Amazon’s new smart speaker is like Siri crossed with a jukebox

Amazon doesn’t just want to be our online shopping mecca anymore. Illustrated by everything from its plans to ship products with drones, to its ill-conceived sojourn into smartphones, Amazon wants to be a firmly grounded part of our daily lives. The latest evidence is an out-of-the-blue introduction to its new wireless speaker called Echo which, thanks to voice recognition, cloud connection, and a Siri-like understanding of syntax, goes beyond jamming tunes to become a personalized digital assistant for the home.

Add wheels and a broom, and you’ve got Rosie from the Jetsons

While Echo is expected to sell for $199, the speaker will be available soon on an invite-only basis to a lucky few Amazon Prime members for $99.

“Is that for me?” asks the excited young girl in Amazon’s promotional video. “No,” explains her father, “it’s for everyone.”

Indeed, the seemingly prescient speaker appears to have an aptitude for a wide array of tasks and services fit for the whole family, from announcing the weather and pulling up your favorite news programs in the morning, to telling jokes and spelling out words. Add wheels and a broom, and you’ve got Rosie from the Jetsons.

According to the video, the speaker is designed to always be on, waiting for a personalized voice command to snap to attention — the speaker in the ad responds to “Alexa,” but users will be able to choose their own wake-up command. Using a 360 degree configuration for both its mic and speaker system, the device can hear commands from anywhere in the room, and also playback audio in all directions. Connected music apps include Amazon Prime Music, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn Plus, giving the speaker an aggregation of thousands of available Internet radio programs and songs.

Thanks to Bluetooth connection, you can also use the Echo in the same way as the myriad of other portable speakers on the market, sending audio from any app or streaming service on your smartphone. A dedicated app for Android users and Amazon’s Fire OS will allow for even more control, while iOS users will be relegated to getting the speaker started via a PC or Mac, though an iOS app is reportedly on the way.

Along with Echo’s baked in array of talents, it’s designed to learn as it goes, following your tastes from choices you’ve made. Without battery power, Echo will need to be near a wall outlet, keeping it firmly planted in your living room, or bedroom as a staple of entertainment and information.

Amazon’s foray into hardware has been a mixed bag. While its Fire TV streaming device has shown promise, rapidly climbing to the top of the set-top pile to stand with the Apple TV, Roku devices, and Google’s Chromecast, Amazon’s Fire Phone has proved to be a huge disappointment, hemorrhaging millions of dollars since its release in June. The company has since admitted its underpowered device was priced to high.

The same can’t be said for the Echo if it can deliver on its promises. Even at $200, the combination speaker/alarm clock/information hub should be extremely competitive with similar devices in its genre. Will Amazon’s latest innovation fly or flop? Only time will tell, but we’ll be trying out an Echo of our own soon, so stay tuned for our detailed review.

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