Echoes of the Future: Amazon’s New Lineup

If you’re a fan of the Amazon Echo, last week was Christmas in September. With almost no notice, Amazon held an event to announce a dizzying amount of new Alexa-powered hardware. I’ve taken a look at all of the new stuff and written down some thoughts here, along with my recommendations on which of these devices to pay particularly close attention to.

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Echo: The New Standard

One of the products Amazon announced is a new version of the Echo voice assistant speaker. The new version is smaller and more attractive than the original Echo. You can choose different “skins” for it, such as a fabric covering or a wood-grain appearance. Even though it’s smaller, the new Echo is supposed to sound better than the original Echo. We’ll have to wait and see some reviews to determine whether that is true.

The most interesting thing about the new Echo is that it’s priced at $100. Compared to the $180 price for the previous version, Amazon has nearly halved the selling price. I think this aggressive pricing is going to make the new Echo an attractive upsell from the wildly popular Echo Dot. While the Dot is still the cheapest way to get into the Alexa game at $50, it’s not hard to imagine some consumers stretching the budget to $100 to get a device with a great speaker.

I think the new Echo is perhaps the most compelling of the new devices. I’m planning to get one myself. It may not have flashy, never-seen-before features, but I’m betting it will be a solid performer and something that we’ll see in a lot of homes. It comes out on October 31, but you can preorder it on Amazon now if you’re so inclined.

Echo Plus: An Echo With Smart Home Tech We Don’t Really Need

Amazon also introduced the Echo Plus, which looks just like the original Echo but has a few new features. First, it seems to have the same upgraded speakers found in the new Echo, so sound quality should be improved. Second, it has a Zigbee radio in it, which can be used to control a wide range of smart home devices. This is an interesting thing to include, but I’m not sure it’s useful enough to warrant buying the Plus.

Zigbee is a radio frequency standard used for some smart home devices such as light bulbs, switches, and outlets. The idea is that you can use the Echo Plus to control your Zigbee devices instead of needing a separate hub device for that purpose. It looks like you can even use the Echo Plus to control Philips Hue lights–Amazon is selling the Plus with a white Hue bulb included. That’s pretty cool.

I don’t think I can recommend buying the Echo Plus at this point, though. Yes, you’d need another hub if you wanted to use Zigbee devices in your home. But any hub you buy will provide other useful functions that the Echo Plus doesn’t have right now, such as more advanced automation controls for your smart home devices and support for Z-Wave devices as well as Zigbee. For an extra $50 over the cost of the Echo, I don’t think the Plus quite hits the mark.

The Echo Plus is coming out on October 31 for a price of $150, which includes a white Hue bulb. You can preorder it on Amazon here.

Echo Spot: An Adorable Alarm Clock

If you’ve only heard about one new device from Amazon’s announcement, it’s probably the Echo Spot. Everyone is talking about the cute little alarm clock with a screen. The Echo Spot is a Dot-sized Echo Show, giving you a 2.5” screen and a camera in a device small enough to fit on your nightstand.

The screen on the Spot gives a visual element to most of what you would do with Alexa. For example, it can show you the weather or show you pictures and video to go along with a news briefing. It also enables some other useful functions such as displaying security camera feeds. If there’s one thing the Spot would be great for, it’s a baby monitor–it’d be convenient to be able to see a nursery cam on a little screen by the bed.

You can use the Echo Spot to make video calls, although I question how often you would really want to make a video call from a device on your nightstand. And that device has a 2.5” screen, so you’ll be staring at a thumbnail of whoever you’re calling. To me, this is the strangest selling point of the Spot. Almost everyone has a smartphone these days, and a smartphone is going to be better for video calls than the Spot. And who really wants a camera pointing at their bed?

I think people are interested in the Echo Spot because it’s adorable. Its physical design is the best thing it has going for it. Beyond that, the screen may provide a few useful features, but I think a lot of users will find themselves using their phone for those things instead. I think the inclusion of a camera and the obvious intention of nightstand use are at odds with each other. I can understand the “Echo with a screen” concept on the larger Echo Show, but I think this is a product that looks cool but doesn’t justify its price. But it’s so cute!

If you’re interested in the Echo Spot, you’ll have to wait a while–it’s not shipping until December 19. You can preorder one on Amazon for $130 today, though.

Echo Button: Physical Control

Not much to say on this one, but Amazon is releasing a new “Gadgets” API for Alexa, and has a Bluetooth-enabled button called the Echo Button to go along with it. It sounds like developers will be able to use the buttons to trigger actions in Alexa skills, with one example being a buzzer for a trivia game. I can imagine some cool uses here for triggering smart home actions. You could put one of these buttons on your wall and have it act as a light switch, for example.

The Echo Button is sold in a 2-pack for $20, which seems like a reasonable price. If they can be used as light switches for smart bulbs, that’s a lot cheaper than any other physical switch. The Buttons aren’t available yet, but you can find more information on Amazon’s page here.

Echo Connect: We Wanted This Twenty Years Ago

Seriously, don’t even look into the Echo Connect. It connects to your home phone line (because we all still have one, right?) and lets you make and receive calls from your home phone number! What a great feature in 2017!

I have a feeling that the kind of people who would be interested in the Echo Connect have no idea who Alexa is and don’t want her in their home. I’m really curious why Amazon felt that it was worthwhile to create this device. Is there a use case I’m missing?

If you’re clamoring for the Echo Connect, unfortunately you’ll have to wait until December 13 to get one. But you can preorder on Amazon for $35! Don’t miss out on this…..fantastic….deal…..

More Echoes In More Places

I have long felt that one of Amazon’s big strengths in the voice assistant market is its wide range of hardware to fit different needs. With last week’s event, Amazon is doubling down on that idea. If you can dream of an Alexa-enabled device, Amazon has probably created it. What’s better is that Amazon is being aggressive with pricing on the new devices. In particular, I think the new Echo for $100 is going to prove to be a very competitively-priced product.

Stay tuned to the blog for more commentary on Amazon’s recent announcements. There’s a lot more I haven’t talked about yet, such as the new Fire TV streaming box and some of the new software improvements coming to Alexa, including improved support for controlling smart home devices. It’s an exciting time to be an Amazon Echo fan.

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