"We've got about an hour, and about 70 new things to show you..."
That's how Amazon opened a surprise event in Seattle last week -- and boy, those people weren't kidding. With new hardware and software improvements for Alexa's Echo lineup, plus a veritable plethora of new devices, Amazon gave consumers all sorts of new ways to bring Alexa into their homes -- and their cars, for that matter. (You can watch a condensed, 10-minute version of the entire presentation here, by the way.)
So, which of the big reveals were worth the pomp and circumstance? That depends on what you want out of the Alexa ecosystem -- for our money, here are the five most interesting announcements we heard (and five that don't matter nearly as much).
Some wondered if we might see an "Echo Max" at this event -- that, is, a king-size Alexa speaker with premium sound quality capable of taking on competitors like the Google Home Max and the Apple HomePod.
Well, they weren't too far off. Amazon did indeed roll out a brand-new, supersize Alexa speaker called the Echo Sub -- but it isn't a standalone device, and it doesn't have its own dedicated Alexa voice controls. Instead, you'll pair it with a regular Echo speaker to give your living space multipoint audio with dramatically better bass. Pair it with two Echoes, and you're looking at a legit 2.1 stereo setup with distinct left and right channels. By the way, the total cost of that setup? $330 -- $20 less than an Apple HomePod, and $70 less than the Google Home Max.
Along with the Echo Sub and the new stereo capabilities for homes with multiple Echo or Echo Plus speakers, Amazon also introduced new software that'll share the Echo's multiroom audio feature with third-party Alexa devices and let users synchronize playback throughout the entire home, regardless of the hardware they're using.
All of it adds up to a stronger emphasis on audio that answers one of the longest-standing criticisms of the Echo lineup. Simply put: When it comes to speakers, better sound is a big deal.
Not everything on the audio front was interesting, though. Case in point: the Echo Link and Echo Link Amp, which promise to accept Alexa voice controls for whatever powered speakers you've got your audio outputs piped to.
Both devices make sense in theory, but the pitch left a lot of us confused. Isn't that volume knob on the front redundant? What about input selection? Why is the product page so vague about what these expensive AV gadgets are actually capable of?
Even CNET audiophile extraordinaire Ty Pendlebury told me he couldn't see a clear reason to use these things, and called them the most niche products he's seen in a while.
"Just get the Dot," Ty adds.
Earlier this year, Amazon bought Ring, maker of a popular line of smart security cameras and video doorbells. Soon after, it started offering Alexa-centric DIY home security packages. It stood to reason that we'd see something security-related at this all-encompassing Alexa event.
And we did! It's a new feature called Alexa Guard that uses the microphones in the Echo speakers you've already got to keep an ear out for trouble while you're gone. If one of them hears glass breaking or the sound of an alarm going off, you'll get a notification on your phone. In addition to Ring, Alexa Guard will partner with ADT to automatically send suspicious audio to emergency call centers that can alert the authorities if necessary.
Another feature: Alexa will randomly cycle your smart lights on and off while you're away to make it look like you're home, and perhaps discourage a break-in from happening in the first place. Bottom line: These are all no-brainer moves by Amazon given the surging demand for low-cost DIY home security options.
OK, OK, I can already feel the strong stink-eye from parents of small children or infants who love the idea of whispering a command to Alexa, then having her whisper back in response. After all, if you've just gotten the kiddo to fall asleep with an especially boring bedtime story, and you ask Alexa to turn the lights off, the last thing you want is a booming "OK!" that wakes junior back up.
To that end, Alexa's newly announced Whisper Mode sounds like a godsend -- and, as marketable as it is, I'll all but guarantee you that we see it in an Alexa commercial before long. But it's also somewhat redundant given that you can already turn off verbal responses to your Alexa commands and replace them with a soft tone -- or with no tone at all. Whisper Mode is a gimmick -- a really good gimmick, perhaps -- but still a gimmick.
It looks a bit like a cassette tape, but that there thingamabob is actually one of Amazon's new Echo devices -- the Echo Auto, to be exact. Like the name suggests, it's an Alexa gadget for your car. Pop it on top of the dash and plug it in, then connect it with your phone via Bluetooth. Voila -- you now have access to Alexa while you're driving.
There's some neat potential here, some of which will get realized right at launch. For instance, you'll be able to use the location of your car to trigger Alexa routines -- an easy way to set the lights to come on whenever you get home from work. It also shouldn't be long before we see some new voice-activated turn-by-turn direction skills.
