echo

Review: The $199 Echo Link turns the fidelity up to 11

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Echo, amazon music unlimited, computing, echo, Echo Link, Gadgets, Google, google home, hardware, microsoft windows, operating systems, Pandora, smart speakers, Sonos, Spotify, streaming services | No Comments

The Echo Link takes streaming music and makes it sound better. Just wirelessly connect it to an Echo device and plug it into a set of nice speakers. It’s the missing link.

The Link bridges the gap between streaming music and a nice audio system. Instead of settling for the analog connection of an Echo Dot, the Echo Link serves audio over a digital connection and it makes just enough of a difference to justify the $200 price.

I plugged the Eco Link into the audio system in my office and was pleased with the results. This is the Echo device I’ve been waiting for.

In my case, the Echo Link took Spotfiy’s 320 kbps stream and opened it up. The Link creates a wider soundstage and makes the music a bit more full and expansive. The bass hits a touch harder and the highs now have a newfound crispness. Lyrics are clearer and easier to pick apart. The differences are subtle. Everything is just slightly improved over the sound quality found when using an Echo Dot’s 3.5mm output.

Don’t have a set of nice speakers? That’s okay; Amazon also just released the Echo Link Amp, which features a built-in amplifier capable of powering a set of small speakers.

Here’s the thing: I’m surprised Amazon is making the Echo Link. The device caters to what must be a small demographic of Echo owners looking to improve the quality of Pandora or Spotify when using an audio system. And yet, without support for local or streaming high-resolution audio, it’s not good enough for audiophiles. This is for wannabe audiophiles. Hey, that’s me.

Review

There are Echo’s scattered throughout my house. The devices provide a fantastic way to access music and NPR. The tiny Echo Link is perfect for the system in my office where I have a pair of Definitive Technology bookshelf speakers powered by an Onkyo receiver and amp. I have a turntable and SACD player connected to the receiver, but those are a hassle when I’m at my desk. The majority of the time I listen to Spotify through the Amazon Echo Input.

I added the Onkyo amplifier to the system last year and it made a huge difference to the quality. The music suddenly had more power. The two-channel amp pushes harder than the receiver, and resulted in audio that was more expansive and clear. And at any volume, too. I didn’t know what I was missing. That’s the trick with audio. Most of the time the audio sounds great until it suddenly sounds better. The Echo Link provided me with the same feeling of discovery.

To be clear, the $200 Echo Link does not provide a night and day difference in my audio quality. It’s a slight upgrade over the audio outputted by a $20 Echo Input — and don’t forget, an Echo device (like the $20 Echo Input) is required to make the Echo Link work.

The Echo Link provides the extra juice lacking from the Echo Input or Dot. Those less-expensive options output audio to an audio system, but only through an analog connection. The Echo Link offers a digital connection through Toslink or Digital Coax. It has analog outputs that’s powered by a DAC with a superior dynamic range and total harmonic distortion found in the Input or Dot. It’s an easy way to improve the quality of music from streaming services.

The Echo Link, and Echo Link Amp, also feature a headphone amp. It’s an interesting detail. With this jack, someone could have the Echo Link on their desk and use it to power a set of headphones without any loss of quality.

I set up a simple A/B test to spot the differences between a Link and a Dot. First, I connected the Echo Link with a Toslink connection to my receiver and an Echo Input. I also connected an Echo Dot through its 3.5mm analog connection to the receiver. I created a group in the Alexa app of the devices. This allowed each of the devices to play the same source simultaneously. Then, as needed, I was able to switch between the Dot and Link with just a touch of a button, providing an easy and quick way to test the differences.

I’ll leave it up to you to justify the cost. To me, as someone who has invested money into a quality audio system, the extra cost of the Echo Link is worth it. But to others, an Echo Dot could be enough.

