BERLIN — Huawei is getting into the smart speaker market with an Alexa-powered device, though the first question people might have for Alexa is just how this speaker is any different from the many other voice-enabled options out there.
Glance at Huawei's AI Cube, and you might think you're looking at a Google Home speaker that's been doing its stretching exercises. Huawei's 8.5-inch tall speaker, which will ship later this year in time for the holidays, is circular with a 4.6-inch diameter at its base and top. The base is covered in a cloth fabric — I saw gray and red versions during my demo — and the top of the speaker is white plastic.
Buttons at the top let you control volume and mute the speaker on the AI Cube when using your voice to talk to the four microphones inside the AI Cube won't do. If you've seen a smart speaker in the last year or so, this will all look very familiar.
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But Huawei thinks its speaker can stand out from others in two ways. First, the AI Cube can double as a 4G router, connecting other devices in your home. Second, Huawei thinks its speaker can deliver superlative sound.
On the connectivity front, the AI Cube works with 802.11ac, and there's a LAN port on the back. A dual-band router, the AI Cube offers 2.4GHz and 5GHz channels, with data speeds up to 1,200 Mbps.
Huawei's speaker also has a SIM card slot, where you can, in theory, insert a 4G SIM card to connect to LTE. However, glancing at the AI Cube's spec sheet, it doesn't look like the speaker works with any LTE bands used by U.S. cellular providers. Indeed, a Huawei executive suggested that the speaker would arrive in Europe first, with the status of any U.S. launch unclear.
Of course, Huawei won't be the only company offering a combination router/smart speaker. A day before today's AI Cube unveiling, Netgear said it would be release Orbi Voice, a mesh router with a built-in Alexa speaker.
As for the AI Cube's sound quality, Huawei says the speaker has a 400ml sound cavity and aluminum diaphram. Huawei's promising clear highs and midrange sounds alongside rounded bass, HiListen, the company's proprietary audio technology, should also bolster the AI Cube's sound. Until we hear the AI Cube in action, though, we'll have to take Huawei's word for it.
And that's the challenge facing Huawei. We already know what a bunch of already available Alexa-equipped products sound like, not to mention rival speakers from Google and Apple. Perhaps Huawei's combination of audio quality, wireless connectivity and Alexa smarts will be enough for the AI Cube to carve out a space for itself in the crowded smart speaker market, but it seems like it's going to be a while before U.S. users find out.