Best of all? Amazon is offering the Echo Auto to early invitees at a discounted price of just $25. That's a tempting price that should get lots of folks to buy in -- which will, in turn, incentivize development of those third-party skills for the car. Just a hunch, but Echo Auto has the early makings of a hit.
Along with releasing new devices, Amazon also took the opportunity to refresh some old ones. We started off with a new, better-sounding Echo Dot with an improved, fabric-bodied design. Soon, the smart home-centric Echo Plus followed suit with a fabric-bodied refresh of its own.
In addition to the fabric, the Echo Plus also gets a new temperature sensor that can trigger your smart home devices when things get too hot or too cold. Not a bad idea -- but why put it in the Plus, which still costs too much at $150? Why not put it in the $50 Dot, the Echo device people are most likely to have in multiple rooms throughout the home? And how many users will actually put that temperature sensor to use?
Like the Zigbee radio that lets the Plus connect directly with certain types of smart lights and smart locks that normally need a separate hub plugged into your router, the new temperature sensor feels like a niche feature -- a good one, mind you, but not one that'll move the needle very much, and not one that'll get many more of us to buy the Plus when the regular Echo sounds just as good for $50 less.
The touchscreen-equipped Echo Show initially launched as an Alexa flagship, but it suffered from a clunky-looking design and an underdeveloped display. Sure enough, Google-Assistant-equipped smart displays from names like Lenovo and JBL have since lapped it by putting out much better-looking products with user interfaces that are more thoughtfully designed than Alexa's.
That meant that the stakes were high for Amazon's long-suspected Echo Show 2.0, and when it finally debuted last week, I came away impressed. The design is much, much better, with a larger, sharper screen front and center and less bulk surrounding it. And, while we haven't had a whole lot of time to play with it yet, the user interface looks greatly improved as well -- and Amazon is taking a page from Google and wisely farming that improved user interface out to third parties, as well. Another huge improvement: support for Silk and Firefox that'll let you use the Show to browse through YouTube again.
At very least, this thing should be able to keep pace with Google, and after the first Echo Show got roundly outclassed, that's a big win for Amazon.
The Alexa microwave was a popular trending topic in the days leading up to Amazon's event after it was leaked out by CNBC. But after close inspection, I think the fuss was much ado about nothing.
This is just a microwave, folks -- and with 700 watts to its name, not even a very powerful one (and not an especially good-looking one, either). Like the Amazon Basics branding suggests, the microwave is, well... basic -- and it doesn't offer built-in Alexa controls, either. You'll need to pair it with an existing Echo speaker over Bluetooth.
Even then, is it really that helpful to tell Alexa to start and stop your microwave? Not counting the physically disabled and mobility-impaired, for whom voice controls have been an obvious gamechanger, I have a hard time imagining anyone using those Alexa controls with any sort of regularity -- aside, of course, from the poor Amazon exec who had to ask Alexa to microwave a potato over and over again as giddy journos filmed him on their phones.
But hey. Just 60 bucks, and with automatic Dash replenishment for your popcorn. The future is here, people.
Here's the funny thing about that boring, unimportant Alexa microwave: If you take a sledgehammer to it and dig through the electronics inside, you'll find something truly gamechanging: the Alexa Connect Kit.
This isn't a new product -- it's an inexpensive chipset for third-party developers that features Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a secure connection to Alexa's cloud. Gadget and appliance manufacturers can add that chipset into their product as a low-cost upgrade that transforms it into an Alexa-compatible device.
In that sense, the Alexa Connect Kit is what that overblown microwave is really all about. The microwave wasn't made for consumers so much as it was made to send a message to developers: "Even a dumb old microwave can be an Alexa gadget now."
After all of the fuss over that microwave, I'll bet developers are listening -- and that means that it likely won't be long before we see a big rise in the number of gadgets and appliances that work with Alexa. If that happens, then the Alexa Connect Kit could end up being the most impactful thing to come out of Amazon's big event.
The Echo Wall Clock got a surprising amount of attention given all of the other Alexa news it was competing against, so maybe I'm a bit off here. More than one of my office mates was aghast when I said it made the "Doesn't Matter" list.
Well, the Echo Wall Clock doesn't matter. It's just a clock that syncs with your Echo devices to set the time and to display your cooking timers as they count down. Both are fine features, and $30 is a "sure-why-not" kind of price -- but at the end of the day, it's still just a wall clock.
Amazon might sell a few of them to Alexa loyalists, and if it's popular, then maybe we'll see a rash of other Alexa gadgets that connect with your Echo speakers over Bluetooth. Outside of that, though, this one felt like parsley on the plate of Amazon's jam-packed event.