Amazon Echo Show Reviews: Privacy Concerns, Sound Improvements, and Video Calling as Killer App

Ahead of the launch of the Echo Show this Wednesday, June 28, Amazon has given review units to a few sites so that they can test out the new Echo and see how its 7-inch touch screen adds to the traditional Amazon Echo experience. Amazon revealed the $230 Echo Show earlier in May and bills it as having all of the features of the traditional Echo, with the addition of a display to enhance user interactivity.

According to The Verge, one of the best aspects of Echo Show is that, "you basically never need to tap the screen for anything, unless you really want to." Instead of adding an array of touchscreen-required actions that overcomplicate the interface, the company focused on adapting the abilities of the previous Echo models to work with a touchscreen.


While there were some moments when the touchscreen's "secondary importance" caused UI annoyances, the site largely admired Amazon's decision to keep the voice control focus of the Echo line with Echo Show.
Are there things I don't love about the Echo Show? Of course. I think it's pretty homely and I think that the sound quality could be better for the price. But the improvements over the original Echo are big enough that it's my favorite smart speaker right now.

From nearly any other company, adding a screen would have resulted in feature-itis of the worst kind. By holding back, the Echo Show feels like it does more. Its strength is in its simplicity.
In its review, TechCrunch described Echo Show's video calling feature as the "killer app" for many users, allowing calls between two Echo Show devices, or between an Echo Show and the Alexa smartphone app. After entering a phone number, the Echo Show displays a list of other Echo owners from your own personal contact list, and from there you can directly call their Echo.

Image via The Verge

The site noted that the screen is far too small for long movie sessions (currently only supporting video from Amazon Prime), and described its resolution as "middling," but in video calls the Echo Show's 7-inch touchscreen makes the most sense. Still, both TechCrunch and The Verge did find Echo Show's "Drop In" feature slightly intrusive, as it lets selected friends and family pop into your Echo Show and see your home whenever they feel like it, but it's not activated by default.
It’s a lot easier to use than Skype (though, to be fair, most things in this life are), but it’s currently limited to Show users, which means Amazon is going to sell a lot of these to family members looking for a simple way to keep in touch. There’s also an odd Drop-In option, which takes the whole picking-up-the-phone bit out of the equation, so select friends and family can communicate directly with little warning. I suppose there’s some value for users looking to periodically check in on loved ones, but the whole thing is too intrusive for my tastes.
Wired also referenced worry about Echo Show's always-watching camera, but ultimately sees potential in the device's future, particularly once Amazon begins adding in more "skills" for the Echo Show. The site continued an opinion shared in multiple reviews posted today, which is that the Echo Show's speaker is better than that of the original Echo's, but "it's no Sonos."
Still, I find the Show’s potential fascinating. The Alexa ecosystem has grown big enough that I suspect Netflix and Hulu will soon make video skills, most smart-home manufacturers will support the new device, and games and apps will pop up all over the place. Alexa’s voice recognition works well enough to make all of this work, and developers can access the camera, the screen, the microphone, and the speaker. The Echo Show is basically an always-on, plugged-in smartphone, which could become hugely powerful.
Amazon's Echo Show is the latest in the company's line of smart speaker systems, following the Echo, Echo Dot, and Echo Look. Apple is gearing up to finally enter the same market, with an announcement at WWDC this year for the "HomePod." Apple said that its speaker is more focused on high-quality music playback than its smart speaker rivals, while also offering Siri-based AI features.

Check out more Echo Show reviews from the following sites:
- Business Insider
- Buzzfeed
- CNET
- Engadget
- TIME
- Bloomberg
- Gizmodo
- USA Today
- SlashGear
- The New York Times


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Amazon Dash Wand Barcode Scanner Launched With Built-In Alexa

Amazon has launched a new version of its Dash barcode scanning device for Prime U.S. subscribers that includes the company's ubiquitous virtual assistant built in.

Called the Dash Wand, the Alexa-enabled gadget allows users to scan grocery barcodes, convert measurements, and order essential household items from Amazon with the click of a button.


Pressing the button activates the Dash Wand, enabling customers to use their voice to ask about recipes and find local restaurants. It's also possible to control smart lighting via the magnetic device, which is designed to be attached to a fridge.

With the original Dash, released in 2014, users could scan barcodes and add items to their shopping cart via limited voice controls, but checkout had to be completed on the Amazon site.


By contrast, the new $20 Dash Wand allows users to buy items directly. Prime subscribers also receive $20 off their next purchase once they've registered the device, so it basically comes free. In addition, buyers get a free 90-day trial of the AmazonFresh home grocery service.


