Roku expands into home audio with smart speakers, sound bars licensing program

Roku is officially getting ready to take on Amazon's Echo: The company unveiled its new home audio licensing program Wednesday, outlining plans to team up with consumer electronics manufacturers for Roku -powered smart speakers and sound bars. Longtime Roku partner TCL will show a first Roku-powered device at CES in Las Vegas next week, which is expected to ship later in 2018. "Speakers are one of the most popular things to add to a TV," Roku's VP of product Mark Ely told Variety during a recent interview. That's why one main area of focus of Roku and its hardware partners are going to be smart sound bars, which double as internet-connected speakers when the TV screen is turned off. "These smart sound bars will work with any TV, but they work really great with Roku TVs," Ely said. In addition, Roku is also working with consumer electronics companies to make Roku-powered smart speakers. These can be placed around the home, and inter-connect with each other as well as Roku-powered sound bars to play multi-room audio, giving consumers the ability to play the same song synchronized across their home. "We envision a broad Roku ecosystem" of multiple speaker sizes and form factors, Ely said. Roku-powered speakers and sound bars will both come with integrated microphones for far-field voice control, and offer access to a personal assistant the company has been developing in-house and also plans to add to existing Roku video streaming devices this fall. Think of it as a kind of Alexa, but with a focus on audio and video streaming, which will allow consumers to issue commands like "Hey Roku, play easy listening," or "Hey Roku, turn off the TV in 30 minutes." "Consumers will use voice to connect with all the entertainment in their home," said Ely. People may still query Siri, Alexa or Google's assistant for other services, but call on Roku's assistant when they want to watch or listen to something, he argued. "We can see it co-existing in the home with other AI." Roku has Continue Reading

How to make smart speakers, cameras, locks hackproof

More people are getting voice-activated speakers and other smart devices for convenience and security. But doing so could also be giving hackers a key to their homes.Many devices from reputable manufacturers have safeguards built in, but those can’t guarantee against hacks. Gadgets from startups and no-name brands may offer little or no protection.Before buying one, here are some risks to assess.Listening in: Speakers with built-in microphones are increasingly popular. Devices such as Amazon’s Echo and Google Home let people check the weather or their personal calendar with simple voice commands. Beyond that, many smart TVs and TV streaming devices now have voice-activated functions, often for playback controls and video search. Many newer toys also come with microphones so kids can talk to them and get canned responses.Many of these devices are constantly listening for your commands; when they receive them, they connect to corporate servers to carry them out. What if you’re having private conversations at home? Are they getting sent over the internet, too?In some cases, sound recordings will only leave home when you trigger the device. You might have to speak a command phrase like “OK Google” or press a button to get the device’s attention. Check before buying to make sure a product includes such safeguards.Some gadgets go further. Smart speakers, for instance, typically have a mute button to disable the microphone completely. Amazon says its mute function involves disconnecting the circuit, so that hackers cannot override the intent.But there’s no easy way for consumers to verify manufacturer promises, such as Amazon’s assertion that the Echo never transmits recordings to the cloud unless it’s been activated. That’s where it helps to stick with reputable brands, as their reputations are at stake if they’re caught in a lie. Bigger companies can also quickly fix security holes that crop up.Voice Continue Reading

Apple’s HomePod Smart Speaker Delayed Until 2018

In June, Apple announced that it was challenging Amazon's sleeper hit Amazon Echo with its own voice assistant-enabled speaker, called HomePod, and said the product would be released in December 2017. Today, the company released a statement that the speaker will be delayed until 2018: "We can't wait for people to experience HomePod, Apple's breakthrough wireless speaker for the home, but we need a little more time before it's ready for our customers. We'll start shipping in the US, UK, and Australia in early 2018." The delay is major setback for Apple's smart speaker, which joins an already competitive space. Both Amazon, Google, and premium Internet-connected audio company Sonos have new AI-enabled audio offerings available in time for the holiday season. Earlier this year, Amazon said it sold "millions of Alexa devices" over the gift-giving period.Apple's AirPods wireless earbuds were also postponed several months last year, though the headset did eventually ship before Christmas.Amazon Echo and Google Home, both of which emphasize the intelligence of its voice-enabled assistants. Its most direct competitor is the Sonos One, which has Amazon's Alexa assistant on board. Apple Music is the only streaming service that will work with the $349 speaker at launch. The Fight Over Voice: Why Tech’s Top Companies Are Battling It Out To Listen In Continue Reading

