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Why Amazon is putting Alexa in wall clocks and microwaves

A sampling of some of the new Echo devices Amazon just launched.
Image: karissa Bell/mashable

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.

The company revealed a dozen new Alexa-powered gadgets on Thursday, including redesigned Echo speakers, a new subwoofer and amplifier, a wall clock, and, yes, a microwave.

Taking over the smart home

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. 

Echo Wall Clock.

Image: karissa bell/mashable

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. 

New and improved Echos

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? 

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Amazon explains Alexa’s creepy laugh

Image: Amazon/Mashable

Amazon has finally revealed why Alexa is randomly laughing, creeping out Echo users. 

BuzzFeed first reported earlier this week that Amazon Echo users were surprised to hear their devices laughing at random. After confirming the company was working on a fix, Amazon revealed on Wednesday why Alexa was laughing at random.

“In rare circumstances, Alexa can mistakenly hear the phrase ‘Alexa, laugh,'” a spokesperson said in an email. “We are changing that phrase to be ‘Alexa, can you laugh?’ which is less likely to have false positives, and we are disabling the short utterance ‘Alexa, laugh.’ We are also changing Alexa’s response from simply laughter to ‘Sure, I can laugh’ followed by laughter.”

Amazon says the fix has already been rolled out.

This confirms the theory that Alexa was falsely triggered and not possessed. While it’s promising the company issued a fix, that probably isn’t enough to comfort users who allegedly heard Alexa laughing without a sound or in the middle of the night.

Here are a few examples people managed to capture when they asked Alexa to repeat the last thing she said, just so you can hear just how creepy it is. 

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Amazon’s Echo Show is too simple for its outrageous price

Amazon is hell-bent on taking over the home with its Echo smart speakers and Alexa voice assistant.

Its latest device, the Echo Show, includes a 7-inch touchscreen and costs a hefty $230. Compared to other Echo devices, it’s the most expensive one yet $50 more than the regular Echo, $180 more than the smaller Echo Dot, and $30 more than the soon-to-be-released Echo Look. Still, it’s well under the price of Apple’s $350 HomePod smart speaker launching this December.

The beauty of the Echo Show is its simplicity. As an Echo product, its primary method of input (as you probably guessed) is voice commands.

Ask Alexa to do something like turn on your smart lights, and it should do it without fail.

Ask Alexa to play cute cat videos on YouTube, and the Echo Show’s screen comes to life with furry little floofs looking predictably adorable.

Ask Alexa to make a video call to a friend or family member who has the Echo Show (or the Alexa app on their phone), and you’re instantly connected like you would with FaceTime on an iPhone or iPad.

But the Echo Show is not intended to be a do-everything device like the iPhone. Instead, it’s essentially just a speaker with a screen for those moments when it’s convenient to have information visually presented to you.

Honestly, I admire Amazon’s restraint. It could have easily just attached an entire Kindle Fire tablet to the original Echo speaker, but instead Amazon kept things simple. The company deliberately stripped the more advanced features (like web browsing) out touchpad display to make it easier to use.

I wish it hadn’t.

For the last couple of weeks, the Echo Show has been sitting on my desk at work, and I’ve had an excellent time video calling my colleague Lance using just my voice instead of having to drag my feet over to his office.

It’s been great. I have a few small quibbles with the somewhat pixelated-looking video quality, and frankly the hollow-sounding speaker could be better, but in terms of its ease of use, it’s been great. This is the video-box communicator futurists promised us about 50 years ago.

There are people trapped in the magical video box! Oh, it’s just the Echo Show’s video calling feature…

Image: lance Ulanoff/mashable

Oh, and it’s bulky, boxy design that everyone was quick to drag (you know, before they’d even seen it in person)? Not really a problem. You’re never looking at the Echo Show at any angle other than directly in front of it.

As much as I love the device’s pared back features, I wish Amazon had given it just few more. Even just a couple of extras would have done the trick.

In its current state, the standby home screen shows only a handful of things you’d expect from a digital assistant. You get the time, the weather, news headlines (no idea how it surfaces these), and suggestions on what to do with Alexa.

But the very fact that the device has a screen begs you to do more. And sadly, you can’t.

Swiping down from the top of the screen brings down just a few icons for “Home,” “Settings,” “Do Not Disturb,” and brightness slider.

Where are the apps? Unfortunately, there aren’t any, and it’s the Echo Show’s greatest weakness.

The Echo Show is great at the things it’s programmed to know, but is maddeningly limited if you try to do more. That’s where its chief rival Google Home beats it. Google Home can search the internet for information to questions rather than relying on a finite number of programmed answers. It’s better at improvising and understanding unusual requests.

Without access to the wealth of information crawled by a search engine, the Echo Show’s screen kinda feels half-baked. I’m not asking for the entire Google Play Store of apps, nor do I expect people to play Angry Birds or read an e-book on the Echo Show’s screen, but it would be nice to have access to an internet browser or Google Maps for when you need it in a pinch.

I can already see the counterargument: The Echo Show will sit on many people’s kitchen counters and therefore it’s not a situation where your grease-slathered fingers would want to poke at a touchscreen.

But that’d be limiting the Echo Show to a kitchen appliance. I have an Echo in my living room and an Echo Dot in my bedroom. Guess how many Echo devices I have in my kitchen? None.

I’m not saying there aren’t many people with Echos in their kitchen, but I’m willing to bet there are more in other rooms of the house.

There’s also another argument that you don’t need access to a web browser or apps on the Echo Show because you can always use your phone. But you could say the same about a device like the PlayStation 4, which has a web browser and Spotify for those rare moments you need them.

The Echo Show’s home screen is pretty bare.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

My point is, the Echo Show is actually a pretty powerful computer. I consider it an “internet communications device” and in 2017, that type of device should have access to some apps (even limited ones) to make up for Alexa’s shortcomings as an artificial intelligence.

Maybe one day Alexa will be super brainy, but it’s not smart enough today and so the screen should at least help carry some of the load (regardless if it repeats a phone’s functions).

I’d also like to see the Echo Show’s screen put to better use for showing what Alexa skills are available. Right now, the only ways to enable an Alexa skill is to tell it to (assuming you know the skill), enable it through the Skills Store website, or through the Alexa app.

The Echo Show should have access to some apps to make up for Alexa’s shortcomings.

A home screen that lists every Alexa Skill easily searchable and discoverable from the Echo Show itself just makes sense. Tap, tap, tap…boom several new skills enabled. Alexa Skills discovery is a huge pain point right now.

Whenever I visit people and see they’ve got an Echo set up, I always ask them what Alexa Skills they have. The answer is always the same: Nothing special. Why? Because finding Skills is frustrating.

Listen, Amazon: The Echo Show has a nice touchscreen, but it’s underutilized. But you can give it some real purpose. There’s nothing wrong with letting the Echo Show do more, and it would also help justify the ridiculous price. It wouldn’t take much work, either. All it needs is a little software update, and maybe we can finally get some good use out of this thing.

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