In case there was still any doubt about Amazon’s vision for the smart home, the company just made its intentions clear: it wants to dominate every aspect of your house.
Of these, the $59.99 microwave (officially called the AmazonBasics Microwave) attracted much of the attention because, well, it’s pretty damn random, right? But while some wondered about the usefulness of having Alexa inside your microwave, it also offers the clearest look at how Amazon plans to put Alexa on every surface it possibly can.
So why a microwave? Is it actually faster than just pushing a few buttons? According to Amazon, it opted for the microwave because it’s an appliance that hasn’t changed much in the last few decades. And, more importantly, one that can still be frustratingly complicated. Do you know how to use all the built-in presets on your microwave? I definitely don’t.
Though microwave is Alexa-enabled, it doesn’t have any speakers or microphones built in. Instead, it pairs to a nearby Echo speaker. There is an Alexa button on the microwave, but this is just for saving time; if you push the button on the microwave, you can simply say what preset you want, like “one potato,” without saying “Alexa” or “microwave.”
At launch later this year, Alexa will be able to understand dozens of presets, as well as commands like “add 30 seconds.” Amazon says more commands will be added over time as well.
Strategically, though, the microwave is about much more than making popcorn slightly faster. It’s powered by something called Amazon Connect Kit, which will soon be available to the makers of other kitchen gadgets. This means device makers can make their blenders and coffee makers and mixers compatible with Alexa without having to remake their products with microphones and speakers and custom software.
If you don’t want to wait for manufacturers, though, you’ll have another option: Amazon’s new $24.99 Smart Plug, which lets you control any device you plug into it with your Echo. Think of it as essentially an Alexa-enabled on/off switch.
The somewhat bulky plug does a few neat things in the background as well. You connect it to your home WiFi network by scanning a barcode on the back of the plug with the Amazon app, which should make setup relatively painless.
Finally, there’s the $29.99 Echo Wall Clock, which is meant to take advantage of what might be the most popular feature on all smart speakers: timers. The clock connects to your Echo speaker and gives you a visual cue to track your timers.
Amazon revamped much of its Echo lineup, with new Echo Dot, Plus, and Show speakers. The good news is that all three are way less ugly than the previous models. The Echo Dot, previously a plastic hockey-puck shaped speaker, has been completely redesigned. The new version now looks a bit like a larger Google Home Mini. It’s rounder, and covered in fabric (available in black or white).
On the inside, the new Echo Dot has also been engineered to sound louder and clearer. In the brief demos I heard, it did better than the original, though I was in a loud room at the time.
All this also means it’s a bit larger than the original, but it shouldn’t take up much more space. Most importantly, the new Echo Dot is priced the same as the original at $49.99.
The larger $149.99 Echo Plus has also ditched the plastic covering in favor of fabric which, again, makes it look way better and more like a “premium” speaker. It’s also shorter and rounder, making it look more like last year’s Echo 2. On the inside, the Plus has gained a new temperature sensor, so it can detect the temperature of its surroundings, as well as upgraded audio.
The relatively new Echo Show also got a much needed facelift. While the previous version looked like some kind of teleconferencing device, the new Echo Show places the speaker on the side of the device, making it look much less bulky.
Amazon also delivered its answer to Google’s Chromecast Audio with the $34.99 Echo Input, a thin disc-like gadget you connect to an existing speaker in order to turn it into a smart, Alexa-enabled speaker.
If you’re really serious about upgrading your audio setup, Amazon has offered a solution in the form of the $129.99 Echo Sub. The sub pairs to your existing Echo speakers, which can now be paired in stereo and support multi-room audio.
In the demo I heard it sounded pretty good by my ear — with a noticeably thumpy bass— but again, I was in a loud demo room so it’s hard to judge the audio quality at this point. What is clear is that Amazon wants to fight the perception that Echo speakers aren’t meant for people who care about sound quality.
Does all that seem like too much Alexa? Perhaps. But Amazon doesn’t need you to buy all of its products or even most of them. What it is trying to do is make its ecosystem of hardware and software an essential part of the things you do in your home every day, whether it’s listening to music, turning off the lights, or cooking popcorn.
It’s no secret that the smart home, right now, is kind of a mess. From complicated setup processes to getting a bunch of disparate gadgets to sync up to one another, we’re still a long way off from the cohesive vision so many tech companies have promised us.
For Amazon, the solution isn’t just to make Alexa smarter and easier to use, it’s to integrate it with every conceivable appliance and gadget you could possibly need or want. Once you’ve bought into one part of the ecosystem, why wouldn’t you keep investing in it?