Amazon is clearly having fun with its Alexa digital assistant. The Seattle company has now put it in a microwave, a wall clock, potentially millions of cars, and in a bunch of new speakers.
Starting with Alexa itself, Amazon says it’s made the assistant more opinionated (has favorites, not political opinions), more sensitive (you can tell it to be quiet, as when a baby is sleeping), more conversational (it can carry on extended conversations without repeated wake words), more approachable (as with Alexa captions for the hearing impaired), and more natural (it goes into the right skills triggered by context, without a rigid instructions).
Here’s a rundown of everything Amazon announced at its pre-holiday event in Seattle today:
New stuff for the connected home
A new Echo Dot. Amazon says it has sold more Dots than any other Echo device. The devices, which look like oversized hockey pucks, are little wireless vehicles for Alexa that can also connect via Bluetooth or cable to bigger sound systems. Now there’s a new Echo Dot with a larger 1.6-inch speaker (the old one had a 1-inch speaker). Amazon says it’s 70% louder. The new Dot has a better, softer design, too. It’ll sell for $49.99 starting next month.
Echo Input. Since the Dot has such a small speaker, many people connect them with a larger audio system via Bluetooth or cable. The new Echo Input is essentially a Dot without a speaker, and it’s much smaller—the same shape as a coaster and not much bigger. It’s basically a connecter between Alexa and your stereo system. It will sell for $34.99 starting later this year.
Echo Sub. Amazon says lots of Echo owners like to put two of them together in a stereo pair. The Echo Sub allows people to add a large base speaker to the mix. Actually, it can be used to add base to just one Echo, too, in a 1.1 configuration. The new speaker will sell for $129.99 and will start shipping later this monthly.
Echo Link Amp and Echo Link. Instead of just stereo-connected components already in the home, Amazon is also starting to sell some of its own stereo components. The $200 Echo Link is a small black box with a volume knob that acts as an intermediary between Alexa and your home stereo system. The $300 Echo Link Amp goes a step further by adding amplification (60 watts per channel X 2) to the mix, and a good selection of audio connection options on the back of the device. Both devices are available later this year.
A third Echo, the Echo Plus. Amazon announced a new Echo Plus, the third iteration on the Echo device, which pioneered the smart speaker space. The new model has more powerful bass and clearer sound. There’s also a smart home hub built in, so it can be used to add and control automated home devices like plugs and lights. It also adds a temperature sensor to test its particular place in the home. A new feature called Local Voice Control takes the most basic parts of Alexa’s brain and makes them available offline in case the broadband service to the home goes out. The new Echo will cost $149.99 and will go on sale next month.
Making it easier to connect
Amazon believes that many people have avoided putting smart devices in their homes because it’s too complicated and labor-intensive to set up. Now the company is pushing on a new initiative called “Simple Setup.”
For example, a new product called the Amazon Smart Plug uses a new connected home plug and a new set-up protocol in which you can talk through the set-up process with the Alexa assistant. And instead of having to enter all your credentials in an app, the device can access your credentials from a secure place in the cloud–that is, if you’ve already set up a device of the same brand in the past. When the Smart Plug is plugged in, it automatically starts looking around for a Simple Setup Wi-Fi network to connect with. Once recognized, the user’s credentials can be sent to the new device, and the thing is connected and controllable through Alexa. The plug will go for $24.99 when it starts shipping next month.
Stuff for the kitchen
Amazon Basics Microwave. Yes, Amazon has now put Alexa into a microwave. And, come to think of it, it’s a good idea. The era of punching numbers into the archaic pad on the front of microwaves may be coming to an end. With the Alexa microwave, you can just say “one potato” and the microwave will know what to do. The device becomes available later this year for $59.99.
Alexa Wall Clock. The new Alexa-powered wall clock can accept commands to set alarms. During the demo here in Seattle, the clock kept track of four different alarms of varying lengths. The timers, and their progress, are represented by LED lights around the outside edge of the clock. The clock will become available later this year for $29.99.
In the car
The Echo Auto. Amazon has worked with certain automakers to put the Alexa assistant in cars. But there are still millions of cars on the road with no such integration. The Echo Auto is a small dash-top device containing Alexa and also an eight-microphone array, allowing it to hear the driver’s voice over road noise, entertainment, the air conditioner, etc. The device connects to the user’s phone via a Bluetooth to get internet access. It can also connect through the car’s audio auxiliary jack, Amazon says. So the driver can do things like get audio directions to a coffee shop or gas station nearby without having to pick up a device. Amazon is doing a sort of beta program where a user pay $24.99 for the device to help the company learn from real use. When the device goes to general availability (not sure when), it’ll cost $49.99.
New video gadgets
A new Echo Show. Amazon’s Echo Show, the company says, has been completely redesigned with a larger 10-inch display, a larger speaker inside, and a larger space in back of the device where the speaker radiates for deeper bass. Amazon says it now has “room-filling” sound. The Show also has a smart home hub built in, so it can be used to set up and control other connected home devices. Importantly, through a new integration with Microsoft, people who use Skype can now do their calling and video chat through the Show. The new device will go on sale next month for $229.99.
Fire TV Recast DVR. Amazon has a new DVR that can record four shows at a time and stream video to multiple devices. It offers a programming guide that helps organize video using a graphic display of what’s on cable now, shows already recorded to the DVR, and shows available on subscription services like Amazon Prime Video or Netflix. The DVR will be available before the holidays starting at $229.99.
Compared to last year’s pre-Christmas Alexa product unveiling event, this one was very good. The products Amazon announced this year represented the branching out of Alexa into new places where it can be truly useful, as in the car. Not too long ago, personal assistants like Alexa were pretty much confined to smart speakers. Amazon proved today that that’s changing fast.