The Echo Show: A Window into Alexa’s Soul?
Is there any gadget that doesn’t look just that bit cooler when a screen is added to it? The Samsung Family Hub Refrigerator incorporates a 21″ screen in one of its doors. Likewise, smart thermostats and now smart virtual assistants are taking that same approach. To that end, the Amazon Echo range, already bulging with voice-activated competence, has upped the game by equipping one of its Alexa devices with a 7″ touchscreen. Considering all of the compact digital assistants we’ve covered so far, why should the addition of a monitor cause ripples in The Force? And by “Force,” we’re referring to the audience that’s shopping for new and interesting smart interfaces.
First of all, human beings are a visually-oriented bunch. We like moving pictures and flashy animations, plus the occasional explosion from a Midsummer Hollywood blockbuster. Despite that deep-seated, biologically embedded mindset, it makes sense to manufacture a virtual assistant without a display, probably because that’s how we address each other. You call across the room and ask the Star Trek fan in the family where Spock’s dad came from, but you don’t crane your neck to see who you’re talking to when you ask the family Trekky (Trekker?) that question. So where does the Amazon Show (aka. Echo Show) belong if it’s not meant to replace your living room’s Amazon Echo? Quite simply, the $230 touchscreen-equipped Alexa housing is the expanded multimedia variant, the screen, and camera furnished member of the Amazon smart assistant fellowship. It not only voices information but also conjures up your replies in full living color. And, as all the songs say, a picture truly is worth a thousand words.
A Video-Capable Smart Assistant
As a consequence of the appended 7″ black window, the Echo Show gains a video streaming capability. Sure, that feature already exists within the FireTV control App, plus the numerous other film and TV feeds that launch when you ask Alexa for a favourite show or film, but now you have this streaming capability built right into your Amazon gadgets’ body. Arguably, this tweak in functionality does alter the way you interact with Alexa, but that’s why this is a new member of the family, not a replacement for the Echo. Furthermore, beyond playing internet video streams, the touchscreen also converts your smart assistant into an accomplished video conferencing device. Imagine the incorporation of a powerful VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) feature. If that App became a Skype or Facetime replacement, this would be the retail giant’s opportunity to turn video messaging on its head. Who would have thought, the first real world, really useful, video phone could be an Amazon gadget, not a desktop version of an iOS device.
Watching videos, settling down with microwave popcorn to watch a movie or TV show, these are all areas where the Amazon Echo Show can excel, but isn’t there a laptop or handheld smartphone that already does this job and with far better results? Possibly, but it would take Batman’s most heavy-duty utility belt to carry all of them. Here, instead of multiple handheld gizmos and notebooks and Chromebooks, all of these duties are condensed inside a single Alexa-run domicile. That virtual assistant is the landlord, the Apps and multimedia features are the residents, and the screen offers a window into that smart operating system. Moreover, this is a touchscreen, so the hands-free video calls are supplemented by a visually-accented, interactively endowed control system, one that encourages intuitive App handling. One example of that latter degree of liberated functionality would be a camera App, perhaps a security or nanny cam program that monitors a prescribed area. Expect a two-way system governance mechanism when these Apps go live. On the one hand, ask Alexa to turn up the brightness or pan right. As for the touch method of operation, use a finger to scroll through the camera controls and carry out the same functions.
Deconstructing Your New Echo Show
Left on a bedside table, the sloped 7.4″ black panel on your new Amazon Echo Show makes the blocky gadget look like an oversized bedside clock. Alexa is at home, so the internet connection displays a large digital clock and the local weather by default. The screen, while at rest, can also be set to act as a single picture frame or as a slideshow, so load up your Prime account with lots of family photos if you’re going to use your Echo Show as a desktop photo frame. However, keep in mind the fact that the base of your newest Alexa host is 3.5″ deep by 4.5″ wide. That larger than average desktop footprint, plus the sloped back profile, probably equals some lost real estate space on your desk. Likewise, this is not a portable member of the Echo family, which means it’s always going to require a nearby wall outlet for its power cord.
Now, a brief break while we attend to the little matter we like to call hardware details. On the outside, a 7.4″ square panel is occupied by a 7″ (That’s the diameter measurement) touchscreen. That upper panel displays videos and images at 1024 x 600, which is most definitely low-definition territory. A 720p display, at minimum, would have been nice. Anyway, above that display, a 5-Megapixel front-facing camera acts as your path to video conferencing fun, then there’s the volume rocker and camera On/Off control up top. Incidentally, underneath those buttons, Amazon’s proprietary array of microphones is built on an 8-piece grouping that assures far-field recognition. However, and we hate to say this about any new gadget, the blocky, awkwardly sloped housing does make the product feel like a concept device, not a fully rounded Amazon product. Finally, moving back to the front of the Echo Show, the lower panel is filled with a speaker grille, so you’ll be listening to a flatter stereo field of generated sound, not the omnidirectional audio you hear from the standard cylindrical profile of an Amazon Echo.
