It’s tech event season, which means it’s time for every major tech company CEO to hit the stage and unveil the latest and greatest their company has to offer. Last week was Amazon’s turn but did they do enough to stand out from the likes of Apple, Samsung & Google? Well, with the Amazon Echo Voice assistant being possibly the ultimate in accessibility for us as visually impaired or blind people, let’s dive in and take a look at just what they had on offer.
After year’s of voice assistants and smart home devices being solely the playthings of hardcore gadget freaks and geeks, Amazon’s success in bringing the technology into the homes of everyone in a friendly, easy to use package proved that they have the smart part of smart speakers well in hand.
This year they focused their efforts more on the speaker aspect with some great improvements and additions which should please you music lovers out there.
The new generation Echo Dot has been redesigned with rounded edges and a new fabric finish. But it’s the improvements to audio quality that hopefully will impress us the most. Amazon claim it is now 70% louder then the previous Echo Dot and also boasts better dynamic range with greater bass and clearer high end. but if that still isn’t good enough for you, don’t worry it still has a 3.5mm output jack along with bluetooth allowing you to connect it to your pre-existing floor shaking sound system.
The Echo Dot is by far the most popular Echo product and improving the speaker is a smart move, especially when it’s closest competitor the Google Home Mini makes the previous Echo Dot sound like a wasp in a jam jar. Priced at $69.99 Canadian (£49.99) this is sure to be a big seller when released on October 11th 2018.
The Echo Plus was the next device to get a tune up with Amazon again claiming better dynamic range for a much clearer & fuller sound. While they were tinkering under the hood they also added a temperature sensor, which although at first seems minor and a little gimmicky, when thrown into the mix with Amazon’s Routines feature and smart plugs, could prove to be very useful. With my own recent experience of moving into a house with no heating except for electric oil filled heaters, having the ability to turn on and off these heaters at certain temperatures would have been a life saver.
Coming with a built-in smart hub for controlling various smart devices such as Phillips Hue lights and a Hue bulb in the box, the Echo Plus will cost $199.99 Canadian (£139.99) and will also be available October 11th.
Amazon Smart Plug
Talking of smart plugs, Amazon announced their own at the event. Smart plugs sit in between your electrical wall socket and a device such as a lamp, fan, heater etc and allows you to turn the power on or off using your voice through the Echo service. Smart plugs have been around for a while and are great for certain use cases and it makes sense that Amazon would want to add their own to the smart home market. They will be available October 11th at a price of $34.99 Canadian (£24.99).
Also new to the Echo line up is the Echo Sub. A 100watt 6 inch subwoofer designed to add a powerful low punch to your existing Echo speakers.
Staying with Amazon’s fabric finish and a subtle design the subwoofer should go fairly unnoticed in any room that is until you start playing your favourite music or movie through it.
A new feature to the Echo software brings the ability to pair 2 Echo or Echo Plus speakers together, with 1 as the left channel and the other as the right for full stereo audio. Adding the subwoofer to the mix and this setup could result in a great sounding 2.1 speaker system that doesn’t break the bank.
The Echo Subwoofer costs $169.99 Canadian (£119.99) on it’s own, but Amazon will be offering it bundled with either two Echo speakers, $400 Canadian (£239.99), or 2 Echo Plus speakers, $439.97 (£299.99), which is slightly cheaper then if you were to buy the items separately.
Now, if you are one of those people that demand the best in audio quality and already have a home speaker system that can make your ears weep with joy then don’t worry, Amazon hasn’t forgotten about you.
Also announced were three new devices designed solely for the purpose of adding the Echo voice assistant and streaming music to your pre-existing speakers or home theatre setup.
The Echo Input is essentially an Echo Dot without the speaker. As a result it’s much smaller & thinner and is the easiest way to add the Alexa voice assistant service to your home audio setup using it’s 3.5mm or bluetooth outputs. It’s due for release later this year at a price of $39.99 US. Given it’s price and use case, It’s hard not to see the Echo Input as a direct competitor to the popular Google Audio ChromeCast.
Echo Link Amp
The Echo Link Amp is a 2 channel, 60 watt amplifier with all the usual inputs such as optical, coaxal, line in and ethernet plus left and right speaker terminals. The Echo Link is exactly the same input wise but loses the amplifier. With these new additions to the Echo range, Amazon really are giving people lots of options to add voice control to their home no matter what their current setup might be. However, in a move I’m sure will confuse most people, both the Echo Link Amp & Echo link lack microphones and as such must be controlled through another Echo device.
Now, I’m no home theatre or hi-fi expert and maybe I’m missing something here but this does seem a little strange to me. We will see how popular the are when they are released later this year. The Link is priced at $199.99 US and the Link Amp at $299.99. No word yet on availability outside the US.
Thats all the audio goodness dealt with, but before I move on to the other new products lets take a look at the updated Echo Show.
The Echo Show gets an upgrade moving from a 7 inch to a 10 inch screen and in keeping with the Echo families new look, a fabric finish. Amazon haven’t skimped on the audio side here either promising much louder clearer sound from 2 side firing speakers and with it’s 8 far field microphones it should be able to hear you over any ear splitting music or movies you have on.
From a visually impaired perspective I personally find it difficult to get excited by the Echo Show because, as the name suggests, it’s main selling point is the visual aspect, and at a price of $299.99 Canadian (£219.99) it’s quite a bit more expensive then it’s audio only siblings.
