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Amazon's Echo devices get redesign on the way to world domination

Alexa-powered microwaves and wall clocks are just the tip of the Alexa iceberg.

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Amazon had a busy day Thursday.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Amazon's products are the minivans of the devices world. They're plastic-encased, utilitarian and sometimes ugly. But they work, are inexpensive and can take a beating. Parents love them.

In comparison, Apple designs its sports-car-like devices as artwork -- with a price to match. Drop an Apple product and the neighbors will know about it from your shrieking.

That changed Thursday, as Amazon unveiled a torrent of new products, with many featuring a badly needed update in looks. They may not come close to the fit and finish of Apple gadgets, but Amazon's portfolio of products is keeping pace with modern aesthetics.

"We've always in our design group focused on products that sort of disappear into the background," David Limp, head of Amazon's devices business, said in an interview Thursday. "We don't think of them as show pieces or pieces of furniture, but as we've had more and more devices in the home, we've discovered that people do put them in lots of different rooms, lots of different decors, so we wanted to make them fit in more there and disappear."

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The move to update its products comes as Amazon continues its mission to put its Alexa voice assistant everywhere. After Thursday's launch, which included an Alexa-enabled microwave, wall clock and an in-car accessory, the company is surely aiming for world domination through Alexa.

Creating a bigger universe of Alexa-powered products is an increasingly important goal for Amazon as it tries convincing millions of people to place its Echo smart speakers all over their homes (or even their cars). Competitors, meanwhile, had been looking to capitalize on Amazon's uninspiring Echo designs by offering prettier devices, forcing Amazon to spend more time on the Echo's look, not just its voice assistant.

The concern over aesthetics isn't superficial. What's at stake for these companies is establishing a presence in the home as more consumers opt to invest in smart speakers to power the smart gadgets in their lives. If you buy an Echo, you're less likely to invest in a Google Home, ensuring your commitment to using Alexa (that works the other way around too).

Though the Echo remains the leading smart speaker in the US, taking up 70 percent of the market, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, its lead could slip if people start drifting to other, more attractive options. The Google Home accounts for 24 percent, while the Apple HomePod takes just 6 percent. The number of smart speakers in use in the country hit 50 million in late June.

Not just for show

Amazon's device lineup is likely best known for offering better-than-expected capabilities at lower-than-expected prices. It's a sales pitch that's often repeated by Amazon execs when they trot out new products.

But while Amazon's Limp likes to pack his gadgets with useful features, apps and storage, he hadn't seemed to emphasize design as much.

The original Echo Show is a good example. The Alexa-powered smart speaker with a built-in touchscreen display was released last June. The 2.5-pound device has a boxy and bulky design with a thick plastic border around its screen. The device instantly looked outdated in an age of thinner smartphones with nearly edge-to-edge displays.

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Amazon

Limp showed off a new Echo Show featuring a 10-inch touchscreen, twice the size of the original, all housed in a sleeker body. The company's new lineup almost universally embraced the fabric design scheme that Google Home employs. Amazon also showed off Skype support and the ability to display step-by-step cooking instructions. 

Competing Google Assistant-powered smart displays were introduced at this year's CES and some offered better designs, putting more pressure on Amazon to up its game. The LG WK9 ThinQ looks as clunky as the first Show. But the Lenovo Smart Display offers a more elegant shape, complete with a bamboo finish like what you might find in a cutting board.

The Show's new look means it's no longer a running joke in the industry. 

Echo's wallet-friendly options

The $50 Echo Dot, by far Amazon's most popular Echo product, is essentially a plastic hockey puck and offers tinny sound. The similarly priced Google Home Mini has a fabric top and much nicer audio.

On Thursday, the company gave it a fabric makeover and boosted its volume, while keeping its price to $50. The Dot accounts for over half of Echo device sales, according to CIRP, and is critical to Amazon's mission to get its Alexa digital assistant into your home.

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The new Echo Dot has a fabric body.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

For those who have their own speakers, Amazon unveiled an even cheaper Echo -- the Echo Input. The $35 puck connects to speakers and offers all the same Alexa functionality. The device comes later this year. 

With sleek new designs, you can't exactly call them the minivans of the smart speaker world. 

Alexa's new abilities

Amazon somehow squeezed in descriptions of new Alexa features between the slew of new products and refreshes. The company kicked things off with the ability for Alexa to whisper -- a godsend to any parent worrying about waking a child. 

Alexa can employ "hunches" based on your preferences, offering you suggestions like turning off the living room lights when you say good night in your bedroom. There are also routines and reminders you can trigger when you leave or arrive home or work, allowing Alexa to turn on the lights at home right when you come in or remind you to grab your keys as you're leaving. The digital assistant will also be able to handle multi-step requests, like, "Alexa, add bananas, peanut butter and cheese to my shopping list."

Another new feature is Alexa Guard, which lets the digital assistant send you an alert if it hears the sounds of breaking glass or a smoke or carbon monoxide alarm in your home while you're away. It will also randomly turn on and off your connected lights to deter burglars. Guard, which is coming to some Echo devices later this year, will work with alarm systems from Amazon-owned Ring and ADT.

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Shhh...Alexa can now whisper to you. 

Tyler Lazenby/CNET

You can even use Alexa to help ease the process of setting up smart home gadgets around the house, solely using your voice rather than searching for the right Wi-Fi network and inputting codes to recognize devices. Limp compared it to the "frustration-free" packaging used in its shipped products.

"We've only scratched the surface of AI-powered inventions and we'll continue to invent ways to make Alexa more useful for our customers," Rohit Prasad, vice president and head scientist for Amazon Alexa, said in a statement

Carolina Milanesi, an analyst for Creative Strategies, said Amazon on Thursday strongly emphasized ease of use of its devices and better looks in a bid to win over more mainstream customers.

"For early adopters, pain is part of the pleasure," she said. "But for mainstream users, they just want it to work."

Amazon's trying to put Alexa everywhere

Those smarts don't mean much if Alexa isn't widespread. Amazon took a big proactive step toward that goal Thursday.

The company introduced the AmazonBasics Microwave for $60, and an Echo Wall Clock for $30 -- which prior to Thursday, could have been punchlines to a joke. Then there's Echo Auto, Amazon's effort to get Alexa into your car. The cassette-tape sized device pairs with your phone and lets you get directions, find the nearest Starbucks or listen to audiobooks during your commute. Amazon also unveiled subwoofers, amplifiers, receivers and a DVR called Fire TV Recast

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Yep, an Amazon microwave. This is a thing. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

"Our mental model is to build a new interface," Limp said. "Originally it was for the home. Thursday, it was about extending where else an ambient experience will work."

Amazon has a history of jumping into categories that're occupied by its partners, and Thursday was no different. Appliance makers that worked to integrate Alexa into their products have to be giving Amazon's offering a critical, potentially worried, look. After the speakers were announced, Sonos' stock fell nearly 3 percent, to $13.94.  

Amazon's stock, meanwhile, was up 1 percent, to $1,947.14, as everyone absorbed the sheer amount of products in its new lineup.

They're a lot prettier to look at. 

First published Sept. 20, 6 a.m. PT.
Updates, 10 a.m.: Adds details; 11:55 a.m.: Includes more product information; 1:19 p.m.: Include more background information and photos; 3:03 p.m.: To add quotes from Amazon's Limp; 6:15 p.m.: To add comments from an analyst; Sept. 21 at 8:18 a.m.: Adds more information on features including Alexa Guard.

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