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Amazon Updates Alexa Devices With Apple iCloud Calendar Integration

Amazon today announced that users will now be able to sync their iCloud Calendar information with devices that support Amazon's smart assistant Alexa. With the update, users can ask Alexa what's coming up on their calendar, or issue commands so new appointments are added to the schedule. Anything added from an Amazon device is then synced with iCloud and added to the Calendar app on iOS and macOS devices.

To sync an iCloud account with Alexa, the company said that customers will have to sign in to their Apple account within the settings tab of the Alexa iOS app. Users in the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany will gain access to the new update beginning today, representing the current countries where Alexa is available.

Starting today, you can now link your Apple iCloud Calendar to Alexa. To do this, iCloud Calendar customers can simply link their account in the settings tab in the Alexa app. Once linked, just say, “Alexa, what’s on my calendar today?” or “Alexa, add lunch with Sarah at noon to my calendar.”

iCloud Calendar support has been a top requested feature from Alexa customers, and we’re thrilled to bring this to Alexa devices in US, UK and Germany today.
With the inclusion of Apple's Calendar, Alexa device users now have access to five total calendar services, also including accounts for G Suite, Google/Gmail, Office 365 users with Exchange Online mailboxes, and Outlook.com.

Alexa is available in a variety of hardware devices sold by Amazon, including the Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Look, and new Echo Show, as well as on the Amazon Alexa iOS app [Direct Link].

Tags: Amazon, Alexa

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Ecobee4 Smart Thermostat With Both HomeKit and Built-In Alexa Now Available to Pre-Order For $249

Ecobee today announced that its next-generation ecobee4 smart thermostat with built-in Amazon Alexa voice services is now available to pre-order for $249 on its website in the United States. Pre-orders are estimated to start shipping on May 15, the same day it will hit shelves at Lowe's, Home Depot, and Best Buy.


Like the ecobee3, the ecobee4 continues to support Apple HomeKit, IFTTT, and Samsung's smart home platform SmartThings.

While the ecobee3 also works with Alexa, it can only be controlled by voice using external devices such as the Amazon Echo. The ecobee4, in addition to having a touchscreen and smartphone control, has Alexa built right in with far-field voice technology so that it can hear you from across the room.
Alexa voice service allows customers to simply ask their ecobee4 to adjust the temperature of the home, in addition to the growing list of Alexa skills such as setting a timer, helping plan your commute, or playing the news. Through far-field voice recognition, ecobee4 will conveniently respond to voice commands from anywhere in the room.
The ecobee4 has a built-in speaker and microphone for Alexa, while its side profile appears to be slightly rounder than the ecobee3. Otherwise, it has identical features and tech specs as the ecobee3.

The ecobee4 comes with a wireless room sensor and supports up to 32 sensors. Ecobee said a companion smart light switch that can measure a room's occupancy and temperature will be released later this year.

The ecobee4, like other smart thermostats, is designed to help homeowners save money by intelligently adjusting the temperature of a home. Room sensors help manage hot and cold spots of a home, and homeowners can easily adjust temperature and comfort settings from a paired iOS or Android device.

The ecobee3 remains available for $199 on sale and $249 regularly.


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Amazon Opens Alexa’s Deep Learning and Voice Recognition Smarts to Chat Bot Developers

Amazon on Wednesday made the AI and voice-recognition software that powers the company's Alexa virtual assistant available to all its cloud-computing customers.

Called Amazon Lex, the service will allow developers to make chat bot applications using Alexa's voice recognition technology and leverage the AI's deep learning abilities to enable their apps to understand more text and speech queries.

Amazon CTO Werner Vogels said that Amazon's cloud-based work in processing how humans write and speak would make chat bots more helpful than the clunky tools they've been in the past.
"There's massive acceleration happening here," said Vogels, speaking to Reuters at the company's cloud-computing summit in San Francisco. "The cool thing about having this running as a service in the cloud instead of in your own data center or on your own desktop is that we can make Lex better continuously by the millions of customers that are using it."
Similar to how it operates its other cloud-based services, Amazon will charge developers based on how many text or voice requests Lex processes. The company's hope is that its Alexa technology will take center stage in the current e-commerce boom based around chatbots. This week, Facebook announced its own virtual assistant called M, which can help users order food, while MasterCard also launched its own Messenger merchant bots for food deliveries.

Amazon's move comes fast on the heels of similar announcements by the company, as it aims to head off competition in the virtual assistant space by rivals Apple and Google. Just last week Amazon opened up access to the far-field voice recognition technology found in its Echo smart speakers so that third-party manufacturers can make their own versions.

