to a more natural size that's easier to place than the 10-inch Echo Show but still comfy enough to watch recipes and videos on.

Let's break down the difference between Alexa and Echo speakers

Amazon Echos on shelfSource: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central

First things first, let's clear up the biggest point of confusion for a lot of people. Alexa and Echo are two different things. Here's a simple explanation of the two:

Alexa

This is Amazon's virtual assistant that powers the company's first-party Echo speakers and other ones from different companies. Similar to something like the Google Assistant, Alexa can tell you about the local weather, check calendar appointments, control smart home devices, and so much more.

Smart speakers are the most common form factor you'll find Alexa on, but the AI has also made its way to smartphones, headphones, and even some smartwatches — one example being the Fitbit Versa 2.

Amazon updates Alexa all the time to make it smarter than the day before, meaning that it's constantly changing and evolving.

Echo

On the other hand, Echo is the brand Amazon uses to market and sell its smart speakers and many of its devices that are powered by Alexa.

There are smart speakers such as the Echo (3rd Gen), Echo Dot (3rd Gen), Echo Dot with Clock, Echo Plus (2nd Gen), and Echo Studio, specialty devices like the Echo Link, Echo Link Amp, and Echo Flex, as well as speakers that have displays — like the Echo Show 5, Echo Show 8 and Echo Show (2nd Gen).

Amazon has also offered smart speaker accessories like the Echo Input and Echo Sub, but both products are currently marked as unavailable on the retailer's site, with no indication of if, or when, they might be back in stock.

Amazon's Echo speakers aren't the only ones you can buy that have Alexa, but they do offer the best overall experience. Alexa works mostly the same on Echo speakers as it does on third-party ones, but some things like Alexa Guard only work with Echo devices.

Which Echo is right for you?

Amazon DevicesSource: Android Central

There are plenty of third-party Alexa speakers out there, but if you want the best possible experience, we recommend getting an Echo one. While that does help to narrow things down a bit, there's still a lot you need to consider before throwing your money down for one.

A lot of people might be inclined to go with the regular Echo (3rd Gen), but if you want to save some cash, the Echo Dot (3rd Gen) or Echo Dot with Clock offer a virtually identical experience in a smaller form factor for less money. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Echo Plus (2nd Gen) and Echo Studio raise the price, sound quality, and features with a built-in Zigbee smart home hub.

If you need easy Alexa access in a tight space like a washroom, hallway, or garage, the Echo Flex puts an Echo device wherever there is an outlet.

Some of the most capable Echo devices are the ones with a screen, such as the various versions of the Echo Show - though these tend to be among the pricier Echo devices.

If you're already getting a little overwhelmed, check out our guide below where we help find the perfect Echo for your wants and needs.

Which Amazon Echo should you buy?

Skills supercharge the Alexa experience

Alexa Skills enable 4Alexa Skills enable 5Source: Clinton Bowman / Android Central

Alexa can do a lot out of the box, but if you want to supercharge your experience, you'll want to check out Alexa Skills.

Skills are essentially add-ons for Alexa that enable new functionality for specific things. For example, the iRobot skill allows Alexa to talk to Roomba vacuums, whereas the Relax My Dog skill plays special music that's designed to keep your good boy calm and less anxious.

There's a skill for just about anything you can imagine, and this is easily one of Alexa's greatest strengths.

Routines and Blueprints demonstrate Alexa's flexibility

Amazon Alexa BlueprintsSource: Android Central

Amazon has given its power users some impressive (and relatively easy to use) tools to harness Alexa's capabilities in the form of Routines and Alexa Blueprints.

Alexa Routines are a quick and easy way to use Alexa to automate various tasks in and around your smart home and your daily life. You can do things like creating triggers based on voice commands, sensors, or actions that instruct Alexa do adjust the lighting and temperature of your home or wake your kids up to a funny song. You can create them directly from the Alexa app, and Amazon offers some excellent step-by-step guides, as well as many preselect actions and suggestions to get you started. If you need a little more help, be sure to check out one of our guides below!

Alexa Blueprints are similar to Routines in that they allow you to design a program to get Alexa to perform a task or series of functions, but they can also be thought of as a way for anyone to create their own personalized Alexa Skill. As with Routines, Amazon has created many different templates that you can use to create your own Blueprint, or you can go rogue and design your own. My son and I created a Compliment Mom Bot last Mother's Day, so now any time we ask one of our Echo's to open Christie compliments, she's treated to a series of nice little quips that we wrote about her.

Here are a few tips for getting started

Echo Dot with ClockSource: Andrew Martonik / Android Central

Amazon does a reasonably good job at helping you get started with an Alexa speaker, but there are some features here and there that can be tricky to find/enable if you don't know where to look. Thankfully, we've got you covered.

There's so much Alexa can do, and to make sure you're getting the most out of it, we've put together a few how-to guides for some of the AI's most popular and powerful tools.

Did you know Alexa works with Sonos?

Amazon Echo 3rd Gen and Sonos OneSource: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central

Sonos has gained a lot of popularity over the years for being one of the most straightforward home audio solutions you can buy. Not only do the company's speakers seamlessly pair with one another for simultaneous music playback throughout your house, but they also work with Alexa!

If you have a Sonos One or Sonos Beam, you can talk to them as if they were Echo speakers. Just say "Alexa," whatever you want to ask/say, and it'll respond. Other Sonos products like the Sonos Five also allow you to use an existing Echo to communicate with and control the Sonos speaker.

The One, Beam, and Five also support the Google Assistant, meaning you have your choice of two assistants in one speaker.

A lot of smart home gadgets support it

Amazon Smart Plug with coffee makerSource: Amazon

Smart home devices like smart bulbs, plugs, and thermostats can make life a lot easier, especially when paired with Alexa.

Most major smart home devices work with Alexa just fine, allowing you to control light bulbs or turn on the heat by only using your voice. There are a lot out there to choose from, so be sure to check out our roundups for some advice on the tech we recommend the most.

The Goldilocks speaker

Amazon Echo (3rd Gen)

Improved in almost every way

Amazon improved the sound and design of the latest Amazon Echo and managed to price it competitively for the best overall experience.

Amazon Echo Dot with Clock ($35 at Amazon)

The smallest Echo speaker now comes with an LED clock, and when an alarm comes up, you can tap the top to snooze it.

Amazon Echo Show 8 ($90 at Amazon)

The Echo Show comes to a more natural size that's easier to place than the 10-inch Echo Show but still comfy enough to watch recipes and videos on.

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