It’s important to note that the Echo Link works a bit differently than other Echo devices connected to an audio system. When, say, a Dot is connected to an audio system, the internal speakers are turned off and all of the audio is sent to the system. The Echo Link doesn’t have to override the companion Echo. When an Echo Link is connected to an Echo device, the Echo still responds through its internal speakers; only music is sent to the Echo Link. For example, when the Echo is asked about the weather, the forecast is played back through the speakers in the Echo and not the audio system connected to the Echo Link. In most cases, this allows the owner to turn off the high-power speakers and still have access to voice commands on the Echo.

The Echo Link takes streaming music and instantly improves the quality. In my case, the improvements were slight but noticeable. It works with all the streaming services supported by Echo devices, but it’s important to note it does not work with Tidal’s high-res Master Audio tracks. The best the Echo Link can do is 320 kbps from Spotify or Tidal. This is a limiting factor and it’s not surprising. If the Echo Link supported Tidal’s Master Tracks, I would likely sign up for that service, and that is not in the best interest of Amazon, which hopes I sign up for Amazon Music Unlimited.

I spoke to Amazon about the Echo Link’s lack of support for Tidal Master Tracks and they indicated they’re interested in hearing how customers will use the device before committing to adding support.

The Link is interesting. Google doesn’t have anything similar in its Google Home Line. The Sonos Amp is similar, but with a built-in amplifier, it’s a closer competitor to the Echo Link Amp. Several high-end audio companies sell components that can stream audio over digital connections, yet none are as easy to use or as inexpensive as the Echo Link. The Echo Link is the easiest way to improve the sound of streaming music services.

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You can now ask Alexa to control your Roku devices

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, artificial intelligence, echo, Gadgets, Media, roku, Streaming Media, virtual assistant, voice assistant, voice search | No Comments

Roku this morning announced its devices will now be compatible with Amazon’s Alexa. Through a new Roku skill for Alexa, Roku owners will be able to control their devices in order to do things like launch a channel, play or pause a show, search for entertainment options and more. Roku TV owners will additionally be able to control various functions related to their television, like adjusting the volume, turning on and off the TV, switching inputs and changing channels if there is an over-the-air antenna attached.

The added support for Amazon Alexa will be available to devices running Roku OS 8.1 or higher, and will require that customers enable the new Roku skill, which will link their account to Amazon.

Roku has developed its own voice assistant designed specifically for its platform, which is available with a touch of a button on its voice remote as well as through optional accessories like its voice-powered wireless speakers, tabletop Roku Touch remote or TCL’s Roku-branded Smart Soundbar. However, it hasn’t ignored the needs of those who have invested in other voice platforms.

Already, Roku devices work with Google Assistant-powered devices, like Google Home and Google Home Mini, through a similar voice app launched last fall.

Support for the dominant streaming media platform — Amazon Alexa — was bound to be next. EMarketer said Amazon took two-thirds of smart speaker sales last year, and CIRP said Echo has a 70 percent U.S. market share.

The Roku app will work with any Alexa-enabled device, including the Amazon Echo, Echo Show, Echo Dot, Echo Spot and Echo Plus, as well as those powered by Alexa from third parties, the company confirmed to TechCrunch.

Once enabled, you’ll be able to say things like “Alexa, pause Roku,” or “Alexa, open Hulu on Roku,” or “Alexa, find comedies on Roku,” and more. The key will be starting the command with “Alexa,” as usual, then specify “Roku” is where the action should take place (e.g. “on Roku”).

One change with the launch of voice support via Alexa is that the commands are a bit more natural, in some cases. Whereas Google Assistant required users to say “Hey Google, pause on Roku,” the company today says the same command for Alexa users is “Alexa, pause Roku.” That’s a lot easier to remember and say. However, most of the other commands are fairly consistent between the two platforms.

“Consumers often have multiple voice ecosystems in their homes,” said Ilya Asnis, senior vice president of Roku OS at Roku, in a statement about the launch. “By allowing our customers to choose Alexa, in addition to Roku voice search and controls, and other popular voice assistants, we are strengthening the value Roku offers as a neutral platform in home entertainment.”

