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September 21, 2018
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Amazon

Echo HomePod? Amazon wants you to build your own

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One of the bigger surprises at today’s big Amazon event was something the company didn’t announce. After a couple of years of speculation that the company was working on its own version of the HomePod and Google Max, we still don’t have a truly premium Echo.

That’s due, in part, to the fact that Amazon is already leaning fairly heavily on hardware partnerships with companies like Sony to offer people a premium, Alexa-enabled smart speaker. But today, we got a better glimpse at how it plans to take on such products. And frankly, it’s a bit of fresh air.

Amazon’s already laid the ground work here. The first step in the plan is seeding the Echo and Alexa into as many rooms in as many homes as possible. Check and double-check, thanks in no small part to the super-low-cost Echo Dot. Today, the company demonstrated how those pieces can be turned into something more.

After the event, we were ushered into a handful of fake rooms at Amazon HQ, designed to show the new products in their native habitat. As I stood in front of a couch flanked by two of the new Echo Dots, the company blared some Ed Sheeran song (again, not my choice), with the devices splitting up the left and right stereo track.

The sound was loud and decent, but couldn’t compete with the likes of the HomePod. No problem, though. Toss in the new Sub and pick up the Link Amp. Boom, you’ve got your very own modular home stereo system. It’s a compelling à la carte approach to the system that puts Amazon in competition with the likes of Sonos, but more importantly, makes existing Echos the centerpiece of a multi-room home speaker system.

An Amazon clock? A microwave? None of these bizarre additions mattered much to my colleague, Matt Burns. The Link, on the other hand, as he put it, “I almost bought a $600 device a few weeks ago just to get optical out.” For $199 or $299, he can get his hands on the Link or Link Amp, respectively.

Instead of shelling out $349 or $400 for the HomePod or Home Max, you can create your own version piece by piece. Granted, all of the parts could easily end up costing you more than either option, but there’s a lot to be said for the ability to mix and match and customize on a per-room basis.

This approach marks the single most compelling revelation in a day jam-packed with Amazon news. It will be fascinating to see how Apple and Google respond.

News Source = techcrunch.com

The long list of new Alexa devices Amazon announced at its hardware event

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Everyone’s favorite trillion-dollar retailer hosted a private event today where they continued to exercise their highly-strategic approach to hardware where they just throw everything at the wall and wait to see what sticks.

We got some new Amazon Echo devices, sure, but there was also an amp, a camera, a clock and a microwave…? There’s a lot to take a look at, including some product refreshes and entirely new verticals, so let’s get to it.

Here are the new devices we heard about today from Amazon.

A new, louder Echo Dot

For a lot of people, the cheap and tinny Echo Dot was their first interaction with a home assistant. The frequently discounted $50 device is getting an updated look and a 75 percent more powerful speaker so that it can keep the tunes bumping.

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An Echo for your car

If you’re thinking about places where you actually need hands-free voice controls, your car is probably one of the only places. Amazon wants to get Alexa into your ride and it’s doing so with Echo Auto, a $50 dashboard accessory that you can ask to pick tunes, call people or shut off some appliance you accidentally left on.

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The booming Echo Sub

The Echo Sub may look like a giant HomePod, but it’s all about that bass. You can pair the giant speaker with and Echo or two to build out a more robust sound system. It’s $130 so the company is seriously undercutting competitors like Sonos with its sound system ambitions, it’s unclear, for now, how the audio stacks up though. We’ll have to take a closer listen.

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The live-recording Fire TV Recast

One of Amazon’s big ambitions has not only been to get its devices into your home but to take over your TV. It’s a great piece of gadget real estate to have especially when the company is looking to push Prime Video. The company’s ambitions with the $230 Fire TV Recast are focused on live-recording TV and beaming that video to other devices you have. It connects to a digital antenna and can be placed anywhere in your house, then the DVR recordings can be streamed to your Fire TV, Echo Show, Echo Spot or iOS/Android devices.

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A slicker Echo Show

If any of Amazon’s Echo devices were in need of a design refresh this was it, the Echo Show was the first of its kind but with Smart Display devices from Google starting to emerge and Facebook still hard at work on their own device, it’s clear that the company needed to up their game. The $229 device now has a 10-inch screen and works with Skype so you won’t have to voice call from the Alexa app.

