Amazon announced more than a dozen new hardware products today, along with several software updates, all aimed at bringing its voice assistant Alexa to more devices in your home—and even to your car.
Some of the products were updates to existing Echo devices; others were brand new, like a new Echo Sub speaker, or a Fire TV device that acts as a DVR for local TV broadcasts. And, as rumored, there was a new home appliance in the mix too: An Amazon Basics microwave that works with Alexa and will sell for the low price of $60.
There were few dramatic flourishes at the media event in Seattle, Washington as senior vice president of devices and services Dave Limp rattled off the new products. The event was held on the top floor of Amazon’s Spheres, a biodome located directly next to the company’s corporate offices. Limp began the event by saying 70 new products would be announced within just an hour’s time, software updates included. There were no glossy product videos, or detailed descriptions of the materials used in the new hardware. The whole event underscored Amazon’s strategy of selling high-volume, low-cost hardware in an effort to get customers to use more of its services. And, of course, it was a good reminder that Amazon wants to be absolutely everywhere.
More Echos Than You’ll Know What to Do With
Amazon updated its Echo Dot, Echo Plus, and Echo Show speakers today, keeping the same pricing as earlier models while adding small tweaks that make them sound better and look better.
The new Echo Dot is bigger than the previous Dot, and it’s now covered with fabric on the sides. It looks like a little pouf on your coffee table or nightstand. It now has a 1.6-inch driver, Limp said, updated from the old model’s 1.1-inch driver, and is 70 percent louder. It connects to other speakers either over Bluetooth or via an audio-out cable. It ships next month for $50, the same price as the old Dot.
The Echo Plus speaker, a squatter version of the tubular Echo, looks similar to last year’s Echo Plus. And it still doubles as a smart home hub. But it now has something called “Smart Home Local Voice Control,” which means it runs certain commands for smart-home devices locally. “So when the internet goes down, you can still say, ‘Alexa, turn on the lights,’ or ‘Alexa, turn on the plug,’” Limp explained. It ships next month for $150.
The Echo Show offers some practical utility that other Echos don’t: It’s an Echo speaker with a display. The new Echo Show ($230) has an updated exterior: a fabric back cover, and a 10-inch HD display that offers much more screen space than last year’s 7-inch display. Like the Echo Plus, it doubles as a smart home hub. Like the Dot, the sound is supposed to be improved with “real-time Dolby sound processing,” according to Limp.
And the Echo Show now has a web browser. That not only gives it a way to, say, display recipe instructions from your Amazon Meal Kit, but also a way for Amazon to show you YouTube videos without having a YouTube app running natively on the device. (Google pulled YouTube from Amazon devices late last year, and Amazon doesn’t sell Google hardware on its website.)
A Smarter Car
There was another new Echo added to the mix as well: the Echo Auto, a tiny device that goes on the dashboard of your car and gives you Alexa capabilities while you’re driving. It talks to the Alexa web service through your phone, which it connects to using Bluetooth. Alexa, add avocados, almond milk, and millennial guilt to my shopping list. Alexa, give me directions to my local conflict-free coffee shop. Alexa, will this keep me from getting distracted in the car? And so on.
Echo Auto has a catch—it’s not technically ready, and it’s only available by invitation. It’s not the first time Amazon has done a limited launch of a hardware product—several Echo products have seen limited availability at first. Also, this may be one product that the company wants to test with a small user group before it has all of us shouting at Alexa from behind the wheel. It will cost $50 when it eventually ships, but if you’re lucky enough to get an invite before the end of this year, it will cost you $25.
Five other products were released today under the moniker, “Echo Companions.” This is a class of products that connect to existing Echo speakers, or add Alexa functionality to other non-Amazon products in your home that you already own. Most intriguing are the audio products: Echo Link, Echo Link Amp, Echo Sub, and Echo Input.
The Echo Link is a $200 box with a big dial on it that you plug into a stereo, turning your legacy sound system into an Alexa-powered music station. The $300 Link Amp is the same thing, but with a 60-watt stereo amplifier inside—just hook up a pair of speakers, and you’re in business.
The Input is a simple, flat puck that connects to a speaker of your choice. It has microphones on it, but no speaker of its own. It essentially turns any regular speaker into a smart speaker. It’s actually quite a bit like Google’s Chromecast Audio device, with one difference: the Echo Input has mics and can accept voice commands on the device, whereas the Chromecast does not, and can only accept voice commands through a phone or a Google Home speaker. The Input will cost $35 when it becomes available in the near future.
