Amazon wants to make it easier to add its voice-controlled assistant, Alexa, to any room in the home by offering a pair of new, smaller versions of Amazon Echo, the original tabletop Bluetooth speaker inhabited by Alexa. Echo Dot and Amazon Tap are both smaller than the original Echo and Tap is even portable, but was too much sacrificed in the design to keep them from being the next go-to digital assistant?
Echo Dot really is just a smaller version of the original Echo with the same ability to hear voice commands from across the room and perform an expanding array of tasks like playing music, controlling smart home devices, reading news and answering questions. Like the original, it has to remain tethered to the wall because it lacks a rechargeable battery and it also needs to be within range of your home WiFi network to operate.
In a way, you can think of Echo Dot as the smartest alarm clock ever made.
Because it lacks the loud, relatively powerful speakers of the original Echo, the Echo Dot can connect to bigger speakers via Bluetooth or USB cable for a better listening experience. Amazon pitches it as the ability to add voice control to your home stereo, which seems a little misleading, because it won't be able to take control of your old stereo tuner in any way; it's really just Alexa's output coming over your stereo speakers, to be clear.
While it's great that Echo Dot is smaller and half the price of the original Echo, we're a little disappointed Amazon didn't find a way to fit a rechargeable battery into it, making it truly easy to bring Alexa into any room.
It seems Amazon's answer to this shortcoming in the Echo Dot is its other new Alexa-occupied product, the Amazon Tap. Tap is a truly portable, Alexa-powered Bluetooth speaker with omni-directional Dolby sound and a rechargeable battery so you can take it with you wherever you go. It weighs only a pound (470 grams) and has an optional colorful Tap Sling that protects against drops and makes it easier to carry.
There are a few catches, however. For Alexa to work on Tap you have to be connected to Wi-Fi or a mobile hotspot wherever you are, and you have to physically tap a button on the speaker before it will start listening for your commands, hence the name. So there will be no yelling at Tap from across the beach to turn up your jams.
It's a little disappointing that Amazon has yet to find a way to make Alexa both truly portable and always listening like the Echo and Echo Dot. The need to physically activate the voice service doesn't make it much different from voice assistants on mobile devices that we already have with us everywhere like Siri. And since Alexa on Tap will only work when tethered to a mobile device providing its data connection, it's guaranteed to always be in competition with another voice assistant that we carry around with us.
Presumably the problem was that always-on listening drains battery and that's why Amazon opted to go with the physical button to activate Alexa – to keep the price down and battery life up.
But there is another way to look at Amazon Tap, which is that it could end up being the best buy on a portable Bluetooth Speaker out there. For less than what you'd pay for many small speakers from the likes of Bose or UE, you get an intelligent speaker that's unlike just about anything else available at the moment. We haven't yet tested its audio quality, but on paper it's looking good.
Amazon Tap is available for pre-order for US$129.99 and Echo Dot is $89.99 and limited to existing Amazon Prime members. Though you can order the Tap traditionally, the Dot is only available via Alexa voice shopping via an Echo or Fire TV (just say "Alexa, order an Echo Dot").
For more on the original, you can read Gizmag's Amazon Echo review.