'

For Amazon, home is now where the Echo is

The portfolio of Amazon's growing first-party Alexa device family may seem scattershot. But it lines up as a logical way for the mega-retailer to leverage its strengths.

Last fall, Amazon began branching out from its core Echo speaker experience to start testing other waters for Alexa. in an effort to build a digital army of devices to invade the home. This year, though, marked an "Echosplosion." To say that Amazon wants Alexa everywhere seems like an understatement, as the company is pursuing unique categories -- or at least those that have seen little advancement -- to complement the agent. Amazon's new smart products can be thought of in four major (mostly exclusive) concentric rings of expanding influence.

Also: Meet Amazon's new Echo devices and Alexa hardware: Prices, features, release dates

Core Echo devices

If Amazon were Apple or Microsoft's Surface group, 90 percent of the attention of its product launch would be focused on the core Echo lineup that is Alexa's engine. Indeed, Amazon addressed both ends of its smart speaker spectrum with the entry-level Echo Dot, which saw an audio improvement and the more substantially redesigned Echo Show, its smart display flagship that now has a larger, more tablet-like facade but retains the price range of its 7-inch predecessor that had seen its price roughly halved leading up to the introduction of the new 10-inch model.

Audio

The original Echo wasn't designed to impress audiophiles, who would be even less impressed with the Echo Dot. But consumers have room for only so many speakers in their homes or -- in the case of larger homes -- so many multiroom systems. Sonos clearly saw where the puck was drifting, as it began embracing voice agents last year. And with the launch of higher-end rivals such as Apple"s HomePod, Amazon clearly understands that it must raise both the breadth and depth of the Echo line's audio capabilities.

Also: Best Alexa-compatible Smart Home Gadgets for 2018 CNET

At its event, Amazon continued the general audio improvements in products such as the Echo Dot and Echo Show. But it has attacked a broader audio opportunity the Echo Sub and Echo Link available with an optional integrated Amp. Both are far beyond the price of the Chromecast Audio adapter from Google, although Amazon's new Echo Input is a more direct competitor for that. (Curiously, while Apple has no direct competitor at this point to those products even as it tries to give AirPlay another whirl, it was ahead of both competitors with AirPort Express, a mini version of its router that could pump tunes to any speaker with audio in via AirPlay.)

Amazon calls these products "Echo Companions." They also include the Echo Connect, the adapter that lets landline phones make calls via Alexa, which serves as a reminder that not every line expansion that Amazon has added to the lineup has been a game-changer.

High-volume products

One of the broader diversions from Alexa's smart speaker core was Amazon's new microwave oven. It is one of the few Amazon-produced products that does not bear the Echo name but rather is branded as being part of AmazonBasics, the company's immensely successful private-label brand for a far broader host of products. The microwave represents an accelerated expansion from Alexa's core of entertainment and information to more specific home utility.

Longer bets

The AmazonBasics microwave also serves as a reminder of Amazon's power as a retailer, and that is the strongest element at play in terms of some of the more off-the-wall (or on-the-wall in the case of the Alexa-related clock) ideas Amazon has cooked up. In addition to the high-concept wall clock, it includes the Echo Auto, a small slab that competes with the Alexa-enabled Roav Viva car lighter device by fast-growing accessory maker Anker.

Also: Top 5: Ways Alexa can help you get work done TechRepublic

There's merit to having Alexa in the car. However, Amazon has been able to experiment with more speculative products such as the Echo Look, Echo Connect, Echo Buttons, and the AmazonDash Wand in part because -- of all its major big consumer tech rivals -- it is in the best position to sell them to consumers. Indeed, hardly a day goes by without some Alexa-enabled product being featured among Amazon's daily deals; that makes for a good deal for Amazon.

For Apple, hardware is the business. For Microsoft, hardware is a productivity component. For Google, it's a vessel for advanced services. Once a lineup of cheap Android tablets, though, Amazon's smart hardware business is an effort to seed Alexa as far and wide as it can stay within earshot.

Previous and related coverage:

Alexa builds a growing army to invade the digital home

As Apple and Google prepare new home products to compete with the Echo, Amazon is exploring new categories in an effort to shore up Alexa's head start as the leading domestic voice agent.

Amazon's Alexa assistant now works with over 20K devices

Alexa's expansion is way up from 4,000 devices in January.

It's not about devices for Amazon and Alexa, it's about attention

The new devices got all the attention at last week's event, but Amazon is more interested in getting your attention.

Yes, Amazon, I've always wanted to talk to my 1980s microwave

Some of Amazon's newest gadgets are wonderfully infantilizing, showing humans just how useless we are.

Alexa's land-and-expand strategy is racking up the numbers

While Google is outselling Amazon in global units of smart speakers, other numbers show Amazon is doing just fine in expanding Alexa's reach and usage

Hands-on with four new Alexa Blueprints for keeping the peace at home

If you want to tell Alexa what to do, try Blueprints. Amazon just introduced four new types that allow you to customize Alexa with some new helpful skills.

Amazon Prime vs Amazon Business: Everything you need to know

You've probably heard about Prime. But did you know it's more than just free two-day shipping? And what about Amazon Business? Yes, Amazon also offers a marketplace with Prime-like benefits just for businesses. Here's what you need to know about both.