At the Amazon Devices event on Thursday, the company behind Alexa flexed its smart home muscles. Not just with new devices and features. Amazon is taking what it has learned over the past five years and pushing the envelope with its own AI chip, new smart services, and broad support of its Sidewalk network for the IoT.
New Echo devices with smart features and AI at the edge
With Alexa being the star of this show, it’s no surprise there are new Echo devices. Both the larger regular Echo and the smaller Echo Dot (and Echo Dot with clock) are spherical in shape, which is a nice change from the Pringles can and hockey puck designs of the past.
First is the new Echo, which takes some of the old Echo Plus features, such as hub functionality with Zigbee, Bluetooth Low Energy, and Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi will pull double duty because the Echo is a Sidewalk Bridge, meaning it can take nearby sensor data and push it up to the internet for Amazon’s IoT network.
Amazon also promises better sound from a 3-inch woofer, dual tweeters, and Dolby sound processing. The new Amazon Echo is available for pre-order at $99.99 and will ship in late October.
The company introduced three new Dots, which look like mini-versions of the new Echo. Echo Dot costs $49.99 while the Echo Dot with clock face is priced at $59.99.
There’s also an Echo Dot Kids Edition for $59.99. These look like a round tiger or panda and include a one-year Amazon Kids+ subscription. Amazon also introduced an Alexa Voice Match feature for kids; I wonder how parents will feel about that.
All Echo Dot models are available for pre-order now with shipping to begin before year-end.
Amazon has its own AI chip: Hello, AZ1
Inside all Echo models is the new AZ1 Neural Edge processor designed by Amazon. This chip is “purpose-built for accelerating machine learning applications,” according to the company. Think of this as AI at the edge, with faster processing and a new, all-neural NLP model for improved speed recognition and performance.
The Kids Edition devices, as well as all current Echo products, are now smart enough for something called Amazon Reading Sidekick. When children read a book page aloud, Alexa will then re-read it to reinforce the child’s reading skills.
But the AZ1 is for adults too, not just because it makes Alexa smarter and faster but also because it adds self-learning features. Amazon calls this “Teachable AI”, and the demos were impressive.
At a high level, you can essentially train Alexa by voice, telling it when it interprets something incorrectly, for example. And you can use voice to set up preferences and scenes, teaching Alexa how you want your smart home to behave. The demoed version of that interaction was really compelling, with the speaker telling Alexa to set up his lights, Alexas asking what he means, him telling it, and then Alexa retaining the information and creating a routine.
Aside from the new silicon, what helps enable all of this is what Amazon has learned from the more than 100 million smart devices connected to Alexa, and how people use Alexa to control them.
The new Echo Show 10, available to pre-order for $249.99 might be the best example of that learning combined with the AZ1 processor.
In addition to the features found on current Show devices, the new Show 10 can rotate silently to follow you on video calls, for example. When Alexa Guard service is in away mode, the Echo Show 10 will periodically pan around the room and sent alerts if it detects someone. And it can even accept voice commands to turn off motion detection.
Wi-Fi 6 and easier connections come to eero routers
A pair of eero devices also launched on Thursday. The eero 6 will cost $129.99 while the eero Pro 6 is priced at $229.99. Both offer support for new WiFi6 devices and create a mesh network in your smart home. And both come with two Gigabit Ethernet ports, a Zigbee radio, and act as Sidewalk Bridges. Are you sensing a theme here?
Wi-Fi Simple Reconnect Frustration Free Setup is a new feature to help devices get online if the Wi-Fi password has changed. When a device with this feature (linked to an Amazon account) disconnects from the network, Amazon will send what it calls a “distress beacon” to the Alexa devices on the network and the Amazon device can then securely share the correct SSID and password. This will be really helpful for people who change their Wi-Fi password regularly.
This new service arrives on Echo and Fire TV devices next month and developers can preview the feature for integration in their own connected devices to work with eero routers.
Don’t forget Ring, which now helps secure your car
When I hear Ring, I think of doorbells and home security. You probably do too. But now we both have to change because there are three new Ring products for vehicles.
