It seems that Amazon are considerably better at keeping secrets than Google or Apple, and home automation fans disappointed by a lack of shipping product from Microsoft got an Echo-shaped treat this week instead during Amazon’s Seattle presentation.
Perhaps least surprising was the announcement of a replacement for the original Echo speaker. Smaller than the original black cylinder of Alexa, the more compact design features an all-new speaker architecture to deliver better sound. An improved microphone should pick up the wake word better than ever (meaning podcasters like the TDL team will need to be extra careful about the saying the A-word.) Clearly targeting Apple’s upcoming HomePod, with a variety of pleasing finishes (from fabric to wood veneer), the £89 ($99) Echo will ship in the UK at the end of October.
Taking the form factor vacated by the original Echo, the Echo Plus aims to simplify connecting smart devices around the home that would normally need dedicated hubs, for example, the Philips Hue range. The Echo Plus will automatically detect those devices and configure them without requiring fiddling with third party apps to join things together. How well this will work in practise and what impact this will have on the thriving ecosystem of homebrew apps, such as hueDynamic remains to be seen. As with the Echo, the Echo Plus gets an improved omnidirectional speaker with better bass and crisper high notes. The Echo Plus should ship at the end of October and retail for £139 ($149) and will include a Philips Hue bulb as part of an introductory offer. Hopefully we UK purchasers will get the bayonet type and not have to use a hulking adaptor to make it fit into UK light sockets.
Ever wanted that office meeting room speakerphone experience at home? Well, with the new Echo Connect you can now forget to unmute yourself in the kitchen just the same as you did at your desk. Requiring an existing Echo device and a landline, the Connect will allow voice calling using an existing home telephone service, showing the user’s home phone number as a caller ID. Connection and set-up is simple, requiring connection to the home phone socket and some configuration in the Alexa App to then be able to either call contacts by name or number. Shipping in December in the US at $34.99 and following in 2018 in the UK, the use case for this item is perhaps the most questionable. Other than those unable to use a handset, how often would people realistically want to use a speakerphone at home, particularly on the dusty landline connection? In addition, the existing Alexa calling and messaging service appears to be remaining US and Canada only for now.
Looking more like controllers for an Xbox party game and retailing at $20 a pair, the Echo Button works with an existing Echo device to let users buzz in during Echo-based games, such as Trivial Pursuit. Amazon categorise these as ‘Alexa Gadgets’ and plan to add to the range as time goes by. I can see these becoming very much an impulse purchase and will doubtless be found under many Christmas trees, either defusing or causing the traditional festive family row.
Perhaps the most exciting hardware announcement was for the Echo Spot. It’s always interesting to see a new hardware form-factor, and the Echo Spot is somewhat of a cross between the Echo Show and the Echo Dot, providing a device capable of making video calls in a form-factor the approximate size and shape of an alarm clock. Although with the built-in camera, I’m not sure if I would really want one of these sitting on my bedside table. However, as a device capable of receiving a feed from smart cameras or displaying information as well as doing everything an Echo Dot can do, it represents an intriguing alternative to the bulkier Echo Show. Available in the US just before Christmas for $129, this will likely come to UK shores in 2018.
Fire TV 4K
With the inevitability of rain on a British Bank Holiday, Amazon have also updated the Fire TV with 4K and HDR support. With a remote control featuring Alexa voice control and a $69 price tag, this will hit on October 25 and represents a solid alternative to the considerably more expensive Apple TV. It seems Amazon have also paid attention to the Apple TV’s pricing, with the UK version coming in at £69.