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A new Ring security camera

Amazon bought Ring earlier this year and at its hardware event, it introduced a new device called the Stick Up Camera that is meant to be an indoor or outdoor security camera. The camera comes in wired and battery-operated versions and goes for $180.

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The speaker-less Echo Input

One of the best features of the Echo Dot was that you could output audio to an existing speaker system. Amazon showed off a new device today that does just that. The $35 device is going to be something you might see pop up in third party speaker bundles the company says.

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A wildly unnecessary Alexa microwave

One of the more outlandish product releases of the day was an Amazon Basics microwave with Alexa controls and Dash button functionality so you can order more popcorn. It doesn’t have voice controls built-in but it will communicate with a nearby Echo so you can ask it to add a minute to cooking something if that’s really how you want to do it. Thankfully, it’s just $60 so it’s a cheap dystopia at least.

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An updated Echo Plus

Like the new Echo Dot, the Echo Plus is getting a fabric redesign. The $150 pro Echo still has its smart hub and one of the new features that will enable is offline commands so if your WiFi goes out you’ll still be able to turn off your lights before bed. The new Echo Plus will also ship with an integrated temperature sensor so you can ask it for the temp inside or build a routine where it, say, turns on the fan when it gets too hot inside.

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An Alexa Clock that visualizes your timers

This was another sort of weird one. The $30 Wall Clock pairs with your Alexa devices and visualizes any alarms or timers you have set up with its ring of 60 LEDs. It’s a cheap device and it’s nice to be able to visualize things that you’d otherwise have to ask Alexa for updates on, but it still feels like a bit of an odd release.

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The very pluggable Echo Smart Plug

Every smart home company has a smart plug, why doesn’t Amazon? They thought that too and now they have one! It’s $25 which is pretty standard and can turn things on and off.

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The Echo Link and Link Amp

This one was a bit surprising and showcases that Amazon is pretty serious about taking over your sound system. The $200 Echo Link connects to your receiver or amplifier and adds a bunch of inputs so you can connect speakers to it while the $300 Echo Link Amp also features a built-in 60W 2-channel amplifier to improve sound quality.

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Updates to Alexa

It wasn’t all hardware announcements at the event, though to be honest it was mostly hardware announcements at the event. We also heard about some new updates coming to Alexa, including Hunches a system where Alexa will learn about certain smart home habits and offer occasional suggestions if it gets the feeling you forgot to do something like turn off an outdoor porch light before you go to bed. Another Alexa feature is Guard mode which can be set when users are away and will listen for more than just its name, including noises like glass breaking.

 

That’s a wrap. Damn, that’s a lot of devices. Check back as we’ll be taking some of these gadget for a spin with some hands-on time, with about 13 new pieces of hardware being released in rapid fire succession, we might need a few extra hands.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Amazon’s new Echo Dot, up close and hands-on

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If the Echo Show was the Amazon device most desperately in need of a makeover (please and thank you), the Dot was certainly a close second. After all, while the cheapest (and best selling) Echo device has already been through a couple of iterations, the hardware wasn’t exactly the sort of thing you’d proudly display on the coffee table.

The thing that strikes you immediately upon seeing the redesigned version of what Amazon calls “the best selling speaker,” is how much the new generation of the product is influenced by Google’s Home Mini. In fact, Google’s influence was evident all over the place here.

That said, I actually prefer the design on this one. The new Dot has a similar form factor to its predecessor, keeping the rough dimensions and button layouts intact. The biggest difference from the design perspective, is the cloth speaker that surrounds the perimeter of the device. The product takes the whole “speaker” part of “Smart Speaker” a bit more seriously.

The new version tops out at about 70 percent louder than the original Dot. The company played a pair of the products in tandem for me (the Ed Sheeran, for the record, was not my choice), with each one splitting the left and right stereo channels. The effect was solid, though I’m not rushing out to replace the Google Home Max in my apartment at the moment. 

The most impressive bit in all of this is, naturally, the price. Amazon managed to improve the hardware without charging more. That would have been a mistake, of course. The $49 price tag is kind of the whole point of the Dot. This is the gateway drug into the Alexa ecosystem (Echosystem?).