Beyond that strange, angular body, there’s the aforementioned far-field microphones, a fairly powerful Intel Atom x5-Z8350 processor, and a connectivity package that adds WiFi and Bluetooth, much to Alexa’s delight we’re sure. The front grille conceals a pair of 2″ speakers, both of which sound, at least subjectively speaking, better than the omnidirectional speakers on the other Echo models, although that clearer audio does become slightly muffled when you wander behind the device. Again, the Amazon Echo Show is built for direct interaction, not the spatially neutral activity you’d associate with a screen-less model.
If there’s one conclusion to be drawn from this new architecture, it’s that this is a more aggressive design, not an architecture you’d naturally attribute to a remotely located Amazon Echo. The voice of that latter digital companion seems to float around you like some modern Delphian Oracle while the Show is built to act as a face-to-face interface, so to speak. Still, despite that blocky build and direct communication shortcoming, the Echo Show has every chance of succeeding, although that success will depend on the nature of the beast and our fondness for visuals. Instead of a sourceless supply of music, the directed stream will add music covers and artist posters to the mix. A nanny cam or security camera function also comes naturally, as does a potential App killer video messaging feature.
A Hands-On with The Apple HomePod: It’s About Time!
Siri has been bodyless for long enough, with her dulcet tones acting as a tonal anchor for every iPhone and iPad enthusiast around the world. Squeezed into a beautifully engineered smart speaker casing, the soul of Apple’s smart assistant has categorically arrived, and it’s another 7″ housing that’s playing the role of her lodgings. Perhaps there’s been a lot of market research conducted into the topic of smart speaker sweet spot size? It seems like it, especially when all of these devices are orbiting their dimensional specs around that standard height and width footprint. Furthermore, that compact profile readily accepts two or more speakers, plus the far field microphone arrays that are being embedded in these state-of-the-art smart speakers. Anyhow, the Amazon Echo rival is not only a Siri speaker, it’s a premium grade smart speaker, a device that’s built to compete with some of the smaller Sonos wireless speakers that fill the higher levels of the Hi-Fi market. Let’s snap a virtual X-Ray off and find out how Apple’s engineers are taking on what’s always been considered an audiophile only device class.
Delivers Audiophile-Quality Sound Emulation
It’s difficult to make up ground on a smart speaker when it has over a years head start. Certainly, Apple’s Homepod has a very smart live-in personality. Siri, in point of fact, pretty much wrote the rules on voice-activated software and much of the hardware besides. Still, there’s the fact that the Echo range is buoyed by thousands of Alexa Skills, then the follow-up realization that Alexa’s capabilities have sparked the collective consciousness. People talk about Alexa, comedy skits make jokes about Alexa, and she’s no longer confined to her narrow cylinder.
The LG Smart Instaview Refrigerator, Ford Sync 3, Samsung’s POWERbot R9350 Turbo, all of these systems are gaining intelligence, and that intelligence has a name: Alexa. It’s not that we’re attempting to be melodramatic here, yet Alexa has obviously overcome another hurdle. First of all, Amazon’s smart AI took over the internet-connected innards of the Echo line, a hands-free, voice-activated cylinder, and now she seems to have outgrown that skinny casing. Unrestrained, she’s generating clones of herself, equally smart Alexa-ites that are running the scenes behind some of the latest and greatest gizmos and gadgets. Voice activation technology, like smartphone tech a few years back, is set to be the newest gadget fad on the block. Is it a fad, though, or will the technology stick?
As mature and ingrained as Amazon Echos’ platform undoubtedly is, the Siri speaker isn’t about to be eclipsed, not technologically and certainly not publicly. To that end, this is a smart speaker that directs its feature set towards audio excellence. It turns out the Amazon Echo doesn’t have the best sound quality in the world, which represents somewhat of a stain on the device’s character, a shortcoming that will surely be addressed in the next incarnation. Subsequently, the Apple HomePod has stepped into the gap by constructing a premium-quality speaker array, an omnidirectional set of 7 tweeters, with a single 4″ upward-firing woofer mounted up top, right in the middle of this sonically balanced speaker ring. On balance, that’s not exactly a surprising feature, not when you consider Apple and iTunes as possibly the world’s largest indexed music catalogue. Just as a side note, iTunes also incorporates numerous movies, plus the latest episodes from your favourite TV shows. Built on music but expanded by video, that huge multimedia library could signal a move towards a monitor-equipped form factor in the next few years, a la The Echo Show. On the other hand, the Home Sharing feature found in iTunes is designed to stream video content to an Apple TV, if you happen to own this 4th generation box.