Google Unveils Its $399 Home Max And $49 Home Mini Smart Speakers

Google Home is a smart speaker powered by Google Assistant, a virtual, voice-activated bot. It’s the company’s Amazon Echo competitor (Apple’s Siri-powered HomePod is also coming soon) — and today, Google unveiled the new circular Home Mini, which is about the size of teacup saucer.The top of the Home Mini enclosure is made out of a custom linen-like fabric, and has four LED lights underneath that indicate the Mini is listening. It has “360-degree” sound and can connect to Chromecast speakers and Chromecast Audio, like the existing Google Home.The Mini retails for $49 in the US (the same price as Amazon's Echo Dot), making it more affordable than the larger $129 Google Home. Pre-order starts today. The Mini ships Oct. 19, and will be available in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, UK, and US in three colors: coral, chalk, and charcoal. “Smart Sound,” which is powered by Google’s AI, tunes the speaker to optimize its sound balance for your particular room configuration. Over time, the speaker will learn to do things like raise the volume when your dishwasher is running.It supports Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn, iHeart Radio, and Google Play Music, as well as external speakers connected by an auxiliary cable, Chromecast, or Bluetooth. Max also works with a multi-room set-up via Chromecast Audio. The speaker’s orientation can also be changed from horizontal to vertical.Max will cost $399, and it'll be available in December in two colors: chalk and charcoal. The speaker will come with an ad-free subscription to YouTube Music for 12 months.All three Home speakers include Voice Match, which identifies different individuals in the household, so it can serve personalized answers (like traffic, Spotify playlists from certain accounts, and calendars). Voice Match is now rolling out in all seven countries where Home is available.Home is now more kid-friendly, too. It can understand the way kids talk better, and Continue Reading

Apple Gets Into The Smart Speaker Market With HomePod

Apple is finally getting into the home speaker business.Today, the company that changed portable music with the iPod announced the HomePod, a plump, cylindrical, voice-activated speaker. Running Siri, Apple's virtual assistant, the device is clearly intended to go head to head with the current leading smart speaker, Amazon's Echo."Just like iPod reinvented music in our pockets, HomePod is going to reinvent music in our homes," said Apple Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller. Schiller drew an early, implicit contrast between the HomePod and the Echo — which has been criticized for persistently listening to users — by announcing that HomePod won't send any data to Apple unless spoken to, and when it does it will be through an anonymized ID.The device is designed for Apple Music (subscription required) and an intelligent "musicologist" that can respond to prompts like "Play Beats One radio" or "Who's the drummer in this?" or "Play more like that" or "I like that song."The 7-inch device will be released in December in the US in two colors, white and space gray. It will cost $349. CORRECTION Continue Reading