Alexa support is also increasingly cropping up in smart home devices, with chip vendors hoping to start shipping their own Alexa-like devices this year. Alexa is even set to appear as a built-in feature in some third-party smart products, like Ecobee thermostats.

Tags: Amazon, Alexa

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Amazon Offers Echo’s Far-Field Voice Recognition Tech to Third Parties

Amazon has fired another salvo in the virtual assistant wars by opening up access to the far-field voice recognition technology found in its Echo smart speakers so that third-party manufacturers can make their own versions (via BBC).

The move comes as Amazon attempts to spread the use of its Alexa virtual assistant across a wide range of connected products and take ownership of a larger portion of the growing smart devices market. Google announced its branded Home smart speaker in November, while Apple is also rumored to be planning a similar Siri-enabled device this year.


The initially invite-only access to the technology via the Alexa Voice Service program will give manufacturers the right to replicate the Echo's seven-microphone array that allows the speakers to hear a voice command from across the room.

The access also means third-party developers can use the proprietary algorithms used for wake-word recognition, which focus the array on the owner's voice and filter out echoes and other noises. Developers will be provided with a reference kit as a starting point for their own designs, and the freedom to source components from a range of parts manufacturers.
"Our vision is for Alexa to be everywhere, and that means making it available to other companies and services to integrate into a wide range of devices," said an Amazon spokesperson.

"We expect Alexa to be in many devices over time, including products that compete with Echo, which is why we're investing in making a wide range of hands-free and far-field reference solutions available to OEMs [original equipment manufacturers]."
Amazon's rollout of Alexa has gained steam ever since CES 2017 in January, when the virtual assistant cropped up in a range of products including third-party smart speakers, cars, TVs, lamps, and even refrigerators.

In February Amazon announced it was extending third-party support for its Alexa Voice Service (AVS) internationally, and last month it added its Siri competitor to the company's iOS app, allowing users to search Amazon, track orders, play music, and start audio books from Audible.


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Siri and Alexa Battling to Become Go-To Voice Assistants in Hotel Rooms

Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa are being put through their paces in a "tech incubator" hotel chain, in order to determine which voice assistant brings more to the table for guests wanting to order room service, control lights, change TV channels, adjust the temperature, and more (via Bloomberg). The main incubator for the test is happening in Aloft Hotels, which are owned by Marriott.

The Aloft Hotel in Boston is using Amazon Echo devices and a collection of iPhones and iPads to gather information on which voice assistant will ultimately best serve guests in the long run. Marriott hasn't divulged information on who might be the winner as of yet, but the company did say that it expects to decide if it will expand the test to more chains besides Aloft Hotels "as early as mid-year."

Marriott expects to decide whether to adopt the technology for one or more of its chains as early as mid-year, potentially boosting sales for the device of choice. More important, it will increase the winning company’s exposure in the market for voice-activated devices, which are gaining more mainstream traction.

“Those two players are in the game right now,” said Toni Stoeckl, who oversees the Aloft, Element, AC and Moxy chains as global brand leader for lifestyle brands at Marriott. There are almost 130 Aloft hotels in the U.S., and more than 100 additional ones planned.
Carolina Milanesi, a market analyst with Creative Strategies, compared the introduction of voice assistants into hotel rooms to when the hospitality industry began putting iPhone docking stations into rooms so guests could easily charge their phone and listen to their own music. Still, personalization with the voice assistants remains a key question for the new tests. As of now it's unclear whether guests will be able to somehow access their own accounts to use Alexa and Siri, or be treated with a "standard set of skills relevant to a hotel stay," concerning news reports, weather forecasts, and other default commands that might be easier for guests unfamiliar with voice assistant technology.

In regards to the overall voice assistant battle over hotel rooms, Alexa currently appears to be winning. Amazon's assistant and its connected speaker system Echo are now helping out guests in hotels like the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa, with Alexa devices installed in 10 of 1,002 rooms and plans to add around 100 more as early as next month. On an even bigger scale, the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas plans to equip all 4,748 rooms with an Echo speaker by this summer.

