If you want Lenovo’s Smart Assistant early, fly to China

Before going abroad, Lenovo’s new Smart Assistant speaker will make its debut back home.

The world’s largest PC maker on Tuesday revealed the voice-controlled speaker, saying the device will be available in the US in May. But, before then, the device will go on sale this March in China, Lenovo’s home market, company spokesman Jeff Witt told CNET ahead of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The hardware on the two models will be the same, Witt said, but the Chinese model will use technology from AISpeech, a Chinese company, for voice recognition. The US version uses Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant.

The US device starts at $129. Witt didn’t disclose pricing for the China version.

Lenovo’s Smart Assistant will be one of the first smart speakers to reach the massive China market, marking a continued expansion of voice-powered devices since Amazon introduced the Echo in the US in late 2014. In China, tech company LingLong last year started selling the DingDong smart speaker. Also, China’s Baidu and US-based Harman unveiled in September a partnership to create smart speakers using Baidu’s AI technology.

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Lenovo’s move highlights how quickly voice controls have gained popularity with both manufacturers and consumers alike. Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft — all leaders in voice-control software — are adding chatty assistants into speakers, laptops and phones.

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Millions of people now use these voice assistants to play music, turn on lights and lock the doors. They’re also using the digital helpers for more complicated tasks, like checking traffic patterns and ordering new toys or toiletries online.

The Echo is currently available in the US and UK, and on sale on an invitation-only basis in Germany.

In the US, Lenovo plans to integrate more Amazon technology into its devices, using the Alexa-powered Smart Assistant as the first step, according to Bill Dominici, Lenovo’s director of strategy for PC and smart devices worldwide.

Dominici said the companies began collaborating about a year ago, with Lenovo talking to Amazon about how it could sell its gadgets more effectively on Amazon’s websites. The talks branched into more areas, including ways Lenovo could use Amazon tech.

“We’re excited to be working with Lenovo to integrate Alexa into their devices,” Amazon spokeswoman Kinley Pearsall said Tuesday, though she declined to specify any future plans.

Asked whether Lenovo is planning to add Alexa to a future PC, Dominici said: “There’s obviously some potential there. I can’t say we’re not exploring.”

CNET reported in September that Lenovo spoke with Amazon about using Alexa in its computers and other devices, citing another Lenovo executive.

See CNET’s full CES 2017 coverage.

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