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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Everything Amazon Announced—Including a Cute Security Robot

September has been a hectic month for new hardware. Following Apple and Microsoft, Amazon took to the (virtual) stage to unveil new additions to its Echo and Ring lineups, including security monitoring hardware and software services, plus a Wall-E-like robot (last week, it unveiled new Kindles too). 

Here’s everything Amazon announced today.

A Cute Robot

The strangest and most unique device unveiled at the hardware event is a new Alexa-powered robot called Astro. This rolling household robot combines computer vision, artificial intelligence, Alexa, and Ring technologies to become your digital dog on wheels. The idea is to solve the problems associated with stationary devices, allowing for easy communication with those who are elderly or disabled.

You can use Astro to check on rooms in a household, people, and pets while you’re away, like a roving security camera. With built-in mannerisms like eyes, screen motion, and the ability to speak, it's designed to drive around your home autonomously without banging into everything, much like your nimble K9 and feline companions. It costs $1,000 and you can sign up for an invite if you want to preorder it. We have more details about Astro here.

A Cheap Thermostat

It’s almost surprising that Amazon hasn’t come out with a smart thermostat until now. The company has developed a simple-looking one that uses thermostat technology from Resideo, a company that makes thermostats under the Honeywell Home brand name. Amazon's thermostat sells for an astonishingly low price of $59, well below the price of the average smart home thermostat (as Amazon well knows, seeing as how it sells tons of them). 

It works with most existing HVAC systems and accomplishes the standard thermostat tasks, like setting routines in your home on when to lower or increase the temperature. Amazon notes that potential energy savings will help customers meet sustainability goals. At this price, it will also help Amazon edge companies like Nest and Ecobee out of the market. It launches on November 4.

Echo Show 15

Unlike any other Echo that came before, the Echo Show 15 is designed to be mounted to a wall in portrait or landscape mode, like a modern-day family bulletin board. With a 15.6-inch Full HD display, it's Amazon's largest Echo with a screen to date. The home screen has been redesigned to include widgets for calendars, to-do lists, and shopping lists, among others, as well as support for picture-in-picture mode. It can be used as a TV to stream Netflix, Prime Video, and Hulu, with support for Sling TV coming soon. When you're not using it, it can display art (or family photos).

You can train Alexa to recognize specific sounds with the Echo Show 15—like the sound your fridge makes when it's accidentally left open for too long or your doorbell ringing. The device will send a notification to your phone whenever it picks up on that specific noise. This feature is also coming to most Echo devices, except for the first-gen Echo and first-gen Echo Dot.

It's all powered by Amazon's latest AZ2 Neural Edge processor, which runs machine learning-based speech models faster than its predecessor. It has a built-in 5-megapixel camera and mics for video calls, both of which can be turned off when not in use. It also comes with Visual ID, an optional facial recognition feature that can recognize the person in front of the display to show reminders, notes from other household members, and upcoming events specific to them. 

The Echo Show 15 starts at $250 but there's no exact launch date just yet. Amazon says you can sign up here to get alerts about the product's release. Additional accessories like countertop stands and under-cabinet mounts will cost extra.

A Videophone for Kids

Over the past pandemic year, one of the biggest struggles was engaging smaller children remotely. Anything was preferable to pinning them down on a couch whilst staring silently at Nana on a screen. Amazon’s Glow looks like one of the most promising devices yet to help with this.

The 14-inch-tall freestanding tower has a built-in 8-inch display. On one end, an adult downloads the Glow app on either an iOS or Android tablet. On the other end, the Glow projects a 19-inch interactive puzzle, story, or drawing activity on a 22-inch mat in front of the child. In addition to the mat, the tower comes with optional Glow Bits packages the child can manipulate by hand, like tangrams. The adult reads or plays along, and each gets to see the other's face. (There's a physical shutter to prevent anyone from snooping when the device is not in use.) 

The Glow is a sort of lovechild between two of our favorite kid devices over the past few years, the Osmo tablets and the Facebook Portal. Amazon says it collaborated with some of the biggest kid entertainment companies, like Disney, Sesame Street, and Nickelodeon, to create all-new original content for the Glow. It'll retail at the introductory price of $249 and an eventual MSRP of $299. Hopefully, it'll ship well before the start of the winter holidays.

New Updates to Halo Band

Last year, Amazon debuted its new fitness tracker, the Halo Band, which—rather than count your steps or track your workouts—measures your body fat with a picture and also taught you to be nicer. This year, Amazon is rolling out a whole host of updates to make the Halo a much more comprehensive fitness tracker with features like Halo Fitness, a studio workout service, and Halo Nutrition, which has partners like Whole Foods and Weight Watchers and pulls from a menu of 500 recipes to help you eat better. All services will be included in the Halo membership.

The Halo, well, it looks pretty familiar to anyone who has seen a Fitbit in the past 10 years. It has a color display that will let you swipe through your metrics, a swim-proof design and three sport band colors, plus a variety of swappable wristbands. And … dun dun dun … it will ship before the holidays and sell for a possible Fitbit-killing price of $80, as long as you like stripping for your fitness band.