Although most users agree Siri is inferior to other assistants from Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, Apple isn't out of the running yet in the battle to win hotel rooms, and Siri's advantageous support of multiple languages could give it a leg up over its competition with international travelers. According to Toni Stoeckl, Marriott's global brand leader, the company is searching for which voice assistant can become the "ideal solution" and ultimately turn into "a global platform" with Siri or Alexa installed at multiple of its locations around the world. Stoeckl said that the company should have an indicator of where it's headed by the end of 2017, so "the race is still on."
Marriott’s Stoeckl said his company is “looking for the ideal solution to make this a global platform.” Aloft hotels act as a “tech incubator” for new concepts, and a successful test may determine whether digital assistants -- and which ones -- are installed at other Marriott chains, he said.
Of course that means that neither assistant could win, but the company said it will continue to test both out in its Aloft Hotels, and even plans to add more "concierge-like" services in the future, which hint that more personalized experiences are likely to be introduced. These include the ability to connect with a guest's personal smartphone to fuel actions like setting an automatic wake-up temperature or creating an activation time to open the room's drapes.

Voice assistants continue to be a dominant factor in the smartphone and tablet market, and thanks to devices like the Echo speaker, they're expanding into unique product categories as well. Reports have been scarce lately, but last year Apple was said to be "pressing ahead" into prototype testing for its own standalone Siri speaker. The Cupertino company is also believed to be working on "enhanced Siri" capabilities that should beef up the assistant's presence on iOS devices, likely to begin with this year's "iPhone 8."


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Amazon iOS App Gains Alexa Voice Assistant to Track Orders, Shop, and More

Amazon today announced that it will introduce its Siri competitor, Amazon Alexa, directly into the company's iOS app over the course of the next week (via VentureBeat). With the addition of Alexa, users will now be able to ask questions about the status of their orders, use their voice to initiate searches, play music, and start audio books from Audible.


Alexa's powers go beyond Amazon's shopping features -- users will also be able to use the voice assistant to search current news stories, check the weather, and even control smart home products. This means that iOS users who don't own any Amazon hardware can now gain access to Alexa's growing list of skills, which let users easily link multiple services together for quick voice control interactions.

Some users will begin seeing the Alexa update in Amazon's iOS app [Direct Link] starting today, but the rollout is expected to reach everyone on iOS by next week.

Tags: Amazon, Alexa

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Amazon Developing ‘Voice ID’ Technology for Alexa Assistant

Amazon is building upon the Alexa voice-recognition technology found in its Echo range of speakers so that the virtual assistant can distinguish between individual users based on the sound of their voices.

According to anonymous sources who spoke to TIME, Amazon's feature would work by matching the person speaking to a pre-recorded voice sample, or "voice print", to verify the speaker's identity.


A primary account holder would be able to require a specific voice print to access certain commands. A user would, for example, be able to set it so that a parent's voice would be required to make a credit card purchase or turn on the coffee machine through the Echo.
Amazon has been developing the feature, internally called Voice ID, since at least the summer of 2015, according to people familiar with the company's Alexa strategy. The underlying technology is said to have been completed and just needs integrating into Echo speakers, however it's still unclear when that will happen.

The Voice ID technology would be a first in the smart speaker space and make Echo units easier to share between multiple people under one roof. Currently, Echo users can set up multiple profiles and jump between them, but the user must say "switch accounts" or use the Alexa app to do so. And as for credit card purchases, a four-digit authentication code must be said out loud to confirm them.

It's unknown at this point whether Voice ID will extend to the many Alexa-enabled third-party devices now available, or if it would be limited to Amazon's Echo speakers. An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on the matter.

Alexa recently became capable of responding to 10,000 skills, according to Amazon. Skills are essentially third-party apps that you can interact with via voice, once they've been enabled. The 10,000th skill was Beat the Intro, a music game that tests users' knowledge and love of music.

AI assistants have become increasingly popular over the past few years, while Apple's Siri has remained largely unchanged over the past few iOS updates. Last May it was rumored that the company would launch an Echo-like speaker with Siri integration, enabling users to play music, get news headlines, and more, without needing to interact with their iPhone, but further details have been scant.


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Amazon Fire TV Stick With Built-In Alexa Coming to the U.K.

Amazon's latest Fire TV stick, with Alexa built in, is coming to the U.K., after launching in the U.S. back in October.

The streaming TV dongle will make its debut in the country on April 6 and have a price tag of £40, with Amazon already taking pre-orders.


The device comes with a quad-core processor that Amazon says makes it 30 percent faster than its predecessor. The dongle also supports 802.11ac WiFi networks, but the biggest difference is the new Alexa remote.

Like the Siri Remote on the Apple TV, a built-in microphone lets users search for content like movies and music, as well as control playback, open apps, and more. Unlike Siri Remote, it also supports third-party Alexa skills, allowing users to control smart home devices, for example.

Apart from the aforementioned online pre-orders, the new Amazon Fire TV stick will be on sale in shops including Dixons, John Lewis, Tesco, and Maplin from April 6.

Tags: Amazon, Alexa

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