Yesterday Amazon unveiled two new additions to the Amazon Echo – the Amazon Tap and Echo Dot – designed to extend the reach of Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa into more corners of your home or office.
The Amazon Echo – A Quick Refresher
If you’re not familiar with the Amazon Echo, it is an always-listening, hands-free speaker that you can control from anywhere in a room with your voice. The Echo has an array of microphones that allow it to listen for its trigger word (“Alexa”) even in a large room with music playing.
With the ability to hook into (obviously) Amazon as well as other services (such as Spotify, Pandora, Wikipedia, Google Calendar, IFTTT, Domino’s, Uber, WeMo, Hue Phillips, and many, many more), the Echo essentially lets you ask questions or requests into thing air and either receive a response or complete a task.
Questions like “What’s on my calendar today” or “How long is my commute” or requests such as “Re-order more toilet paper”, “Set a timer for 10 minutes” or “Play Adele on Spotify” can all be accomplished hands-free. Tying in with businesses like Uber and Domino’s allow users to order a pizza or a car (or both) as well, hands free.
All-in-all, the Amazon Echo is one of the more compelling gadgets for the practical use of voice commands – certainly it makes more sense than using the voice commands on a phone (or a watch), where the same action can often be accomplished quicker using a physical interface.
The Amazon Tap
The Amazon Tap is the more expensive and the more flexible of the two new devices, taking most of the functionality of the Amazon Echo and putting it into a portable, battery-powered body.
The Tap provides the same number of connected apps and services, so, provided the Tap is connected to a WiFi network (or, it also appears, a mobile hotspot) you can perform all the same actions that you can do with the Echo. The battery-powered nature of the Echo means that it’s possible to carry it from room-to-room, and with the (quoted) battery life of 9 hours, it would also be possible to take it out of the house, to have a portable assistant and quality speaker on-the-go.
Oh, yeah, it’s also a Bluetooth speaker. Which means in addition to the Alexa functionality, you can also simply connect it via Bluetooth (or 3.5mm cable) to an Android or iPhone and use it to stream content directly from your smartphone.
There is one – potentially large – downside to the Tap vs. the Echo, however. Since the Tap is battery powered, it does not have the always-listening array of microphones. This means that in order to communicate with Alexa, you have to press a button (what is this – 2013?). Still, this is a lot of flexibility for a device that is competitively-priced with other Bluetooth speakers.
The Amazon Echo Dot
Perhaps the most unique device, simply because of how you must order it, is the Amazon Echo Dot. You can’t order the Dot from Amazon.com (go ahead, try it!), to order it, you must order it through Alexa Voice Shopping, and currently that means using either an Amazon Echo or an Amazon Fire TV. If you want one (and are a member of Amazon Prime), the magic phrase is “Alexa, order an Echo Dot”.
Edit: It turns out that you can order it using the Amazon Shopping app, tapping the microphone on the top, and saying “add Echo Dot to shopping cart”. You can then check out normally, and you’ll get the Dot when it ships later this month.
The reason for this – the Dot is not designed to be used on its own. The Dot is intended to be a satellite to either a pre-existing set of speakers (either through a 3.5mm cable or Bluetooth) or it can use its own tiny (and likely, not great) speaker for voice feedback (or for use as an alarm clock). Despite this, the Dot – much like the Tap – has access to the full range of voice-connected apps and services, making it extremely powerful for such a small size.
Just like the big Echo, the Dot has the 7-microphone array that is always listening, and can even hear you over music. This, of course, means that it also requires a constant power source, but with the much smaller size this is ideal for tucking away on a counter or putting on a bedside table.
Alexa Has a Family
This range of devices certainly bodes well for the potential functionality of Amazon’s voice-controlled ecosystem. While it’s not totally mature yet (for example, there’s currently no way to have multiple devices playing synchronized music throughout a house) the number of connected apps has grown, and the always-online nature of the device allows updates to be done seamlessly. Just recently both Nest and Honeywell – two makers of internet-connected thermostats – recently added the ability to control their devices through Alexa.
With these two new devices, Amazon is potentially placing itself as being the back-end through which many apps, businesses, and IOT devices can use to be connected. While the always-listening may seem creepy, if Amazon can get all these separate companies and devices to work together, it will certainly improve both the adoption and expansion of IOT.