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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

Spot and Catch Fire (TV): A round-up of yesterday’s Amazon announcements

I was called for jury duty yesterday, so I ended up missing the majority of the surprise Amazon event. But, like the wicked, there is no rest for technology journalists, so last night and this morning, I’ve been reading through details of Amazon’s announcements. And so, friends, I offer you a few thoughts on the company’s newest hardware announcements.

Amazon Fire TV 4K

amazon-fire-tv-4k

At just $70 with 4K and HDR support, Amazon’s new flagship set-top box is a pretty strong contender in the market—not least of all because it’s more than $100 cheaper than the Apple TV 4K.

Okay, that comes with a caveat. Amazon’s box supports only the HDR-10 standard, while Apple’s supports both HDR-10 and Dolby Vision. But the Fire TV supports Dolby Atmos, which the Apple TV 4K currently doesn’t, though an update is reportedly coming. And that’s on top of the Fire TV’s other existing benefits, like voice control from Echo devices and a decent remote.

The new Fire TV has also been redesigned to use a Chromecast-like “dangle” form factor rather than the flat box sitting on your entertainment center. Oh, and there’s a $15 Ethernet adapter that works with the new Fire TV or the most recent Fire TV Stick, which you’re probably going to need in order to take advantage of streaming 4K content. (Which Amazon has recently lowered its prices on.)

Personally, I’m not in the target audience for this box, as I don’t have a 4K HDR TV. But unless I had a TV model that only supported Dolby Vision, I’d be hard-pressed to figure out why to spend more than twice as much to buy an Apple TV 4K instead.

(Two TV-related announcements I expected yesterday but didn’t get: 1) Despite the Apple TV 4K now being listed on Amazon, Amazon did not release or even announce a release date for the Prime Video app for the Apple TV. It’s likely imminent—it’s been promised for this year—but yesterday would have seemed like a natural time to do it. 2) AFTV News broke the news of this new Fire TV 4K model a couple weeks ago, at which time it also detailed a device that seemed like a merged Echo and Fire TV. That product didn’t appear this week, which raises the question of whether it’s likely to show up before the end of the year or is still in early enough development that it won’t be announced until 2018.)

Echo Plus

On the face of it, the new Echo Plus looks more or less identical to the original Echo (with the exception that it now comes in silver as well as white and black). At first glance, I found details on this device unclear, as several sites/people on Twitter reported it had a “smartphone hub”, which confused the hell out of me until I realized that it was actually a “smart home hub.”

Even that took me a while to decipher until I got to Amazon’s actual specs and realized that meant the Echo Plus has a built-in Zigbee radio. Zigbee, in case you aren’t up on your jargon, is a very low-power wireless protocol that a lot of smart home devices use. Generally Zigbee devices require a bridge that allows them to be connected to your home network. If you have Philips Hue bulbs, for example, you’ll be all too familiar with the little white box that requires an Ethernet connection.

echo-plus

Building Zigbee support directly into the Echo is a smart move, since so much of what Amazon has positioned the device for is a smart home assistant. Apple has mostly chosen to ignore Zigbee directly and instead rely on devices that use Wi-Fi, which are often more expensive and more power-hungry—but can offer potentially better security.1 It does, however, support devices that can bridge into the network, such as the Hue bulbs.

Amazon’s also making the smart move of optionally bundling the $150 Echo Plus with a single Hue bulb for no extra cost, to give customers an example of what the Echo Plus is capable of. Yep, you got it: the first one’s free.

Other than the Zigbee support, Amazon has said that the Echo Plus boasts improved sound (including Dolby processing) and better far-field microphones for speech recognition2, but whether that’s true is going to have to wait until the reviews come out. There’s also, finally, an audio output jack on the Echo Plus, negating one of the last remaining advantages of the low-priced Echo Dot.

The Plus isn’t necessarily a huge improvement, but the integration of the smart hub is a plus and, well, I ordered one if only to free up an Ethernet port on my router from that Philips Hue hub. Next step, an IR transmitter to get rid of my Harmony Hub?

Echo

Amazon has also created a new model to take the standard Echo moniker, positioning it in between the Dot and the Plus. The new Echo is smaller, closer to the size of Amazon’s ignominious Tap portable speaker. Like the Dot, it opts for volume buttons on the top instead of a ring like the Echo Plus, and it ditches the plastic exterior in favor of fabric and faux-wood options.

new-echo

The Echo has most of the same features as the original model, albeit with the same Dolby audio processing as the Plus. It should offer better sound than the measly quality of the Dot, though probably not as good as the Echo/Echo Plus, and it also has a 3.5mm jack for audio output.

Its main improvements seems to be its new design, which aims to help it blend in more to the environment—and, unsurprisingly, make it look more like the Google Home and Apple’s forthcoming Home Pod.

At $100, it’s well positioned as the “default” option for those who want a device that plays audio passably well, looks good, and has most of the features that people are looking for in a smart speaker. It also doesn’t hurt that its cheaper than the competition’s offerings (at least until Google releases whatever it has up its sleeve). And Amazon is pushing hard on its multi-room audio support, offering a 3-pack of the devices for a $50 discount.

Echo Spot

What an odd little device. Basically, the $130 Echo Spot looks like the Echo Show had a baby with an alarm clock. It’s got a small 2.5-inch round screen that seems to use the same somewhat underwhelming interface as the Show, a speaker, and a camera. It also, unlike the Show, features an analog clock face.

Amazon’s billing it as a way to watch videos—not from YouTube—as well make video calls and pull up feeds from connected video cameras.

echo-spot

God bless Amazon for throwing out every single form factor and seeing what people might buy. I am not sure if this will be more or less attractive to people who thought the Show was ugly, or whether there are a lot of people itching for a smart speaker in an alarm clock, but my house has a moratorium on smart speakers in the bedroom—and I imagine I’m not alone.

I could replace the Echo Show in the kitchen with this—it’s certainly much more compact and would handle many of the same functions, but I also listen to a decent amount of music and other audio on the Show, and I’m not sure the Spot’s internal speakers would cut it. Attaching external speakers is an option, certainly, but then it’d probably take up more space than the Show did in the first place.

Then again, at $100 less than the Show, it might be something that appeals to those who want to dip their toes in the “speaker with a screen” department.

Echo Connect

echo-connect

A $35 device that connects to your landline and lets you make and receive hands-free phone calls from your Echo. It would have seemed more efficient to me if Amazon could have used some sort of VoIP software to make calls out, but I guess the advantage of the Connect is that it works with your existing phone number. If you still have a landline.

I’m sure there’s a segment of the population that has a use for this, and perhaps it’ll be a niche hit there. But I can’t help but think landlines are dwindling and this may be only a stop-gap solution.


  1. And they should, because, for one thing, Wi-Fi has much longer range than Zigbee, which is intended to be used in line-of-sight environments.  ↩

  2. Frankly, I already worry the mics might be too good. I frequently have the Echo in my office respond when I’m trying to use the Echo Show in my kitchen, which is utterly befuddling. Amazon needs to improve its software detection of which device you’re actually trying to use. ↩

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[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]