Burnt by the Fire Phone, Amazon plays a cautious game with its new smart speaker.
E-commerce giant Amazon is taking a more cautious approach to its latest consumer electronics launch after last year’s misfire with the Fire Phone. That has already forced the company to take a $170m write-down in its accounts.The Amazon Echo is the company’s new voice-?recognition-based personal assistant and remote music player. For now, the sleek black cylinder is only available in the US and by invitation - the invitations themselves mostly going out to members of Amazon’s Prime service which offers express delivery and all-you-can-eat streaming media.
This is very much a beta launch then, something further underlined by the $99 (£65) price for Prime owners. For comparison, other advanced Wi-Fi/Bluetooth speakers are typically sold for $200 and above.
So, if Echo has limitations, they should be both expected and accepted. After misjudging the market’s (and its own members’) needs and wants so badly with the Fire Phone, Amazon is consciously soliciting feedback before progressively making Echo widely available.
Similarly, Echo’s softer launch coincides with a restructuring of Amazon’s hardware R&D operation, Lab126. In just five years, it has grown from a 100-staff skunkworks working on Kindle e-readers to a 3,000-strong behemoth working across a range of phone, tablet, TV and other projects.
This growth was largely organic and things got flabby so Jeff Bezos has decided to rein in the beast to make it more responsive. Future iterations of the Echo may well indicate how successful he has been.
If those are the important caveats, what is noteworthy about the Echo? The main focus for innovation is the voice recognition feature, Alexa (although for those creeped out by such anthropomorphism, it will respond to ‘Amazon’).
Alexa answers questions, plays your music requests, can offer news and weather digests, and even tell a joke.
The general consensus is that it does this at least as well as rival voice recognition software such as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, using its circular seven-microphone array mounted in the Echo’s top plate alongside the volume control. Several reviewers have gone further and lauded Alexa as the best voice recognition technology available to date.
The one question that has been raised concerns the fact that most Echo reviews so far have been based on a single user’s experience. While Alexa seems to train itself well when dealing predominantly with one voice, more time is needed to see how it copes with multiple users in a single household.
From a design point of view, Amazon has adopted a divide-?and-conquer strategy. It has addressed Echo’s complexity by splitting functionality across three PCBs: a motherboard, a top-mounted LED/microphone board and a foot-housed power/speaker board.
The boards feature within a layered internal design that reminded iFixit’s teardown team of the multiple stages in a Saturn V in how it separates into different functional ‘stages’. This modularity also makes the beta Echo relatively easy to repair with regard to speakers and other non-PCB mounted components - iFixit scores it at 7 out of 10.
Once inside it also becomes clear that the Echo’s bill of materials is dominated by one company, Texas Instruments. TI supplies eight of the main identifiable components, including the all-important digital media processor and audio-to-digital converters.
There are a couple of ways of reading TI’s dominance. First, Echo shows the company continuing to do well in one of its core technologies. Second, with Amazon probably only intending to ship this version of the Echo in limited quantities, it may have achieved better purchasing economies by buying multiple parts from one supplier.
Number one is probably the better explanation, but number two is worth bearing in mind given that this is a beta. It will be interesting to see how many slots TI retains in future Echo echoes.
Meanwhile, Echo’s hardware specification is for now generally based on off-the-shelf components from TI and other familiar suppliers such as Qualcomm, SanDisk and Samsung.
Which brings us to the question of what obvious things those next iterations might contain.
At launch, Echo comes in Henry Ford black. As this is a device intended to be moved around the home, a few other colour options will make sense.
There has also been a mixed response on audio quality. Echo has a 2.0in tweeter and a 2.5in woofer with a reflex port to enhance bass. However, some reviewers have noted distortion at higher volumes.
The main surprise though, for what is inherently a portable device, is that Echo is mains-only operated. Adding a battery will be a challenge for what is a very tightly packed product already, but seems essential given that existing speakers of similar size offer that option.
The Amazon Echo is a work in progress and that should ease any British urges to become an early adopter. Unlike the Fire Phone, this also shows the company working to push a technology category further rather than simply match its rivals. So while it is probably best to wait for Echo to evolve, a good kind of buzz is building. *