In any case, early reviews have slotted the Apple HomePod slickly between a modestly equipped smart speaker and a high-end Sonos wireless home sound system. That 7 tweeter speaker configuration delivers 360º audio. On the crown of this ring-like array, a tautly manufactured 20 mm diaphragm reproduces the low oomph-oomph tones heard on your latest house dance track, if you’re into that kind of thing. Then the frequency bandwidth spreads smoothly to accommodate a wide spectrum sound field, something that’s felt as well as heard as an impressively distortion-free acoustic stage. Furthermore, thanks to some cleverly tailored audio algorithms, this densely packed bundle of electronics can somehow sense its location in a room. When the feedback from this sensor is processed, the A8 processor tunes the 360º audio so that the sound is balanced, no matter where the device is placed. Similar features are available in high-end AV receivers, but we were surprised to see an advanced sound stage tuning function embedded inside a smart speaker, which just proves how much effort Apples’ engineers have put into creating a refined product, one that excels as an audiophile capable smart home speaker.
The Apple Perspective on Smart Speaker Connectivity
This is a Siri product that desperately wants to multiply. Added to your living room, the 6.8″ tall, fattened speaker grille seamlessly curves around the little unit. Okay, so it’s just shy of 7″ tall. In diameter, the attractive 5.6″ body looks perfectly circular when viewed from above. Unlike the larger members of the Amazon Echo range, then, the Apple HomePod fits comfortably in the palm of one hand, even when that hand belongs to a younger member of the family. If you were to stretch your imagination, and maybe squint your eyes, it looks like a squat egg, with its grey skinned form reclining on a table or shelf. Expand that setup by adding another Apple HomePod to the adjacent room. The two units will connect to each other via Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac), or they’ll use the Airplay 2 protocol to create a multiroom audio field, a setup that again takes advantage of that stage balancing feature to equalize the audio.
If the immersive audio is hitting the walls of your room hard and propagating into other rooms, how is Siri going to hear you request a new song? After all, that high-excursion woofer is generating enough power to shake your fillings loose. Furthermore, each of the 7 horn-loaded 7 has its own independent amplifier, which begs the question: how does this smart speaker hear your voice-activated queries above that immaculately reproduced audio? The answer, of course, comes down to another ring of components, one that’s installed behind the seamless mesh fabric. Above the tweeter ring but below the 4″ woofer, another ring of electronic parts provides the input end of the system. This is the far field microphone array, a 6-piece group that hears your command when the music is at its loudest setting. Paired with Apple’s A8 processor, your requests call up Siri, who then sends your naturally voiced words to an Apple server for further processing. Based on syntax and context, she translates your request, connects to the Internet and delivers an equally well-articulated reply. It’s this smart listening feature that also rules the music catalogue, with Siri learning your listening habits. Like the Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down feature employed on several other popular music streaming Apps, a “Hey Siri!” voice activation command wakes Apple’s AI. Something like, “Hey Siri, Play a Different Song” will be enough to emulate that selection binary. From there, the smart software learns your tastes.
White or space grey, the spatially aware smart home speaker, whether you call it a Siri Speaker or an Apple HomePod, does exhibit a refined profile. All wrapped in its conservatively attired grillework, there’s little else of note to see. There is a top button, of sorts, a thin membrane that you use to Pause, Play, or Stop the current track. Also, built into the same circular controller, the volume can be raised or lowered. Incidentally, the visual feedback mechanism is also mounted on this dial as an animated LED waveform, a little wavelet that moves in response to your commands. These latter features, as well as all of the audio-oriented hardware and Siri-dominated software, are suitably impressive. There’s even reason to believe that this smart speaker will be on the shopping list of many smart speaker adopters. However, the Apple operating system is a notoriously closed one, which probably suggests a preference for Apple’s own Apps. Conversely, the Amazon Echo family is an open-source platform, with developer types adding new Skills to the Alexa personality all the time. Is a high fidelity speaker, even one that hosts Siri, really enough to topple the Amazon Echo gang? Or is the Apple Homepod built purely for Apple fans and their iPhones?