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Hackers hijack thousands of Chromecasts to warn of latest security bug

Posted by | Amazon, chromecast, computing, echo, Gadgets, Google, Hack, hardware, iPad, media streamer, Security, smart devices, smart home devices, spokesperson, technology, wi-fi | No Comments

Hackers have hijacked thousands of exposed Chromecast streaming devices to warn users of the latest security flaw to affect the device. But other security researchers say that the bug — if left unfixed — could be used for more disruptive attacks.

The culprits, known as Hacker Giraffe and J3ws3r, have become the latest person to figure out how to trick Google’s media streamer into playing any YouTube video they want — including videos that are custom-made. This time around, the hackers hijacked forced the affected Chromecasts to display a pop-up notice that’s viewable on the connected TV, warning the user that their misconfigured router is exposing their Chromecast and smart TV to hackers like themselves.

Not one to waste an opportunity, the hackers also asks that you subscribe to PewDiePie, an awful internet person with a popular YouTube following. (He’s the same hacker who tricked thousands of exposed printers into printing support for PewDiePie.)

The bug, dubbed CastHack, exploits a weakness in both Chromecast and the router it connects to. Some home routers have enabled Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), a networking standard that can be exploited in many ways. UPnP forwards ports from the internal network to the internet, making Chromecasts and other devices viewable and accessible from anywhere on the internet.

As the two say, disabling UPnP should fix the problem.

“We have received reports from users who have had an unauthorized video played on their TVs via a Chromecast device,” a Google spokesperson told TechCrunch. “This is not an issue with Chromecast specifically, but is rather the result of router settings that make smart devices, including Chromecast, publicly reachable,” the spokesperson said.

That’s true on one hand, but it doesn’t address the underlying issue — that the Chromecast can be tricked into allowing an unauthenticated attacker the ability to hijack a media stream and display whatever they want.

Hacker Giraffe sent this YouTube video to thousands of exposed Chromecast devices, warning that their streams could be easily hijacked. (Screenshot: TechCrunch)

Bishop Fox, a security consultancy firm, first found a hijack bug in 2014, not long after the Chromecast debuted. The researchers found that they could conduct a “deauth” attack that disconnects the Chromecast from the Wi-Fi network it was connected to, causing it to revert back to its out-of-the-box state, waiting for a device to tell it where to connect and what to stream. That’s when it can be hijacked and forced to stream whatever the hijacker wants. All of this can be done in an instant — as they did — with a touch of a button on a custom-built handheld remote.

Two years later, U.K. cybersecurity firm Pen Test Partners discovered that the Chromecast was still vulnerable to “deauth” attacks, making it easy to play content on a neighbor’s Chromecasts in just a few minutes.

Ken Munro, who founded Pen Test Partners, says there’s “no surprise that somebody else stumbled on to it,” given both Bishop Fix found it in 2014 and his company tested it in 2016.

“In fairness, we never thought that the service would be exposed on the public internet, so that is a very valid finding of his, full credit to him for that,” Munro told TechCrunch. (Google said in a follow-up email that it’s working to fix the deauth bug.)

He said the way the attack is conducted is different, but the method of exploitation is the same. CastHack can be exploited over the internet, while Bishop Fox and his “deauth” attacks can be carried out within range of the Wi-Fi network — yet, both attacks let the hacker control what’s displayed on the TV from the Chromecast, he said.

Munro said Google should have fixed its bug in 2014 when it first had the chance.

“Allowing control over a local network without authentication is a really silly idea on [Google’s] part,” he said. “Because users do silly things, like expose their TVs on the internet, and hackers find bugs in services that can be exploited.”

But Munro said that these kinds of attacks — although obnoxious and intrusive on the face of it — could be exploited to have far more malicious consequences.

