In a surprise announcement today, Amazon has unveiled the Echo, a small, cylindrical speaker that houses a digital assistant that syncs with the cloud to do, well, everything you’d expect from the bevy of digital assistants out there, but without the need for a screen.

amazon-echo-specsPriced at $199 – and currently only available via invitation – the Echo stands just under 10 inches tall and is outfitted with seven microphones designed to pick up voice instructions from anywhere within the room. Like Google Now, Cortana, and Siri before it, Echo responds to a spoken keyword (inexplicably, it’s “Alexa,” but hopefully you can change it…since people are actually named Alexa)., at which point users can ask questions or issue commands, to which Echo responds from its built-in speakers.

Echo syncs with a companion Android or Fire OS app, which is also accessible via web browser for PCs and iOS devices. The app includes shopping lists, alarms, music playlists, and apparently even more. The Echo can also play music on command, add items to the aforementioned shopping list, provide news broadcasts or weather information, or simply answer whatever questions you might have. The promotional video shows an Echo-obsessed family asking about how to spell “cantaloupe,” the height of Mount Everest, and measurement conversions. As for the music it plays, it’s currently restricted to your Amazon Music Library, the Prime Music service, and TuneIn and iHeartRadio – so if you were hoping to use other music sources, you’re out of luck for now. However, the product page says that more features are oming

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Overall, the Echo is a pretty neat trick, overall, and it’s a neat twist on the digital assistant trend that’s sweeping tech companies. At $199 (or at its limited-time-Prime-member-only $99 price), The Amazon Echo seems like it could make a really interesting addition to a person’s home for not too much money. Five years ago, a device like this would be a steal at only $199. The difference, however, is that if you have an iPhone, Windows Phone, or Android handset, you can already do all of this in one way or another. The key difference, it seems, will be the ability to (as ever) buy stuff from Amazon, but also its future potential as a smarthome hub.

In September, Reuters reported that Amazon was working on a smarthome device that responded to users’ voices to buy, say, more detergent. That seems to be this very device, though the “buy stuff” feature hasn’t been described in Amazon’s promotional materials. Either way, as more devices are built with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity, the Echo could become a stealthy smarthome hub, allowing users to operate appliances by speaking aloud. If this is Amazon’s plan, then it begs the question: why not advertise this ability right now?

I have a feeling that the Echo is too niche a product to make its way into people’s homes on the strength of its advertised functionality right now. Should it become a smarthome hub, however – and sooner rather than later – and Amazon Echoes might become permanent fixtures in homes across America, much like the popular Kindle Fire line of tablets. On the other hand, it might follow the same path as the Fire Phone, what’s currently regarded as one of the company’s worst misfires.

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What do you think of the Amazon Echo?

[Amazon Echo Product Page]


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