Amazon’s Echo Spot review: This small smart-speaker frustrates on video

Were Amazon’s Echo Show and Echo Dot smart speakers to make a baby, the resulting offspring would likely resemble Echo Spot.From Echo Show, this softball-sized speaker inherits a screen. From the Dot, the Spot gets its small size and relative cuteness.The voice-activated cloud-based Alexa digital assistant inside Echo Spot is passed down from both parents.I’ve been testing two of these $129.99 Spot speakers over the past several days and found them to be helpful in some ways, frustrating in others, and my overall sense is that the price needs to come down. Spot starts shipping on Tuesday. More: Amazon Echo Show: Worth it once the kinks are worked out More: How to choose the best smart speaker for you: shopper's guide As with the Show, which is currently on sale for $149.99, adding a screen to an Echo speaker means you can bolster at least some of the more than 25,000 Alexa “skills” with video content and other show-as-well-as-tell aids, whether that means visualizing a weather forecast or being able to eyeball the status of kitchen timers or your grocery list.Among its smart home skills, I linked Echo Spot to a Nest Cam security camera in my living room and was able to remotely peek at a live feed of what the Nest sees.I also employed Spot to snack on movie trailers, follow song lyrics, check out recipes and watch flash briefings from the likes of CNBC,TechCrunch, and Reuters.  You can even stream full-length TV shows and movies that are available through Prime Video, not that you’d want to watch a lengthy film on the Spot given its 2.5-inch display. At least the Show, by contrast, has a 7-inch screen.The small display poses other constraints: portions of a movie or TV show that aren’t properly formatted for the display are cut off. The clues in Jeopardy on the Spot didn’t fill up the entire screen as they do on the Show, and I also experienced a disconcerting lag between the Continue Reading

Google Home Max: Google’s max effort pays off in powerful smart speaker

If you care more about your smart speaker's sound than which digital assistant it employs, the new Google Home Max speaker should be on your holiday short list.After days of pumping an eclectic range of music through Google's $399 speaker — from AC/DC to the Three Tenors — it's clear the Google Home Max is in a class by itself when it comes to filling a home or apartment with sounds even an audiophile could appreciate. The downsides: It's big, heavy, cord-powered and not particularly portable.Admittedly, for many people the decision to purchase this or that voice-activated smart speaker has often boiled down to which AI-infused digital assistant you’re most comfortable engaging with in your home, most likely Amazon’s Alexa or the Google Assistant. But when music is the priority, different features come into play. Certainly, at $399 there is a high price to pay for such sonic joy. The sum is way above the current $79 discounted price for the regular Google Home speaker or the comparably priced rival Amazon Echo speaker with Alexa, not to mention the $29 Google Home Mini.But while such less expensive speakers sound perfectly decent for what they are, the Max is in a different class altogether. With the volume at full blast on a thunderous track such as AC/DC’s Hells Bells or something as polar opposite as the Three Tenors in concert belting out Puccini's Nessun dorma, Google Home Max demonstrates the power to rock even a very large room.In fact, all kinds of music—jazz, classical, classic rock, hip-hop, pop, Broadway—sounded terrific, whether cranked up high or played at more modest volume levels.I was impressed with the deep bass across an eclectic mix of music as well, ranging from Rockstar by Post Malone featuring 21 Savage to You Know I’m No Good by Amy Winehouse.This bookshelf speaker is big and, at nearly 12 pounds, rather heavy, so it's not meant to be moved around a lot. Continue Reading

How to choose the best smart speaker for you: shopper’s guide

LOS ANGELES — Hey, Alexa, which of the seven Echo speakers should I buy, and what’s the difference between them?And, OK Google, the new Home Mini is so affordable at $29 for the holidays. How does it stack up to the entry level Echo, Amazon’s Dot?If you're shopping for a smart speaker, here's how to decide which model and brand fits your needs and some advice on what to do once you own one. You can also listen to a podcast version of this Talking Tech report. Smart speakers, which bring voice computing into the home, are one of the hottest categories for holiday gifts due to their popularity and deep discounts. The entry-level speakers, the Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home Mini, both sell for $49 but are discounted to $29 now, while the top of the line Echo currently sells for $149.With the smart speakers, you can use your voice and the “wake” word commands “OK Google” or “Alexa” to do a host of different things. “Every morning I ask Alexa what the weather is,” says Mary Neville of Chicago, one of several users we spoke to recently for the accompanying video. “And play music while I’m cooking.”Also: you can get weather reports, the morning news, recipes, play radio stations, streaming music and podcasts and control your smart home. More: Essential privacy settings for your Amazon Echo More: 5 things the Amazon Echo Show can do that the original Echo can't   The Models:—Echo Dot. The entry level unit is a tiny speaker ($49, but on sale for $29) with full Alexa functionality. Pro: Cheap. Con: Tinny sound. —All New Echo (second Generation) is the update from last year’s model, selling for $100 less than the first one and on sale this year for $79. Amazon promises better sound and a new gray fabric Amazon calls “Heather Gray Fabric.”"Both sound exactly the same," says Continue Reading

