Hands on: Huawei AI Cube review

Huawei's first smart speaker

What is a hands on review?
TODO alt text

For

  • Loud sound
  • Part router, part speaker

Against

  • No battery pack
  • No Google Assistant

It’s IFA 2018 and one year after Huawei teased a smart speaker alongside its Kirin 970 chipset announcement, the company has finally announced the physical product for us to ogle - the AI Cube.

But is it a cube? To our eye, it looks like a cylinder… it’s definitely a cylinder.

Announced along with the Kirin 980 chipset, the Mate 20 Lite and the Huawei Locator, the AI Cube is a Google Home look-a-like smart speaker with 4G, WiFi router capabilities and Amazon Alexa built in.

Huawei AI Cube price and release date

Expected to launch towards the end of this year, the Huawei AI Cube will make its debut in Europe. Huawei clearly hopes that its smart speaker will be able to take on the competition in time for the gift-giving season, but with pricing yet to be confirmed, how competitive it will be remains to be seen.

Design

Think, Google Home with a bit less air freshener styling, a bigger chassis and some HomePod elements at the top.

There are less angles and less playfulness, plus it's bigger than Google’s speaker, everything from the matte white plastic to the fabric base portion feels lifted from somewhere else, at least from a design point of view.

That said, it’s a very different beast to either Google or Apple’s offerings when it comes to functionality, with the side-mounted buttons reflecting this.

First-off, there’s what looks like a WPS button to connect the device when it’s in router mode, and above that is a power button. 

Things get much more smart speaker when you look at the top of the AI Cube. Touch sensitive volume buttons, an Alexa button and a physical mute button are all present, providing Echo functionality and completing what is clearly a device inspired by the current holy trinity of smart speakers.

With an ethernet port at the base, alongside its power port, while this might look like a very familiar smart speaker, as a router, it’s absolutely one of a kind.

4G + Router

Huawei is going for serious multi-functional product with its AI Cube, taking full advantage of its position as a key player in telecoms components.

The smart speaker doubles up as a WiFi router, sharing the 4G internet its SIM card slot enables. With Cat. 6 LTE, the Cube offers up speeds of up to 300Mbps down and 50Mbps up. 

If you want to just use its router functionality, it has an ethernet port at the base, supporting WiFi speeds capping out at 1,200Mbps, which will more than suffice for most users.

The additional advantage of a SIM card option is that Alexa voice command features will work independently of WiFi, so if you travel and don’t want to constantly relink it to a new WiFi, with the AI Cylinder Cube, it’s all good.

Alexa = AI 

Huawei has been riding the AI wave since its Mate 10 Pro was announced, and it's at it again, thwacking the buzz-word in the title of this product. In this case, the extent of the AI at play is Alexa - the same Alexa powering all the Amazon Echo products  and a plethora of other smart speakers on the market, so despite its name, it won’t be smarter than your average smart speaker.

On the plus side, with far-field voice recognition, it seemed to respond quickly to being woken with the word 'Alexa' and it was able to make out commands even in a room with a fair bit of hustle and bustle.

Huawei’s reasoning for opting for Alexa over Google Assistant is two-fold. On the one hand, with Alexa controlling over 20,000 smart home devices and playing nice with 3,500 brands, it’s an established, open player. In addition, Huawei already has a relationship with Amazon, having put Alexa on the Mate 9 in the past. 

Sound 

A 400ml sound cavity paired with an aluminium diaphragm and passive radiators combine to deliver what Huawei calls '"big sound". Adopting its proprietary Histen sound tuning technology seen in Huawei and Honor smartphones, the claim is that the AI Cube sound is 360-degree and immersive.

In the flesh, it is loud, making plenty of noise in a busy room. While loud is good, there was depth and roundness to the sound too, though without testing the audio quality alongside its key competitors or in a controlled environment, and with no pricing information, we couldn’t give a definitive verdict based on our early impressions. 

Initial verdict 

And so, we have to praise Huawei for being able to house so much tech in one device. This is an excellent looking router, a decent albeit familiar looking smart speaker, and a very versatile bit of kit.

If there aren’t any major flaws when it comes to sound quality or wireless performance, it could be a great addition to an Alexa connected household, not to mention a foot in the door for Huawei in the smart home space.

  • IFA 2018 is Europe's biggest tech show. The TechRadar team is in Berlin to bring you all the breaking news and hands-on first impressions of new phones, watches and other tech as they're announced.  

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.