However, with promised Skype functionality, the ability to browse the web and Ring doorbell intergration I can understand why some people would find this an intriguing gadget. Also, let’s not forget it does have the VoiceView screenreader built in and other accessibility features which means at least we aren’t excluded from using it if we want.
Talking of accessibility, the all new Amazon Echo Microwave is a very interesting addition to the Echo family.
Although, like the Echo Link & Echo Link Amp, it lacks built in microphones and as such you don’t talk to it directly,, rather you pair an existing Echo smart speaker with it and control the microwave through that.
Along with the usual numeric keypad and function buttons on the front of the microwave you will find a “Talk” button.
Pressing this will activate your paired Echo device and then you can simply say something like “1 baked potato” or “defrost peas” and the Echo will look up how long that item should be cooked for and start the microwave.
It’s actually the Echo device and service that is doing all the clever work, the microwave is just waiting for the Echo to tell it what function to start and for how long. Obviously this could be great for accessibility as commands such as “High Power 10 minutes” or “How long is left?” were also demonstrated during the Amazon event.
Before I get emails about how we already have access to talking microwaves, yes I know, and they are very good but they are also not the cheapest things to buy either. The Amazon Echo Microwave will cost $59.99 when released in the US later this year with other countries to be announce later. Admitly this is a basic, small 700 watt microwave but bringing accessibily to the mainstream in any form is something I can only be incredibly happy about.
Echo Wall Clock
Continuing the theme of “Echo Companion” devices where you need to pair an existing Echo with a device, Amazon also showed off it’s, slightly puzzling, wall clock. I say puzzling as other than the fact it auto sets the time via the connected Echo smart speaker and has an LED light ring around the outer edge which gives a visual representation of how long is left on a timer, it really doesn’t do much more than a standard wall clock would.
I think the purpose of the clock and especially the microwave was to showcase to other manufacturers how easy it is to add smart features to any product. Big brand names who produce white goods such as washing machines, dishwashers, cookers etc can easily give their products the ability to connect to an existing Echo speaker and not have to get involved in the technical headaches of adding their own microphones and other hardware that already exists in the Echo speaker anyway. Why reinvent the wheel to get somewhere when your already standing next to a car?
It’s a smart move that may see Alexa controlling far more products in your home a lot sooner then you might think.
Another new product that sounds very promising when it comes to accessibility is the Echo Recast.
This little box connects to a TV arial and can then wirelessly stream any live tv channels to any Fire Tv or Echo Show around the house. I doubt any form of audio description would be supported yet or at all but we can hope.
Also, it is a DVR, meaning you can record any programmes to watch later. As the Fire TV and Echo show both have the VoiceView screen reader built in hopefully this should mean a fully accessible electronic programme guide and browsable library of recorded programs.
Sadly, at least for me here in the UK, there have been no announcements as to release any where other than the US but I’ll be keeping a blurry eye on this product as, currently, options for accessible TV watching and recording is still very limited.
Lastly, we have the Echo Auto, and I must admit I am finding it difficult to find the visual impaired angle on this one as it’s a little box designed to be placed on a cars’ dashboard allowing you to use the Echo service on the move.
It connects to your car’s audio system via bluetooth or a cable and uses your phone’s data connection to access the internet. I’ve seen lots of YouTube videos of people setting up the Echo Dot in their car and, judging by this device, Amazon have too.
This does make sense though, being able to add a voice assistant to your car giving the ability to stream a vast library of music, podcasts, audiobooks etc for those long road trips is a great idea.
Currently the Echo Auto is an invite only product so don’t expect to see it available to buy any thime before next year.
Well, that’s about it for the hardware but there are some more exciting announcements to cover regarding the Echo service itself.
Echo Guard is a new feature arriving with an upcoming software update that will, once activated by a voice command such as “I’m leaving”, will cause your various Echo speakers to start listening for specific sounds such as breaking glass or the beeping of a smoke or CO2 alarm. If it detects any of these sounds it will send an alert to your phone.
It can also intelligently turn any smart lights in your home on or off giving the illusion that the house isn’t empty. Ok, so maybe it’s not quite the same as a top of the line alarm system but it’s still an interesting feature which makes your existing Echo speakers even more useful.
One thing that I have been waiting for is the Follow Up feature. It’s been available in the US for a while now but it’s finally being rolled out to more countries. With this enabled you only have to use the wake word for the first question you ask. Any subsequent question asked within five seconds of the first doesn’t need the wake word. If you, like me, get sick of saying “Alexa, Play Blah Blah Radio” then “Alexa, Volume up” “Alexa, what time is it” etc every morning will love this new feature.
Also announced was the new Whisper Aware feature, which means that if you whisper a question to your Echo, she will whisper the answer back. Great for when you don’t want to wake the baby or, even worse, wake a sleeping wife.
These features are small steps towards making Amazons voice assistant feel more human like and, more importantly, makes interacting with it feel more natural.
I can honestly say, Amazon’s event has excited me the most out of all the recent tech events. Yes, even Apple’s event.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Amazon has got it right when it comes to accessibility in all of it’s devices and services, but when it comes the the Echo line up, due to it’s very nature of being an audio only service, it’s pretty much perfect for the visually impaired or blind. Plus, as it seems to grow and embed itself into more and more aspects of our homes, more and more devices become easily accessible to us. If Amazon gets it way, the house of tomorrow we’ve been hearing about for so long could be here a lot sooner then you think.
Co-host & audio producer on the Double Tap Canada radio show. Occasional contributor to Double Tap TV, full time shed resident.