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Does Amazon have new Alexa hardware on the way?

In 2016 and 2017, September meant new Echo devices. With rumors of new tech flying fast, will 2018 follow suit -- and if so, what should we expect?

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Last September, Amazon unveiled its second-gen Echo smart speaker along with a gaggle of other new Alexa gadgets, including the Echo Spot touchscreen alarm clock and Echo Plus smart-home hub. The September before that saw the arrival of the second-gen Echo Dot. With another September upon us, are we in for an Alexa three-peat?

It seems like a very good bet.

We've already seen a leak suggesting that a newly designed, third-gen Echo Dot is on the way. On Monday, CNBC reported that Amazon plans to release up to eight new Alexa devices by the end of the year, including an in-car gadget, a subwoofer and even an Alexa microwave. Some of these hypothetical pieces of hardware are said to have Alexa built right in, while others will be designed to connect to existing Echo devices.

Amazon also has to be at least slightly concerned with Google's growing presence in the rear-view mirror after the search giant overtook Amazon in smart speaker sales during the first quarter of the year. The momentum hasn't slowed since, with new Google Assistant-powered touchscreen devices like the Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View proving more compelling than Alexa's touchscreen-equipped Echo Show ever has. More of those are on the way, including the LG Smart Display, that could challenge the Echo lineup on the sound quality front.

In other words, it certainly wouldn't be the worst time for Amazon to refresh Alexa's appeal with a shiny new crop of Echo devices just in time for the holidays. In the event that we do, in fact, see some new Echo hardware this month, here are some educated guesses as to what we expect.

Recent leaks suggest that Amazon might be working on a new design for the Echo Dot.

Numerama/FrAndroid

Echo Dot 3.0?

At $50, the second-gen Echo Dot is Amazon's best-selling Alexa gadget, and that makes it the most important piece of the Alexa lineup. But last year, the full-size, second-gen Echo ditched the black and white plastic in favor of a fabric-bodied build that's more in line with the Google Home and Home Mini smart speakers -- that left the Echo Dot feeling a bit dated by comparison.

That's one reason why I think the recent leak suggesting that Amazon is working on a third-gen, fabric-bodied Dot is probably legit. Those leaks also suggest that the new Dot would offer improved sound quality, which would help it better compete with the likable Home Mini. My question: If a new Echo Dot really is coming soon, can Amazon get the cost down any lower than $50?

Chance we see it in September: 80 percent

Without new hardware or significant tweaks to the operating system, the Echo Show (right) could struggle to keep up with shiny, new Google Assistant-powered touchscreen displays from names like Lenovo.

Chris Monroe/CNET

A new-and-improved Echo Show?

Let's face facts: the touchscreen-equipped Echo Show wasn't the home run Amazon probably hoped it would be. The most expensive Alexa gadget Amazon's ever released, the Show was positioned as the Alexa lineup's showstopper, and interest in the device seemed high as preorders came piling in. But the visual interface felt underwhelming (and still does), and squabbles with Google over YouTube support limited a lot of its initial appeal, too. A little over a year later, you'll regularly find the Echo Show marked down by 50 percent or more, something we haven't seen with any of Amazon's other Alexa gadgets.

Is Amazon cleaning house ahead of an update? I'd give it slightly better than average odds, especially given what we've seen from compelling new Google Assistant-powered competitors like the Lenovo Smart Display. If those prove popular and the smart display category takes off, then Amazon will want something compelling of its own capable of coming along for the ride. The first-gen Echo Show just doesn't feel like that device anymore, and there aren't any third-party Alexa touchscreens that fit the bill, either. That means that the timing is right for Show 2.0 -- or at the very least, some significant updates to the existing model's user interface.

It wouldn't be the first time Amazon revamped an Alexa gadget in short order. The original Echo Dot debuted in March of 2016 -- the second-gen model arrived at half the cost just six months later and helped Amazon blunt the debut of the Google Home. Time will tell if Amazon has something similar in mind for the Echo Show this September, but with Alexa's touchscreen a step or two behind the curve at this point, I'd say the chances are decent.