At that level, you’ve got a low-cost entry into multiroom audio. It’s all part of the company’s approach to home audio. By circumventing high-ticket items like the HomePod or Google Home Max, Amazon is letting users build their home audio system piece by piece.

Check out our full coverage from the event here.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Amazon’s new Echo Show up close and hands-on

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The Show was far and away the Echo product most in need of a makeover. The original device, introduced two years back, was far more concerned with function than form. That, of course, is in line with many of the company’s hardware offerings, which are often designed to simply show what things like Alexa are capable of.

The original Show was big and boxy, with an out of whack body-to-display ratio that took up a lot of space on whatever desk or kitchen counter it might be placed. The refreshed version is far more aesthetically pleasing than its predecessor. That’s important, because unlike products like the Echo or Echo Dot, you can’t exactly stash the product away if you intend on interacting with the display.

While the new smaller design and cloth backing are certainly an upgrade, Lenovo still leads the design pack with its simply titled Smart Display for Google Assistant. Google made the right choice here by leading with hardware partnerships to bring its concept to market. That said, the product should look at home in most kitchens.

Even more important than design language are the surface-level hardware upgrades. Screen size was one of my chief complaints with the original Show, and this generation effectively doubles it. Like Google’s Smart Displays, the product really does appear to be a tablet affixed to a speaker backing.

One of the features of the new Show is that it supports multi-touch. That’s certainly a handy and much welcome addition, though honestly, you’ll ultimately get limited use out of it. After all, the product is designed to be a voice device first and foremost, so the vast majority of interactions you’ll have with the thing won’t involve actually touching it.

That said, there are some compelling new additions that certainly benefit from the feature — including the integration of the Firefox browser. Of course, touch typing on a screen like this is a pain, so you’re probably not going to spend that much time doing it.

Of course, the ongoing Amazon/Google battle means no native YouTube support. Amazon’s found a workaround in the form of a desktop shortcut. The browser means you should also be able to access videos that way — a kind of workaround until the company inevitably launches its own competitor.

The sound has also been greatly improved here, as evidenced by today’s showcase. It’s still not good enough to serve as your primary listening device — of course, the company’s got the workaround for that, in the form of the Sub and Link. Or you can go the Sonos route, but this is an Alexa family, damn it.

Like its predecessor, the new device will run you $330.

Check out our full coverage from the event here.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Up close with Amazon’s $60 Alexa Microwave

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Amazon was quick to note at today’s event that not all that much has been done to update the microwave for the 21st century. While that’s probably a pretty fair criticism of the ubiquitous home appliance, the new AmazonBasics microwave is less about space age technologies than it is helping usher in the future of Alexa in the kitchen.

Like last year’s Echo Buttons, the company says the product start off an an internal reference design. In other words, the company didn’t set out to build a microwave for consumers, per, say. Rather, it seems it was happy enough with its results to bring the product to market under its low-cost AmazonBasics line.

That last bit is important to note here. This, after all, is a $60 product. It’s a cheap microwave lacking the conveniences you’ll find on many high-end premium devices, so if you’re looking for a fancy new thing for your newly remodeled kitchen, I’m sorry Mario, but your microwave is in another castle.

The new device more about convenience than anything else, as evidenced by the fact that the company built a popcorn Dash Button directly into the product. “It’s all right to laugh,” a rep said from the stage, acknowledging the sheer absurdity of whole thing. But hey, if you’re going to integrate commerce directly into your microwave, popcorn is probably as good a place to start as any.

Interestingly, the product required some fancy backend work on Amazon’s part — turns out it’s hard to design a microwave that gets along with Wifi singles. Makes sense, but it’s probably not the kind of thing you’ve ever really considered, if you don’t work for GE. All of that’s important because ins spite of the presence of an “Ask Alexa” button, the microwave requires an Echo or other outside hardware product to bring the assistant to the appliance.

All in all, the microwave is, well, just a microwave. It continues the company’s trend of bringing low cost products to market as a sort of loss leader/reference design to nudge third-parties into developing their own hardware.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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