Alexa Together

The new Alexa Together subscription makes it possible for multiple people, like neighbors, to help check in on your elderly relative. It will replace Amazon's existing (and free) Care Hub in 2022 and lets caregivers serve as tech support—set up routines on your loved one’s devices, monitor assistant activity, or even play music—all for $20 a month. New is the ability to access an emergency helpline in the event of an accident. New customers can get a six-month trial to the service, and existing Care Hub users will get a year for free. 

New Ring Security SystemsRing Always Home Cam

During last year’s hardware launch from Amazon, one product, in particular, stole the virtual show: the Always Home Camera. It's literally a drone designed to fly around inside your home. Why put multiple static cameras around the home, when you can have a single one that intelligently picks up on movement around the house, reasoned some product managers at Amazon (truly). The thing never shipped.

Until now. Today, Ring says the Always Home Camera will be available soon for $250—but by invitation only. The idea behind the cam is that uses active sensors and a “dedicated neural processing unit” to pick up on noise or activity within the home, and then automatically flies out of its docking station—a receptacle that also blocks the camera when the drone is resting—to record whatever movement is happening in the home. Ring’s president, Leila Rouhi, said in an interview before the event that certain design considerations had to be made before the drone could be released. The camera has to be able to identify where windows are located, differentiate between a pet skulking around the house versus an intruder, and avoid chandeliers, she said.

This may all be true, but strong reactions to the reveal of the in-home drone last year may have also led to Amazon hitting pause on the project for a while. “Do not, under any circumstances, put an Amazon surveillance drone in your house,” advocacy group Fight for the Future tweeted at the time. Well, now some lucky customers will be able to do just that. 

Ring Alarm Pro

Amazon hopes you haven’t given up on Ring, its smart-home brand that came under fire in 2019 for its controversial data-sharing agreements with law enforcement and a spate of hacks. Ring's newest hardware is the Ring Alarm Pro, a security monitoring system that doubles as a router. 

For $250, you get a base station with Eero’s Wi-Fi 6 router built-in (Amazon bought Eero in 2019). High-speed LTE backup keeps it running even if your internet goes down. For $50 more, you’ll get a range extender, an alarm keypad, a motion detector, and four sensors for windows and doors. The alarm has the ability to store videos locally with Ring Edge, which is nice for anyone who doesn’t want their data on a cloud. It’s available for Ring Alarm Pro and Ring Protector subscribers and comes with a 64-GB MicroSD card, which stores about 47 hours of video, according to the company.

There’s also a new Pro subscription in the Ring Protect plans, which costs $200 a year or $20 a month. You’ll get professional monitoring, backup internet on all Ring devices, access to the Alexa Guard Plus helpline, and more robust online security using Eero Secure

Virtual Security Guard

If you’re a small business owner or you have multiple houses or rental properties, Ring's new Virtual Security Guard might sound appealing. A third-party service—Rapid Response, though Ring says other security monitoring companies will join later—can monitor outdoor cameras anytime they’re in armed mode. These agents will be able to view motion alerts and respond accordingly, like triggering an alarm and alerting police if an intruder is spotted. Ring says the agents can only view live feeds when motion is detected, and never when the camera is disarmed. You’ll have to apply for early access.

New Alerts for Ring's Doorbells and Cameras

There are also two new alert types you can use with Ring’s existing doorbells and cameras: Package Alerts and Custom Event Alerts. With Package Alerts, available on the Video Doorbell 2 Pro and Video Dooorbell (2020), you’ll receive a notification whenever packages are delivered in a specific zone. Custom Event Alerts work with the Ring Spotlight Cam Battery to recognize when an object is in a certain condition—like when a garage door is left open or a car is in the driveway. You can customize the exact areas and objects you want to monitor and the Ring app will send any necessary alerts to your phone.

Monitoring Job Sites

Working with The Home Depot, Ring's new JobSite Security bundle aims to make it easier to monitor job sites. There are several bundles to customize to your liking, but it includes the Ring Alarm Pro with the option to add the Ring Protect Pro subscription service for cellular connectivity with 24/7 backup internet (to keep devices running online even if there's an internet outage). You’ll be able to purchase and connect it to additional accessories like Ring Power Packs, smart cameras, and smart lighting. It’s available exclusively at The Home Depot and bundles will start at $400.

Blink Video Doorbell

If you're not into Ring, there's always Blink, another smart-home company Amazon acquired. It just announced its very first Video Doorbell, complete with 1080p HD video for day and night, alerts sent to your phone, two-way audio, and up to two years of battery life (unless you choose to wire it). It's compatible with Echo and Fire devices, which you can use to monitor the camera and control it via Alexa voice commands. It starts at $50.

Blink also announced two additional products: a battery-powered LED Floodlight Camera mount, which is compatible with Blink's outdoor camera, plus a Solar Panel Mount. The solar panel can recharge the outdoor camera. All three of Blink's new devices are currently available for preorder and launch on October 21.

Update, 3:00 pm, October 1: This story was updated to clarify the relationship between Resideo, Honeywell, and Amazon. Resideo sells thermostats under the Honeywell Home brand name; the building technology company Honeywell is not directly involved in the relationship with Amazon.

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