First up is the Ring Car Alarm, a $59.99 device that plugs directly into a car’s ODBC port and has no monthly fee. It monitors sounds such as broken glass or other break-in noises, it can even tell when your car is being towed, presumably through accelerometers combined with sound recognition.
Getting alarm data to you isn’t done over a traditional cellular network either. This uses Amazon Sidewalk. And it can even integrate with your other smart home devices so you can have a Ring security system alarm sound or lights flash red in case of a break-in. Amazon says the Ring Car Alarm will be available early next year.
For those that want more than just an alert, the Ring Car Cam is appealing at $199.99.
Just like the Ring Car Alarm, the Car Cam will use sensors to monitor any break-ins or bumps to your vehicle. And it can capture HD video from a pair of dual-facing cameras. At any time, you can check the live feed from your car, but you’ll need the Car Cam connected to either Wi-Fi or LTE; Sidewalk is meant for low bandwidth data, so video requires a different connection.
Similar to GM’s OnStar, the Ring Car Cam has an Emergency Crash Assist feature that contacts first responders if a serious crash is determined. And in a clever blending of Alexa and Ring features, you can ask Alexa to start recording both audio and video in the case of a traffic stop.
Lastly, Amazon introduced Ring Car Connect, an API for carmakers to integrate all of these Ring alarm and camera services into their products. Tesla is the first automaker to use the new API, allowing Tesla owners to watch Sentry Mode and driving footage in the Ring mobile app.
Oh, wait: Ring has a home security drone too!
This product may have been the most surprising to me: An autonomous drone for home security called the Ring Always Home Cam. It almost looks like a Ring Video Doorbell attached to a small set of drone fans that sits in a small ice bucket.
Looks aside, this $249 smart security drone sounds amazing. It will fly around your home to predetermined areas automatically to show you what, if anything, is going on in your house.
Amazon says this was built with privacy in mind, so it only records when in flight and it’s loud enough to hear when buzzing around, providing a heads up to family members.
Even so, my family would likely hate having this. I, on the other hand, think it’s a great idea, provided there’s a way to limit drone surveillance when my smart home is in away mode only.
Would you like some services with that smart home?
Amazon is broadening its smart home services line, building partly on existing ones, and also adding new ones.
You might be using Alexa Guard, for example, which listens for certain sounds in your home and alerts you to potential intruders. Guard Plus goes a step further, letting you ask Alexa to connect to a 24/7 Emergency Helpline. Representatives, there can request an ambulance or reach out to local police or fire departments.
Additionally, when in Away Mode, Guard Plus listens for footsteps and other noises. If you want, when those noises are detected, your Echo devices can automatically turn on lights or play the sound of a barking dog.
Guard Plus arrives in the next few months with the first month free and each additional month costing $4.99. There will also be a $49.99 annual plan. Note that if you’re already a Ring Protect Plus customer, Guard Plus will be included at no additional cost.
While Guard Plus sounds good to me, I’m a little creeped out by the new Alexa Care Hub feature. Basically, it lets you connect your Alexa account with a remote family member’s Alexa account.
The idea is that this will help you monitor an older family member. And it will. You’ll get a feed of that person’s Alexa interactions, for example, and can be alerted if no activity is detected. It sounds a little too “Big Brother” to me, but I understand the intent and potential value here. It is less intrusive to get a notification that a loved one has interacted with their door lock as opposed to having an aways on video camera looking for falls, but it’s still something that’s tracking (some of) your movements.
This year’s event felt more focused, possibly because Amazon had already released it’s new Halo wearable band and the Sidewalk Network details earlier this month. It also felt like after a year or so of trying to put Alexa on your face, in your ears, and on your finger maybe Amazon is ready to focus solely on the home (and your car) with devices that are designed to provide a sense of connection, comfort, and security. That drone camera is still pretty crazy though.
Updated at 5:10pm PDT to indicate that all Echo devices support the Amazon Reading Sidekick feature and that Frustration Free Setup is the feature used by eero devices to reconnect to the network if the network name or password has changed.