A Foolish Take: Amazon will dominate the smart speaker market this year

When Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) introduced the Echo smart speaker late in 2014, some critics called it an unnecessary device. But the Echo actually expanded the company's e-commerce ecosystem into homes, making it easier to order products from Amazon, use its streaming services, and control other connected devices.Amazon's first-mover advantage has given it an edge against Alphabet, Apple, and Microsoft -- which have all introduced their own smart speakers. Research firm eMarketer estimates that this year, 35.6 million Americans will use a voice-activated assistant device at least once per month -- a 129% increase from last year -- and believes that Amazon will control 70.6% of the smart speaker market. (This forecast predates the announcement of the HomePod, which won’t be released until December of this year.)The Echo's success has spawned a family of devices, including the puck-sized Echo Dot, which requires an external speaker; the Tap, which is activated by a button; the Echo Look, which adds a camera for selfies and fashion recommendations; and the Echo Show, which adds an LCD screen for video calls. And Amazon could sell many more Echo speakers in the future: Global Market Insights expects worldwide smart speaker revenue to soar from $400 million in 2016 to $13 billion in 2024.Offer from The Motley Fool: The 10 best stocks to buy nowMotley Fool Stock Advisor, has tripled the S&P 500!*Tom and David just revealed their ten top stock picks for investors to buy right now. Click here to get access to the full list!*Stock Advisor returns as of July 6, 2017. Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Teresa Kersten is an employee of LinkedIn and is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft. Leo Sun owns shares of Amazon. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Amazon, and Apple. The Motley Fool has a Continue Reading

Live: Apple unveils $349 smart speaker HomePod

Hey Siri, ready to meet the HomePod?On Monday, Apple introduced the smart speaker HomePod during its Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose. The speaker will ship this December in the U.S. for $349.Also, Apple revealed the first details of iOS 11, the latest version of its operating system for the iPhone, iPad, and other mobile devices.For a recap of Apple's WWDC keynote, scroll down below:3:25 p.m.: Former first lady Michelle Obama will appear at WWDC this week. Cook finishes the keynote. Thanks for joining us!3:23 p.m.: Cook steps on stage to wrap up. Not surprising, the HomePod costs more than rivals Echo or Google Home. Is the quality worth that price? Siri might help decide that in December.3:21 p.m.: Schiller says privacy is an important part of HomePod. All communications are encrypted and queries are sent anonymously. HomePod is priced at $349. It will ship this December.3:19 p.m.: Siri on HomePod will cover other areas like news, reminders, timers, traffic information, or send text messages. The big question: how will this compare to Alexa or Google Assistant?3:16 p.m.: Schiller says the HomePod works great when paired together. The speaker also includes a musicologist to suggest new tunes. The prompt "hey Siri" works on HomePod, to call up new music.3:13 p.m.: HomePod features a 4-inch Apple designed woofer, and features an A8 chip, which also powers the iPhone. "It sounds incredible," says Schiller. Music arrives wirelessly, and the speaker appears smaller compared to Echo, but closer to the size of Google Home.3:11 p.m.: Schiller returns to discuss a "breakthrough home speaker," combining smarts with really good sound. Apple's answer? HomePod, available in black or white.3:08 p.m.: Time for Apple's "one last thing." Cook starts with iTunes, then the iPod and iPhone. "We have such a great portable experience, but what about our homes?" Speaker time. "We want to reinvent home music," says Cook. 3:06 p.m.: iOS 11 will be available to all Continue Reading