A year ago, Amazon invited developers to borrow the software that powers Alexa, the popular virtual voice assistant found in the Amazon Echo smart speaker. Amazon's goal: make it easy for any device with speakers, a microphone and an internet connection to be an Alexa device.
Now, an intercom-maker called Nucleus is taking Amazon up on the offer and adding Alexa right into the $249 Nucleus Anywhere Intercom. It's one of the first third-party devices to hop on board with the AI assistant, and the only one with touchscreen controls -- though the Triby smart speaker, which added Alexa in earlier this year, comes close with an e-ink display.
The Nucleus pitch is a pretty simple one. With just a tap, you can connect with other Nucleus devices in the home, or with people outside the home who have a Nucleus of their own, or the Nucleus app on their Android or iOS device. Think of it as a dedicated video conferencing device.
Adding Alexa in doesn't do much to enhance the video-call experience, but it does give the device a lot of new functionality. Like the Amazon Echo, the Nucleus is an always-listening device, so you'll just need to say "Alexa" in order to wake it up and give it a command (and, like the Echo, you can press a button to mute the mic and turn Alexa off).
Once you've got Alexa's attention, you'll be able to ask her to read the headlines or the weather forecast, set a kitchen timer, or stream music, internet radio, or podcasts from iHeartRadio, TuneIn, or the Amazon Prime Music library. You'll also be able to enable Alexa's third-party skills (apps, essentially) by syncing up with the Amazon Alexa app.
There are a few notable limitations with Nucleus. First, you won't enjoy access to Pandora or Spotify like you will with Amazon's own Alexa products. Nucleus also tells us that, as of now, you won't be able to use the intercom to control third-party smart-home products from names like Nest, Belkin WeMo or Philips Hue. That puts it somewhat at odds with Triby, which has no such limitation when it comes to turning your lights on or your thermostat down.
For now at least, the Nucleus team tells us that they're "super-focused on the core functionality of easy communication," but adds that "there are some fun plans on the horizon." I'll be curious to see if the controls get deeper moving forward, since those third-party integrations are one of Alexa's key selling points.
I'll also be curious to find out how powerful the microphone and speakers in the Nucleus are. The Amazon Echo uses an array of far-field microphones around the top of the device to help isolate your commands and hear you over the top of background noise, even from across the room. The Nucleus uses a single microphone, and I'd honestly be surprised if it's as good as the Echo at picking up your commands from a distance.
The Alexa-enabled Nucleus Anywhere Intercom is available today on Amazon and at Lowe's for $249, or $199 if you're buying more than one. We'll aim to try one out in the CNET Smart Home -- expect to hear more soon.