Smart Speakers: Assorted Musings
Alexa is a natural language whiz, with her American English, British English, and German language skills serving a substantial chunk of our global community. What about two of the other world’s dominant languages, though? A Spanish Alexa sure would be cool. Then there’s Chinese, a sector of the market that’s occupied by an estimated 1 Billion potential product owners. True, Alexa doesn’t have an aptitude for Chinese, but there is a Chinese Smart Home Speaker. The Tmall Genie, a smart speaker financed by a Chinese online sales titan known as Alibaba, speaks Mandarin. A synthetic assistant in a can, the Tmall Genie is only available in China, which makes sense when your Duolingo skills haven’t got your mind fully wrapped around the English language just yet. Don’t treat this device lightly, though, not when the Alibaba user base is known to be every bit as large as Amazon’s own online shopping presence. Tmall, as you may or may not know, is China’s own online shopping website, a virtual shopping window that’s filled with over 50,000 vendors.
Introducing The Tmall Genie
The small form factor and the online retailer prefix identify the Tmall Genie as an Amazon Echo lookalike. That statement is supported by the fact that the wake word used here is “Tmall Genie,” just like the Amazon Echo wake word. The only difference in the command structure, naturally enough, is that the words are uttered in Mandarin, not English. When the Genie is awake, you can play music, get the latest news headlines, and hear the weather, again, in a manner that’s very similar to the other smart home assistants mentioned thus far. The online shopping feature, as you’d expect, carries you off to Tmall, Alibaba’s shopping website. Consider the idea of that huge population. If each family household were to purchase this Chinese language device, the sales volume would exceed the combined might of both the Amazon Echo line and the nascent Apple HomePod product that’s going to dazzle Apple fans. However, there’s little evidence that this will be the case. Perhaps due to societal differences, or maybe it’s because these hard-working Asian citizens are either at work or commuting to work, the projected sales figures aren’t expected to blitz other smart speakers.
The Imitation Game: The Dot-like Anker Smart Speaker
At a low price of $50 US dollars, the Amazon Echo Dot is a hockey puck sized Alexa device, but it has a doppelganger. The Anker Eufy Genie (www.cnbc.com)
is a dead-ringer for the consumer giant’s smallest Echo product. The Alexa-enabled speaker incorporates a puny 2-Watt speaker, but that’s not really a problem, not when this disc-shaped smart speaker has the same embedded connectivity outlets as the Echo Dot. In other words, just like the Dot, the Eufy Genie is equipped with the software protocols and hardware ports that facilitate a bridging connection between a set of external speakers and the cleverly ensconced Alexa AI. By the way, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little disgruntled at the lack of imagination coming out of some of these marketing departments. Sure, the “genie in a bottle” metaphor is a patently obvious one, a comparison many users are bound to make, but that’s two genie smart speakers now, so perhaps it’s time to adopt another figure of speech.
Slightly larger than the Amazon Echo Dot, the Eufy Genie costs less than the original, so perhaps a pretender is a viable alternative if you plan on installing lots of the disc-like variants in many rooms. If you own a mansion, but somehow your shopping funds are running dry, consider purchasing a little cluster of Anker’s smart speakers. Cheap they may be, but they’re equipped with far-field microphones, so Alexa’s hearing shouldn’t be dampened if you opt for the Eufy version instead of the original flagship model, as designed by Amazon’s engineers. Essentially entitled to an Amazon budget brand label, the Eufy Genie packs a full-powered Alexa smart home assistant, so all voice-activated services are available. Beyond that central precept, this Amazon-approved imitator is being built to act as a centerpiece for Ankers’ Eufy range of smart devices, including the smart switches that are quickly filling up this Eufy catalog.
Let’s Not Forget Facebook and Samsung Smart Speaker Efforts
Now, having dutifully described a number of vendors approach to the smart speaker paradigm, what happens when the marketing departments start calling the shots? After all, Amazon and Apple engineers have created a superbly refined software architecture. The Google Home has done likewise by leveraging the search habits of it users. Facebook is similarly wedged into every online ecosystem, and the social networking giant even influences our cultural values. Still, what kind of smart device is was spawned by a company that’s renowned for collecting user data.
Available in different display sizes and including, video calling, messaging Apps that show coded social updates all rule in the Portal. But now that this monitor-equipped speaker has started to invade the bedroom and the kitchen, I’m not sure if the connected home has room for yet another synthetic assistant, not when Siri, Alexa, and Google are set to dominate every room, every entertainment and informational outlet, and every smart wireless device, be it a hub or a WiFi furnished thermostat. If there is to be another smart home assistant, Samsungs’ mobile AI, Bixby, is likely to give Facebook a run for their money, but that product, too, is likely to remain in the unrealized gadgets scrap yard until Bixby masters the English language.