In a blog post Wednesday, Munro said it was easy to exploit other smart home devices — like an Amazon Echo — by hijacking a Chromecast and forcing it to play commands that are loud enough to be picked up by its microphone. That’s happened before, when smart assistants get confused when they overhear words on the television or radio, and suddenly and without warning purchase items from Amazon. (You can and should turn on a PIN for ordering through Amazon.)

To name a few, Munro said it’s possible to force a Chromecast into loading a YouTube video created by an attacker to trick an Echo to: “Alexa, order an iPad,” or, “Alexa, turn off the house alarm,” or, “Alexa, set an alarm every day at 3am.”

Amazon Echos and other smart devices are widely considered to be secure, even if they’re prone to overhearing things they shouldn’t. Often, the weakest link are humans. Second to that, it’s the other devices around smart home assistants that pose the biggest risk, said Munro in his blog post. That was demonstrated recently when Canadian security researcher Render Man showed how using a sound transducer against a window can trick a nearby Amazon Echo into unlocking a network-connected smart lock on the front door of a house.

“Google needs to properly fix the Chromecast deauth bug that allows casting of YouTube traffic,” said Munro.

Updated at 9pm ET: with a new, clearer headline to better reflect the flaws over the years, and added additional comment from Google.

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Alexa crashed on Christmas Day

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, echo, Europe, Gadgets, outage | No Comments

Amazon this morning said its Alexa devices were among the holiday season’s best-sellers, particularly the Echo and Echo Dot. But the influx of new users setting up their devices for the first time on Christmas Day appeared to be more than Alexa could handle. The service crashed briefly on Christmas, as thousands of new Alexa device owners tried to connect their Echo to Amazon’s servers around the same time.

The Guardian first reported the Alexa outage, which began around 10 AM GMT and led existing Echo owners to complain they were unable to use their devices for regular tasks like playing music or smart home controls, for example.

Others said they were unable to set up their device, despite not having any other internet or home Wi-Fi issues, which seemed to point to a server-side outage.

Amazon’s Twitter account noted the issues were isolated to Europe, saying at 8:43 AM EST (1:43 PM GMT): “Over the past two hours some Echo devices in Europe have had intermittent connections.” The outage was resolved by the time the account had responded, meaning it had only lasted a couple of hours.

An Amazon spokesperson also confirmed the outage to TechCrunch.

“For a short period yesterday morning we had an issue that intermittently impacted some Alexa customers’ ability to interact with the service,” the spokesperson said. “The Alexa service is now operating normally.”

Hey there. Over the past two hours some Echo devices in Europe have had intermittent connections. These issues have now been resolved and the Alexa Service is working normally. ^RY

— Amazon Help (@AmazonHelp) December 25, 2018

I’m sorry for the trouble! Some Echo devices in Europe had intermittent connections. These issues have now been resolved and the Alexa Service is working normally. Please let us know if it’s still giving you trouble. ^BH

— Amazon Help (@AmazonHelp) December 25, 2018

Amazon declined to offer details on what caused the outage, or explain how it was resolved. Likely, it was related to the increased number of requests. The Alexa app shot to the top of the App Store and Google Play on Christmas — another signal that points to a large number of first-time Echo owners setting up new devices on the holiday.

The website Down Detector also spotted troubles with Alexa that impacted Europe, with a peak of 2,183 reports coming in at the height of the outage. The reports then tapered off a couple of hours later.

This isn’t Alexa’s first outage by any means, nor even its first this year. The service can become unresponsive at times, either due to server issues or overloads. In March, for example, the voice service went down even while the Alexa mobile app still worked.

And in September, Alexa went down across Europe, apparently related to an AWS outage in Ireland. That was followed by a U.S. outage the following month, which led the assistant to respond to requests with “sorry, something went wrong.”

