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Amazon event 2019: all the major hardware announcements, from greater privacy controls for Alexa to Echo Buds

The i logo The i 25/09/2019
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Amazon is handing its customers greater control over the information collected by its Alexa smart assistant as the retail giant seeks to assuage fears over how it handles customer data.

Dave Limp, senior vice president of devices and services, announced several new privacy-focused updates for its Alexa software during a presentation in Seattle, including giving users the chance to opt into the automatic deletion of voice recordings the software has picked up older than three or 18 months.

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The company was heavily criticised in April for neglecting to make clear it hired thousands of people globally to listen to voice recordings captured by Alexa, transcribing and annotating them in an effort to improve the software’s understanding of human speech.

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Amazon has repeatedly denied Alexa, which is an increasingly common feature in smartphones, speakers from third-party manufacturers and other connected devices (as well as the company’s own Echo smart speaker range), is always listening to user conversation, reiterating it only begins recording audio once it hears its default “wake word” ‘Alexa’.

The Echo Buds will compete directly with Apple's more-expensive AirPods (Photo: Amazon)

Users can opt out of humans listening to and transcribing their conversations with Alexa through the Alexa privacy hub on Amazon's website.

Other new privacy updates allow users to ask Alexa to tell them what it just heard and “Alexa, why did you do that?” in a bid to understand why the helper may have relayed incorrect information or randomly started playing music in the next few weeks, and tweaks to its internal 'wake word' engine which detects whether a user is attempting to speak to the assistant or merely speaking, to make it 50 per cent more accurate.

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Thousands of human Amazon workers are listening to your Alexa commands

"Privacy is absolutely foundational to everything we do," Mr Limp said, adding how a company "can’t be private if you don’t give customers control of their data".

“We’re investing in privacy across the board. Privacy cannot be an afterthought when it comes to the devices and services we offer our customers. It has to be foundational and built in from the beginning for every piece of hardware, software, and service that we create.”

New hardware products

Among multiple new hardware products is the company's first pair of wireless headphones powered by its Alexa digital assistant.

The Echo Buds headphones, which will compete directly with Apple's AirPods, are built with Bose Active Noise Reduction technology, detecting the sound in its wearers' environment as well as what's playing in an effort to reduce the ambient noise.

The Amazon Echo Buds will go on sale later in the year (Photo: Amazon)

Like Apple's recently-updated AirPods wireless headphones and its own Siri assistant, the Echo Buds can be controlled by speaking aloud to virtual helper Alexa to skip tracks on a playlist, search the internet or add items to a to-do list. Tapping and holding the headphones opens a paired smartphone's native voice assistant: Siri on iPhone or Google Assistant on Android devices.

The pair, which will cost £119.99, last around five hours of music playback per single charge, while the charging case can hold up to three additional charges.

Mr Limp also announced redesigned versions of Amazon's Echo smart speakers, which are due to go on sale in the UK later this year.

The new Amazon Echo speaker has improved internal speakers for strong bass play-back and clearer highs when listening to music, and sports a new fabric design. It will be priced at £89.99.

Echo Studio, a new smart speaker containing five directional speakers, uses Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio technology to deliver 3D immersive audio, pitching it against significantly larger sound systems in terms of quality. It will cost £189.99, and can be paired with select Amazon Fire TV devices.

It also announced a new £119.99 8-inch Echo Show smart speaker, a revised version of its Echo Dot speaker with an LED display showing the time, which will cost £59.99, and the Echo Flex, a plug-in smart speaker for £24.99 which allows the device to communicate with compatible smart home devices and plugs directly into a wall socket.

Echo Flex plugs straight into the wall (Photo: Amazon)

While Amazon avoids revealing exact sales figures, it confirmed more than 100m devices pre-installed with Alexa had been sold in January this year. More than 85,000 products are compatible with the assistant, which has more than 100,000 'skills', or abilities.

Amazon made net sales of £232bn (£186bn) in 2018, with the vast majority of its revenue generated by sales of electronics and other consumer products. It delivers 10bn items to consumers around the world each year.

Despite the privacy concerns, smart speaker ownership in the UK is expected to grow 47 per cent this year compared to last, according to analyst Canalys.

Amazon's Echo line, Google Home and Apple's HomePod are among the devices expected to sell 207.9m units in 2019, up from 114m units in 2018 - an 82.4 per cent rise globally.

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