Chance we see it in September: 60 percent

It feels early for a third-gen Amazon Echo, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility.

Ian Knighton/CNET

A new Echo, too?

The second-gen Amazon Echo made its debut last September -- roughly three years after the introduction of the first Echo. If you think that makes for slim odds of seeing a third-gen Echo this month, I'd say you're probably right. With the interchangeable fabric shells and all of Alexa's features on board, the Echo still feels current to what smart speaker shoppers are looking for -- and at $100, the price still feels more or less right, too.

That said, I wouldn't rule it out altogether. If the third-gen Echo Dot leak mentioned earlier is accurate, then it looks like Amazon's made some tweaks to the overall Echo aesthetic. Releasing a new Echo with similar design tweaks could help keep things consistent (and keep the current Echo from feeling stale by comparison).

I could also envision Amazon releasing an updated Echo with a new hardware trick or two to help stymie Google's momentum. The Echo Plus felt overpriced to me at $150, but its addition of a Zigbee radio for connecting with smart lights and smart locks without an extra hub is a very nice feature, and would make plenty of sense in a third-gen Echo at that $100 price point, particularly as Amazon shifts more of its focus to in-home delivery and smart home security. Other unique additions like a built-in motion sensor capable of turning the room's lights on automatically when you walk in could help keep the Echo ahead, too.

Chance we see it in September: 30 percent

Amazon isn't making the battery-powered Tap Alexa speaker anymore -- could a new version be on the way?

James Martin/CNET

The Tap strikes back?

Announced along with the Echo Dot back in 2016, Amazon's portable, battery-powered Tap smart speaker never quite felt like a full-blooded member of Alexa's family of devices (the fact that it's called the "Tap" and not "Echo Tap" certainly didn't help things). But even as something of an Alexa offshoot, it still held a fair deal of appeal for folks looking for flexibility from their smart speaker, and the ability to take it with them around the house, or outside even.

The appeal of portability aside, Amazon is no longer making the Tap -- instead, it's selling off existing, refurbished stock. With lots of battery-powered competition from third-party Alexa gadgets not made by Amazon, as well as popular portability docks for the Echo Dot, Amazon might simply be sunsetting the speaker, but I also think there's a chance that a new version is on the way. Improvements like better battery life and sound quality, or even a waterproof design that can stand up to the weather or to your pool would all be nice upgrades -- and finally calling it the Echo Tap would give it the pedigree it deserves as one of Amazon's oldest Alexa gadgets.

Chance we see it in September: 10 percent

Don't be surprised if Amazon, well, surprises us. Not that they were a huge hit or anything, but no one saw Echo Buttons coming.

CNET

Other potential surprises

All projections aside, the odds are good that if Amazon does have something planned for Alexa in September, it'll include at least a surprise or two (microwaves or otherwise). After all, Amazon has shown a willingness with Alexa to throw lots of ideas at the wall in order to see what sticks. Remember Echo Buttons, or the phone-replacing Echo Connect? Both debuted last September, and no one saw either one coming.

I'm also curious to see whether Amazon has any new plans for the Ring Video Doorbell or the new Ring Alarm Security Kit, which still don't work with Alexa in spite of the fact that Amazon bought Ring this past February. I've also long wondered whether or not Amazon will ever release its own Amazon Basics-type line of low-cost smart bulbs and other smart-home gadgets designed specifically for Alexa, though such a move would certainly frustrate the third-party retailers Amazon's put so much effort into courting. And with high-end, high-fidelity competition from the Apple HomePod and the Google Home Max challenging Alexa on the sound-quality front, could a better-sounding "Echo Max" be in the mix, too? Could that be what the rumored Alexa subwoofer is all about?

Amazon doesn't comment on speculation about new products, but we'll know soon enough whether or not to expect a big Alexa update (and I'll update this post if we come across any fresh rumors or leaks). Overall, I think the odds are high. The odds of guessing exactly what might be coming? Significantly lower. Stay tuned.

Originally published Sept. 8.
Update, Sept. 17: Added details from CNBC report.