Huawei’s AI Cube is a 4G router and Alexa speaker, not a cube

The Huawei AI Cube is not a cube. I just really want us to get that fact agreed upon before we proceed any further. It is, however, a rather unique device, combining a 4G modem, a home Wi-Fi router, a high-end 360-degree wireless speaker, and a Huawei-Amazon collaboration that promises Alexa integration and some not-yet-articulated AI capabilities.

Shaped like an elongated Google Home with a flat top, the Huawei AI Cube is an effort to get Huawei in on the flourishing smart speaker business. As of today, there are probably more consumer electronics brands with a smart speaker in their portfolio — Apple’s HomePod, the Google Home family of devices, Amazon’s Echo speakers, Lenovo’s Smart Display, and most recently, Samsung’s Bixby speaker — than without. Huawei’s angle is to leverage its tech lead in networking equipment by also endowing its AI Cube with a slot for an LTE SIM card, making it a 4G hot spot, and an Ethernet port, allowing you to use it as a home Wi-Fi router as well as an Alexa-enabled speaker.

Try as I might during the IFA briefing that Huawei gave, I couldn’t extract any details from the company about how exactly its AI speaker differs from any other with Alexa skills on board. Price was also a matter that Huawei wasn’t yet ready to discuss, saying it’ll be announced closer to the time that the device goes on sale. Europe will get the AI Cube “in the Christmas season,” the US may or may not get it, and Huawei has no plans for this exact model in its native China. At home, Huawei is most likely to offer a homegrown voice assistant in the place of Alexa.

As far as specs and measurements go, the AI Cube is 218mm (8.6 inches) tall and has a 116mm (4.57 inches) diameter at both its base and its top. The speaker weighs in at 900g (2lb). It supports LTE Cat.6 for cellular speeds up to 300Mbps, and it has 802.11ac with dual-band Wi-Fi. You get four microphones with far-field voice recognition.

I didn’t get to hear any meaningful sound demos of the AI Cube here at IFA, so all we’ve got to go on for sound quality is Huawei’s promise of this being a “groundbreaking device” with “a powerful sound system.” So yes, Huawei is leaving a lot of questions unanswered with its Europe-bound AI speaker. All I can say for sure is that it’s not a cube.

Photo: Huawei

Netgear combined a mesh router with an Alexa speaker

Netgear’s Orbi line includes some of the most capable mesh routers around, and now, the line is about to get even more interesting. Its latest router, the Orbi Voice, is also a speaker with built-in microphones and Alexa. That way, you can place it in a room where you want to play music or listen to podcasts and improve the area’s Wi-Fi reception at the same time.

There aren’t a lot of other products that combine a router with something else. I really can’t think of any, aside from combination routers and modems, since the two products have long had to sit side by side anyway. In most cases, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense for a router to be combined with anything else.

But mesh routers are meant to be placed around the house to boost a Wi-Fi signal in dead zones. And the more out in the open the router is, the better the signal is likely to be — so building a router into a product people actually need to place out in the open is a good idea. (Although that still relies on you liking the router’s style, and this one looks a bit computery.)

The Orbi Voice differs from the typical smart speaker in a key way: most of these speakers are designed to provide 360-degree sound, whereas the Orbi is a more traditional speaker, with a woofer and tweeter in front, as well as a bass reflect port (a chamber for bouncing the bass around). That means you’ll want to position it against a wall; but as Netgear points out, the device needs to be powered, so that’s where a lot of people would put it anyway.

Photo: Netgear

There are also four microphones and a series of buttons on top for controlling Alexa. Like usual, you can use it to control music playback by voice, look things up, and command other smart devices on your network. Netgear says the speaker will work with Spotify, Pandora, Deezer, iHeartRadio, and several others (including Amazon services, of course). Unfortunately, it doesn’t support simultaneous playback with other speakers, at least at launch.

As a router, it should be a fairly good one. It doesn’t match the best of the Orbi lineup, but it’s still a tri-band model. Netgear says it can reach 2.2Gbps Wi-Fi speeds, and it includes two Ethernet ports.

It’s a really interesting product. And while the combination of speaker and router might be a bit niche right now, it seems like this device speaks to trends we might see in the future. Why buy a dedicated router, when some other product could boost your Wi-Fi connection instead?

The Orbi Voice goes on sale next month for $300. You’ll need an Orbi hub unit for it to work, though. It’ll also be sold bundled with one of those — the high-end model — for $429.

Nighthawk Pro Gaming Router XR700
Image: Netgear

In addition to the Orbi Voice, Netgear is announcing a successor to its first “pro” gaming router, the Nighthawk XR500. The new model is the XR700, and it offers up to a 7.2Gbps Wi-Fi connection. But the bigger deal for gamers will be its plethora of high-speed Ethernet ports: it has seven gigabit-speed ports, as well as a single port that supports speeds up to 10 gigabits. Netgear is positioning it as a way to power its previously announced LAN switch so 15 people can link up with gigabit connections between the two devices.

The router also runs software called DumaOS that includes a bunch of customization options, as well as control over the distance of servers you connect to so gamers can make sure they’re getting a stronger connection. It also supports Plex. It’ll go on sale next month for $500.