Rounding out the home audio “Companions” is the Echo Sub. It’s exactly what you think it is: a $130 subwoofer that pairs with one or two Echos in your home.
Probably the biggest audio news to emerge from today’s event has little to do with hardware. Amazon is adding support to Alexa for multiroom music playback. This update lets those with multiple speakers group them together to play the same tracks in unison in multiple locations around the home. The enhancement that brings Amazon’s smart speaker multiroom capabilities roughly up to par with Google’s and Apple’s.
The last Companion is a $30 Wall Clock which connects to an existing Echo speaker to give you visual indications for timers and reminders that you set with your voice. It’s not out yet, but coming soon.
Today I Learned You Can Microwave a Potato
Amazon’s new Alexa-enabled microwave doesn’t have Alexa built directly into the appliance. Instead, it wirelessly connects to another Alexa device in your kitchen and takes commands that way. But the new Amazon Basics countertop microwave is the first appliance in the Amazon Basics line to technically work with Alexa.
Amazon seemed thrilled to show reporters today that you can ask Alexa to microwave a potato. And it also works with Amazon’s Dash Replenishment service, which means the microwave knows when you’re running low on popcorn and orders your more. Plus the $60 price tag undercuts most of the countertop microwaves selling on BestBuy.com right now. Amazon does as Amazon does.
One other smart-home device to talk about (oh, you’re not the only one who’s exhausted here) is the $25 Amazon Smart Plug. Insert it into an electrical conduit, plug in an appliance like a light, space heater, or coffee maker, and you can now turn that device on or off with your voice. Neat!
Fire TV Now Means Actual TV
No new Amazon Fire TV box or stick was announced today—Amazon just released a new cube-shaped streamer in June—but there was a new piece of hardware that’s compatible with Fire TV. It’s called the Fire TV Recast, and it’s a DVR device that works with either a Fire TV box or stick or an Echo Show to cast and record live TV streams.
We’re talking about good ol’ over-the-air local TV, not streaming video or cable shows. You can also access all of these TV streams and DVR’ed content on iOS or Android.
“We realized that the average person in the US has access to several dozen channels coming into their home over the air,” Marc Whitten, vice president and general manager of Fire TV, said in an interview. “And it’s not a very convenient or integrated experience as it exists today. So we saw this as a way to go after that particular problem.” The Fire TV Recast will ship sometime before the holidays, Amazon says, and will cost $230 for a version with two tuners, and a 500GB DVR; and $280 for a Recast with four tuners and 1 terabyte of storage.
Sticky Fingered Intruders
In February, Amazon acquired the home security company Ring for a reported $1 billion. Today, two new Ring security cameras were unveiled, although they’re still selling under the Ring brand, rather than with Amazon or Echo badging.
Called the Stick Up Cam, as were previous versions of Ring cameras, these are indoor/outdoor cameras that sell for $180 and stream live video feeds in 1080p HD, include motion detection features, and offer two-way talk functionality. One version, the Ring Stick Up Cam Wired, is powered either by an Ethernet cable or a micro-USB power supply, while the battery-powered version lasts for six to 12 months, depending on usage. In the future, Limp said, Ring’s Stick Up Cams will also work with Alexa.
Things We Didn’t Hear About (Like Privacy)
Amazon made no mention of some of the other Echo-branded products it’s released in the past year, including the Echo Look, a camera that judges your outfits; or the Echo Spot, a touchscreen alarm clock. Amazon did tell WIRED, however, that it is still producing these products. There was also no mention of Kindle hardware, although that’s not entirely surprising, since Amazon just updated the Kindle Oasis this year, and Kindles don’t have built-in voice control like nearly everything else that was shown off today.
But another glaring omission on Amazon’s part was any kind of deep dive into how the company plans to keep your voice commands, your location, and your purchasing history private. Amazon has faced criticism over the past couple years for unclear privacy policies or outright missteps, including an incident back in May where a woman reported that Alexa had recorded and shared a private conversation she was having with her husband.
Personally, I find last year’s Echo Show to be an incredibly useful product in my kitchen. And the updated Show might be, too. But I keep a piece tape over the camera on my Show, and I’ll stick a strip of tape over the camera on the new one too. Other “smart displays” that have been introduced, like Lenovo’s Google-powered screen, have a physical tab that acts as a shutter over the camera lens.
As Amazon makes more and more connected devices, and as Alexa gets that much smarter, Amazon’s press events might be well spent addressing that particular elephant in the room.
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