Europe is a growing market for Alexa, with Amazon having introduced its smart speaker to Italy and Spain this June. Alexa’s other international markets include the U.K., Australia, India, New Zealand, Germany, Japan and Ireland.

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eMarketer: Amazon took 2/3 of smart speaker sales in 2018, but Echo will feel the squeeze in 2019

Posted by | Amazon, artificial intelligence, echo, eCommerce, Gadgets, hardware, smart speakers, TC, voice assistants, voice commerce | No Comments

Smart speakers that let you control services and other connected devices in your home will continue to be a popular gift choice during the holiday season and into next year, when usage is set to rise by 15 percent, to 74.2 million people in the U.S., working out to 26.8 percent of the U.S. population, according to estimates from eMarketer.

But while Amazon’s Echo helped to define and still dominates the market, consumers’ love affair with Alexa may be cooling, just a little, as the Echo is finally starting to feel the heat from competitors like Home from Google, Apple’s HomePod and the Sonos One.

A new report estimates that the Echo will have accounted for nearly 67 percent of all smart speaker sales in the U.S. in 2018, with Google taking 29.5 percent and others at 8.3 percent. But by next year, Amazon will drop to 63 percent, Google will bump up to 31 percent and a plethora of smaller OEMs will collectively take 12 percent. Three percent decline doesn’t sound like a lot, but it will be the first time ever that Amazon will have dropped below two-thirds of sales. (And for the record, eMarketer research from the U.K. found similar numbers and declines.)

eMarketer believes this could be the beginning of a gradual decline for the e-commerce giant that will continue through 2020 as the next wave of adopters increasingly explore other brands.

“Consumers in the market for a smart speaker have more options than ever, and Amazon will lose some of its majority share as a result,” said eMarketer forecasting analyst Jaimie Chung, in a statement. “Google has the Home Mini and Home Hub to compete with Amazon’s Echo Dot and Echo Show, and both the Apple HomePod and Facebook Portal will experience their first holiday season this year. Amazon has remained relevant by plugging Alexa into premium speakers like the Sonos, but even Sonos plans to bring Google Assistant to its devices next year, keeping the two companies neck and neck in the voice assistant race.”

There is a valid question to be asked about what people use their speakers for once they do have them. The main takeaway it seems is that while some device makers may turn speakers into a tidy business, it might be some time before the apps and software built around them monetises as lucratively.

For now, the main purpose seems to be listening to audio, where smart speakers provide a handy way to call up music and hear it — which 79.8 percent of speaker owners say they have done — one reason perhaps that the Sonos and Apple’s HomePod are making some inroads since both companies have put music at the core of their experience.

Second most common usage? Inquiries at 73 percent, which is an area where search giant Google is particularly strong.

Amazon has also made Alexa, in her own way, also a fairly amusing, and sometimes helpful, assistant on various topics, helped significantly by all the skills integrations that have been built. However, one key Alexa/Echo use case for the company has always been voice commerce, providing a new interface for people to be able to shop, to fit scenarios where a screen and keyboard are not as convenient.

For now, however, eMarketer says that this a less popular usage for these devices, and that overall voice commerce will remain a very niche slice of the e-commerce market, accounting for just 0.4 percent of sales, or $2 billion. Some 27 percent of speaker owners will experiment with buying something via voice commerce next year — a number that eMarketer revised down from an earlier estimate of 31 percent, while 37.1 percent will “shop” using their smart speakers — that is, ask questions about products, if not actually buy them.

Bad news for all the companies thinking that smart speakers will usher in a new era of smart home device usage: smart home integrations are used by just 34.5 percent of smart speaker users.

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The Alexa-enabled Big Mouth Billy Bass and other twerking toys go on sale

Posted by | Alexa, alexa gadgets, Amazon, echo, funny, Gadgets | No Comments

In September, Amazon launched its Alexa Gadgets Toolkit into beta, allowing hardware makers to build accessories that pair with Amazon Echo over Bluetooth. Today, one of the most memorable (and quite ridiculous) examples of that technology is going live. Yes, I’m talking about the Alexa-enabled Big Mouth Billy Bass, of course. You know, the talking fish that hangs on the wall, and has now been updated to respond to Alexa voice commands?

