Lenovo's impressive Amazon Echo clone costs $US50 less

Lenovo smart assistant 2LenovoThe Lenovo Smart Assistant.

The runaway success of the Amazon Echo is proof that people are willing to accept devices built around digital assistants into their lives, and the tech world is scrambling to get a piece of the smart speaker pie.

Google last year rolled out the Google Home, while Apple is reportedly putting Siri in a forthcoming speaker of its own.

Chinese tech company Lenovo doesn’t have an AI system along the lines of Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa, but as a relatively prominent hardware company, it wants in all the same. And so, Lenovo on Tuesday launched the Lenovo Smart Assistant, an Echo-like speaker in both form and function, at CES 2017 in Las Vegas.

Lenovo says it worked with Amazon for the Smart Assistant, and as such, the device relies on Alexa for its smarts. Like the Echo, you simply yell out whatever questions or commands you want to Lenovo’s speaker, and Alexa will tap into the same set of “Skills” to help where it can.

The speaker itself is roughly the same size as the Echo, and it uses a similarly tall, cylindrical design, albeit with a volume dial at its top, and a fabric material on its lower half that comes in a handful of colours. It, too, has to be plugged in to work, and it’s always on, so you don’t have to press any buttons to activate an Alexa command.

It’s a little bit lighter than the Echo, and it technically uses one more microphone — for eight in total, which Lenovo says can pick up commands from 5 metres away — but it unfortunately relies on outdated 1×1 802.11n WiFi.

Lenovo smart assistant 3LenovoThe Lenovo Smart Assistant Harman Kardon Edition.

At first blush, all of this might make it hard to see why you might buy the Smart Assistant over the already-established Echo, but there are a couple things that might work in Lenovo’s favour.

The main one is price: The Smart Assistant starts at $US129.99, which is $US50 less than the Echo’s going rate for a speaker of the same size. The Google Home costs the same, and the Echo Dot is only $US50, but neither of those should be able to pump out the same level of volume as the larger Smart Assistant. (Though the Dot can hook up to other speakers.)

Along those lines, Lenovo is also touting the Smart Assistant’s abilities as an actual speaker — an area where the Echo is widely seen as lacking for its price. To that end, the company is also launching a Harmon Kardon edition of the Smart Assistant, which’ll also cost $US180, but purportedly provides more bass and overall clarity.

Naturally, it will be hard to tell how true that is until we’re able to test a finalised version of the device.

The Smart Assistant is not the first third-party Alexa speaker — in recent months, lesser-known devices like the Triby, Nucleus, and Jam Voice have all put Amazon’s assistant to work in varying form factors. Traditionally, using Alexa there has been spottier and less smooth than it is with Amazon-made hardware.

Lenovo says the Smart Assistant will work with the Alexa app, too, which is still a bit of a mess regardless of what you’re using.

And, per usual, it’s worth a reminder that, like any other digital assistant today, Alexa is still far from a fully-polished product.

Nevertheless, the Smart Assistant marks yet another step in Amazon’s mission to get Alexa on whatever smart device it can, as if it were a sort of Windows for the Internet of Things. We’ll let you know if that push has allowed Lenovo to undercut the Echo itself in May, when both versions of the Smart Assistant are set to become available.

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