Among the newfound crop of voice-driven smart assistants, Amazon’s Echo speakers stand alone. Some estimates put sales of the cloud-powered speaker at just over 5 million since its launch two years ago. Echo sales spiked 400 percent in December versus last year. And a growing number of Amazon customers place orders via Echo devices.
But soon, it’ll have competition. On Tuesday, LG took the wraps off the Lenovo Smart Assistant, a cylindrical speaker that doubles as a voice-activated, Amazon-powered assistant.
Despite the Echo’s increasing important to Amazon’s retail operation, the Seattle-based firm has shown a willingness to pursue hardware agnosticism — likely in the interest of gathering usage stats and data. Smartwatches from CoWatch and Martian tap Alexa Voice Services, the natural language processing program that powers the Echo. So does Omate’s home robot, the Yumi, and Nucleus’s home intercom.
The Lenovo Smart Assistant fits this category, relying on Alexa to conduct web searches, play music, provide calendar updates, create lists, and more.
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“Our goal has never been to simply build smart home devices for the sake of advancing technology alone,” Johnson Jia, senior vice president of Lenovo’s PC & Smart Device Business Group, said in a statement. “In the same way a person’s IQ is measured by applied knowledge, we believe products are ‘smart’ to the degree they’re actually understood and applied to daily life by their users.”
Though the Smart Assistant shares a likeness with Amazon’s Echo, it improves upon its forebear in a number of key ways. It boasts eight 360-degree far-field microphones, one more than the Echo’s seven. They’re capable of suppressing noise and canceling echos, and can pick up voice commands from up to 16 feet away.
And the Smart Assistant sounds better, too. It sports a 5W treble speaker and 10W woofer. And it will launch alongside a special Harman Kardon edition that packs a 2-inch sound cavity for a “clearer tweeter” and “deeper bass.”
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The Lenovo Smart Assistant starts at $130, and the Harman Kardon Edition at $180. Both will be available in light gray, green, and orange when they begin shipping in May.
The Smart Assistant might be perceived as another joint effort in Amazon’s effort to beat back Alexa’s competitors. Google unveiled its answer to the Echo, the Google Home, in November. The diminutive, rounded speaker, powered by server-side artificial intelligence called the Assistant, controls smart home appliances, plays music from streaming services like Spotify and Google’s own Play Music, and answers questions using Google’s Knowledge Graph search tool.
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Google is not the only one. Microsoft recently opened its Cortana voice services to third-party hardware and app developers. One of the first, audio company Harman Kardon, will launch a Cortana-powered speaker in 2017.
Amazon, to its credit, hasn’t been resting on its laurels. It launched exclusive product sales and a $5-per-month streaming music service exclusively for Echo owners earlier this year, and Alexa’s app ecosystem has exploded in recent months. Developers have built more than 3,000 skills, or apps, since Amazon opened the platform to third parties last year. A GE Appliances skill preheats connected ovens with a voice command. Uber and Lyft skills summon cars. An AT&T app records and sends text messages. And myriad home automation skills switch off lights, open garage doors, and unlock doors.
And even more capabilities are on the way. Earlier this year, Amazon started a $100 million fund to jump-start services that rely on Alexa’s cloud-powered voice interpretation. So far, 18 startups have received funding.
Lenovo also took the opportunity to debut Smart Storage, a network-attached 6TB hard drive with dual-band wireless capabilities and autosync features. It’s optimized for security and peer-to-peer media sharing, Lenovo says, and packs integrated facial recognition software that organizes photo libraries automatically
The Lenovo Smart Storage unit starts at $130, and will be available in light gray, green, and orange, beginning in May 2017.
Both Smart Assistant and Smart Storage are a part of Lenovo’s plan to crack home automation. The Internet of Things market is expected to reach $1.7 trillion in 2020, the company points out, and may create up to $11.1 trillion per year in potential economic impact.
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“[These products] are just the beginning,” Lenovo wrote in a press release. “We’ll continue to work collaboratively with customers to imagine, design and build home products that they want, can afford, and will use — with the vision to fundamentally improve every aspect of their home life.”