Amazon first showed off this technology over a year ago at an event at its Seattle headquarters, then this fall confirmed the talking fish would be among the debut products to use its new Alexa Gadgets Toolkit.

The toolkit lets developers build Alexa-connected devices that use things like lights, sound chips or even motors, in order to work with Alexa interfaces like notifications, timers, reminders, text-to-speech and wake-word detection.

The talking fish can actually do much of that.

According to the company’s announcement, Big Mouth Billy Bass can react to timers, notifications and alarms, and can play Amazon Music. It also can lip sync to Alexa spoken responses when asked for information about the weather, news or random facts.

And it will sing an original song, “Fishin’ Time.”

When the gadget is plugged in and turned on, it responds: “Woo-hoo, that feels good!”

(Oh my god, who is getting me this for Christmas?)

“This is not your father’s Big Mouth Billy Bass,” said vice president of Product Development at Gemmy Industries, Steven Harris, in a statement about the product’s launch. “Our new high-tech version uses the latest technology from Amazon to deliver a hilarious and interactive gadget that takes everyday activities to a fun new level.”

The fish can be wall-mounted or displayed using an included tabletop easel, the company says.

The pop culture gag gift was first sold back in 1999, and is now updating its brand for the Alexa era.

Obviously, Big Mouth Billy Bass is not a product that was ever designed to be taken seriously — but it should be interesting to see if the updated, “high-tech version” has any impact on this item’s sales.

The idea to integrate Alexa into the talking fish actually began in 2016, when an enterprising developer hacked the fish to work with Alexa, much to the internet’s delight. His Facebook post showcasing his work attracted 1.8 million views.

The Alexa-connected fish is $39.99 on Amazon.com.

The fish isn’t the only Alexa product Gemmy has developed. It’s also launching a twerking Santa and Christmas Bear — also both $40 — that dance to the beats of Amazon Music and react to Alexa notifications, timers and alarms.

When you say “Alexa,” the plushies start dancing. These toys, too, use the Alexa Gadgets Toolkit, the company says.

(h/t Business Insider)

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Amazon’s revamped Alexa app makes it easier to manage your smart home

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, Apps, echo, iOS apps, Mobile, smart home | No Comments

Amazon’s Alexa app has just been given a major visual overhaul, largely focused on helping users set up and control their smart home. From the app’s new devices tab, users can view all their different Alexa-enabled devices and groups on one screen, as opposed to switching between tabs like before. And the app is much more colorful, too. Instead of a set of white icons on a dark background, Alexa’s device groups — like Living Room, Kitchen, Bedroom, etc. — now feature colorful backgrounds, so you can find the one you need with just a glance.

An overhaul of the devices section was needed, not only for aesthetic reasons, but because Alexa owners are stocking their house with more than one smart device.

According to a Nielsen report on smart speaker adoption released earlier this month, four out of 10 U.S. smart speaker owners today have more than one device, for example. Smart home device sales are also expected to reach nearly $96 billion in 2018 and grow to $155 billion by 2023, another report estimates.

Amazon itself sells a variety of smart devices, like Cloud Cam, Ring doorbells and Ring cameras. And it just introduced a whole mess of new Alexa-enabled devices at an event in Seattle last month, including everything from wall clocks to subwoofers to Alexa-powered microwaves.

It’s clear the retailer expects people to continue to build out their smart home, and its app needed to adapt accordingly.

In the new version of the app, the device types are displayed as icons across the top of the screen — starting with “Echo & Alexa” devices, then “Lights,” “Audio,” “Plugs” and others. Below this are the colorful groupings of devices by room, each with their own “On/Off” button.

