The latest range of voice-controlled "smart home devices" from Amazon, including a wall clock and microwave, still ask the question, what are they really?
In the case of the redesigned £ 50 Echo Dot, which made way to the market last night, it's easiest to think of it as a radio.
There is actually much more than that, but a radio will make for starters. It picks up all BBC digital stations and any other network in the world that sends out a power over the internet. It includes all regional commercial services and even local stations such as the charming Drystone Radio in the Yorkshire Dales. It's online, so it's not exactly portable, but as a table set it's better value than many DAB radios out there.
Echo Dot is the entry level product of Amazon's new range, hoping to expand the voice control of a "digital personal assistant" called Alexa, to more devices than ever around the home.
You can say, "Alexa, turn on the TV", and instead of telling you to do it yourself, that would be the sensible response, it sends an unreasonable signal across the room. As long as your TV has a compatible adapter connected, it will do as it is told.
Use it as a radio done in about the same way. There are no pushbuttons to adjust it because all you need is to say, "Alexa, turn on Radio 4" and it will start playing through the built-in 1
It also connects to Spotify, so you can stream music of your choice, but for serious listening, you will connect it to your HiFi speakers, either via Bluetooth or a mini-jack cable.
Amazon lists dozens of other possible uses for its smart devices, but you have to move on to take advantage of them all and many are, at least gimmicks. This will be betrayed by the "popcorn setting" on the company's £ 60 microwave, sold later in the year, and is able to change itself when you tell it. But since you have to manually insert something in the first, you may want to wonder if this is automation for your own sake.
The £ 30 wallet, which is also available shortly, is more functional, but only if you have a houseful of other smart devices, since it recognizes the hours you have set and lights so you can see them for a moment.
More useful, Alexa software can now listen after smoke detectors or windows get corrupted and send a security alert to a mobile phone if triggered.
But Amazon admits that the concept is still an ongoing work, depending on other companies to come up with compatible home appliances and consumer electronics. Meanwhile, there is a £ 13 adapter that plugs into a 13-wall socket and provides remote control of what is plugged in there. It looks like another plug-in timer, except that it's part of your Wi-Fi network, and can be controlled remotely by an app on your phone.
Amazon insists that the smart market approaches its tip and a credible £ 50 device that can be bought and used as a standalone radio, should definitely set technology in homes that have owners who could otherwise see demand. The rest will remain content to turn on their own televisions.