Amazon’s Echo was an unlikely hit in today’s increasingly mobile world. I’ve got one, and I’m always amazed how the Echo can set an alarm, tell you the weather, and play news podcasts, audio books, and music, including volume adjustments, all under voice control. But at 1.68 pounds, it’s a bit on the heavy side and needs to be powered from a wall socket. And yet, it works so well as the voice-controlled center of a home entertainment, news, and (for some) automation that many of us who bought one wished it was more convenient to literally carry around.
Amazon responded to the above desire with two new products this week. The first is theAmazon Echo Dot, which looks exactly like the original Echo when looking down at the top of the unit. It has the same design, with two buttons and a lighted volume ring as well as a seven-microphone array. However, if you look at it from the side, it looks like someone chopped off most of the Echo and flattened it. It stands a mere 1.5 inches tall, while the original Echo is a relatively gigantic 9.25 inches tall.
The major difference between the Echo and the Echo Dot appears to be their respective speakers. The original Echo has both woofer and tweeter drivers, which produce, to my non-audiophile ears, excellent sound quality for music and voice content like audio books and podcasts. The Echo Dot has a smaller speaker of an unspecified size, which Amazon describes as a “built-in speaker for voice feedback when not connected to external speakers.”
In other words, the Echo Dot is intended to be used with external speakers, connected either using an audio cable with a 3.5mm mini-plug (like the cable on earbuds) or wirelessly using Bluetooth. So if you already own suitable speakers, the Echo Dot’s $89.99 price is half of the original Echo’s cost. One note: the Echo Dot doesn’t support Bluetooth speakers that require a PIN to pair. Amazon has a list of compatible speakerson its website.
Another bizarre quirk: If you want to order an Echo Dot, you can only do so if you’re an Amazon Prime member with an original Amazon Echo, because you need to order it through the Amazon Echo.
The second new product is the Amazon Tap (pictured right, in optional carrying case, with dog). The Tap lacks the Echo branding, signaling the latter is for devices that are initiated with the “Alexa” keyword. The Tap requires you to tap a button with a microphone icon near the top of the unit to ask it to perform some task. It other words, it appears to operate like a walkie-talkie with its push-to-talk-to-Alexa mode. It is a hands-on versus hands-free device.
At one pound, the Tap is about two-thirds the weight of the original Echo. So it’s not exactly lightweight, yet Amazon positions this device as the battery-powered unit to take on the go. At 6.2 inches tall and with a diameter of 2.6 inches, it’s more transportable than the Echo. Its battery can last up to 9 hours of continuous playback. It does away with the light ring volume control of the Echo and Echo Dot. Instead, it has a more conventional-looking set of controls on its circular top for playback and volume control.
Where the Echo has a 2.5 inch woofer and 2.0 inch tweeter, the Tap has a pair of 1.5-inch drivers with dual passive radiators for bass extension. At least in theory, it can function as a miniature portable speaker that actually sounds good for music. The $129.99 Tap will be available on March 31, and you can get it with optional carrying cases similar to what’s available for the Bose SoundLink Mini and other portable Bluetooth speakers.
The Tap appears to be Amazon’s entry into the portable Bluetooth speaker realm. The Echo Dot, on the other hand, looks like a good way to get most of the features of the original Echo for half the price — assuming you have wired or Bluetooth speaker to use with it. The appeal of the Echo and Echo Dot is that they can be controlled hands-free. And their amazing microphone arrays let you do this from across the room (unlike Siri-, Google Now-, and Cortana-enabled devices that need you to be relatively close to the microphone).