A small “+” button at the top right of the screen allows you to easily add your newest device, too.

Adding Bluetooth speakers to multi-room music groups is also now supported, the app’s update text says.

The redesign also makes it simpler to call, message or “drop in” on your other Alexa devices — the latter being the feature that turns Echo speakers into a voice-controlled intercom system of sorts, triggered by saying “Alexa, drop in on…” followed by the device name. It’s especially handy for larger homes, where there is an upstairs and downstairs, for example, or for reaching family members in another part of the house. You can also drop in on trusted contacts, like grandma or grandpa.

Now, these communication options each have their own button at the top of the messaging screen in the app, so you can just push a button to call, message or drop in, as you prefer.

The new Alexa app is live on the iOS App Store. Amazon hasn’t made a formal announcement about the changes, as they still be rolling out to users following the update.

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Google Home Mini was the best-selling smart speaker in Q2

Posted by | Amazon, Apple, echo, echo dot, Gadgets, Google, Google Home Mini, HomePod, smart speakers | No Comments

Amazon’s Echo Dot may have been a bestseller on Prime Day, but Google’s Home Mini device is now the top-selling smart speaker worldwide, according to a new report out this morning from Strategy Analytics. The analyst firm says Google’s small speaker accounted for 1 in 5 smart speaker shipments in Q2 2018, edging out the Echo Dot with its 2.3 million global shipments compared to Echo Dot’s 2.2 million.

Combined, these two entry-level smart speakers – the Echo Dot and Home Mini – accounted for 38% of global shipments, the firm found.

In total, 11.7 million smart speaker devices were shipped during Q2, with 4 out of the top 5 devices coming from either Amazon or Google.

Following the Dot, was Amazon’s flagship Echo device with 1.4 million shipments, then Alibaba’s Tmail Genie (0.8m), and Google Home (0.8m).

Apple’s HomePod wasn’t ranked in the top five, but took a 6% share of the shipments in Q2.

However, HomePod’s premium focus and higher price tag allowed it to take a sizable chunk of smart speaker revenue during this period.

While the Home Mini and Echo Dot combined accounted for 17% of smart speaker revenues, Apple’s HomePod alone took a 16% share of wholesale revenues. And in terms of devices above the $200 price point, the HomePod had a 70% revenue share.

Strategy Analytics’s report also indicated this growing market is still in flux, thanks to expected new arrivals which could impact the shares held today by existing players.

“The number of smart speaker models available worldwide has grown significantly over the last twelve months as vendors look to capitalize on the explosive market growth,” said David Mercer, Vice President at Strategy Analytics, in a statement. “Heavyweight brands such as Samsung and Bose are in the process of launching their first models, adding further credibility to the segment and giving consumers more options at the premium-end of the marker,” he added.

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Behold Ubisoft’s gloriously ridiculous Assassin’s Creed Amazon Echo

Posted by | Amazon, assassin's creed, echo, Gaming, ubisoft | No Comments

The Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Echo Plus is a limited edition, which will no doubt make fans want the thing that much more. It’s a standard Amazon device that Ubisoft dressed up in a Spartan helmet, to be given away in small quantities through the company’s site.

The ridiculous thing is the game maker’s way of promoting a new Alexa skill, designed to provide useful tips for the upcoming action role-playing title. The download will be available for all Echo devices (Greek battle helmet or no) starting October 2 — three days before Assassin’s Creed Odyssey officially hits consoles.

There are 1,500 responses available through the skill, which describe points of interest, offer up contextual information and just generally help you through the game. There also are some fittingly goofy ones designed to parrot common Alexa questions like,

“What’s the temperature today?”

“It’s colder than the heart of Hades after a bad breakup.”

and

“What’s on my shopping list?”

“Blood-stain remover. That is all.”

and also

“Tell me a joke.”

“An Athenian declared war. HAH! Get it?”

They say comedy’s all in the timing, and that one’s about 2,500 years late.

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Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, Apple, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Ben Einstein, computing, echo, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, ring, smart speaker, smart speakers, Sonos, sonos one, Speaker, Spotify, steel, TC, technology | No Comments

In a truly fascinating exploration into two smart speakers – the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo – BoltVC’s Ben Einstein has found some interesting differences in the way a traditional speaker company and an infrastructure juggernaut look at their flagship devices.

The post is well worth a full read but the gist is this: Sonos, a very traditional speaker company, has produced a good speaker and modified its current hardware to support smart home features like Alexa and Google Assistant. The Sonos One, notes Einstein, is a speaker first and smart hardware second.

“Digging a bit deeper, we see traditional design and manufacturing processes for pretty much everything. As an example, the speaker grill is a flat sheet of steel that’s stamped, rolled into a rounded square, welded, seams ground smooth, and then powder coated black. While the part does look nice, there’s no innovation going on here,” he writes.

The Amazon Echo, on the other hand, looks like what would happen if an engineer was given an unlimited budget and told to build something that people could talk to. The design decisions are odd and intriguing and it is ultimately less a speaker than a home conversation machine. Plus it is very expensive to make.

Pulling off the sleek speaker grille, there’s a shocking secret here: this is an extruded plastic tube with a secondary rotational drilling operation. In my many years of tearing apart consumer electronics products, I’ve never seen a high-volume plastic part with this kind of process. After some quick math on the production timelines, my guess is there’s a multi-headed drill and a rotational axis to create all those holes. CNC drilling each hole individually would take an extremely long time. If anyone has more insight into how a part like this is made, I’d love to see it! Bottom line: this is another surprisingly expensive part.

Sonos, which has been making a form of smart speaker for 15 years, is a CE company with cachet. Amazon, on the other hand, sees its devices as a way into living rooms and a delivery system for sales and is fine with licensing its tech before making its own. Therefore to compare the two is a bit disingenuous. Einstein’s thesis that Sonos’ trajectory is troubled by the fact that it depends on linear and closed manufacturing techniques while Amazon spares no expense to make its products is true. But Sonos makes speakers that work together amazingly well. They’ve done this for a decade and a half. If you compare their products – and I have – with competing smart speakers an non-audiophile “dumb” speakers you will find their UI, UX, and sound quality surpass most comers.

Amazon makes things to communicate with Amazon. This is a big difference.

Where Einstein is correct, however, is in his belief that Sonos is at a definite disadvantage. Sonos chases smart technology while Amazon and Google (and Apple, if their HomePod is any indication) lead. That said, there is some value to having a fully-connected set of speakers with add-on smart features vs. having to build an entire ecosystem of speaker products that can take on every aspect of the home theatre.

On the flip side Amazon, Apple, and Google are chasing audio quality while Sonos leads. While we can say that in the future we’ll all be fine with tinny round speakers bleating out Spotify in various corners of our room, there is something to be said for a good set of woofers. Whether this nostalgic love of good sound survives this generation’s tendency to watch and listen to low resolution media is anyone’s bet, but that’s Amazon’s bet to lose.

Ultimately Sonos is strong and fascinating company. An upstart that survived the great CE destruction wrought by Kickstarter and Amazon, it produces some of the best mid-range speakers I’ve used. Amazon makes a nice – almost alien – product, but given that it can be easily copied and stuffed into a hockey puck that probably costs less than the entire bill of materials for the Amazon Echo it’s clear that Amazon’s goal isn’t to make speakers.

Whether the coming Sonos IPO will be successful depends partially on Amazon and Google playing ball with the speaker maker. The rest depends on the quality of product and the dedication of Sonos users. This good will isn’t as valuable as a signed contract with major infrastructure players but Sonos’ good will is far more than Amazon and Google have with their popular but potentially intrusive product lines. Sonos lives in the home while Google and Amazon want to invade it. That is where Sonos wins.

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