Amazon’s voice-operated command center Echo produces something close to modern-day magic within our homes: Get the latest news, order a pizza, turn off the lights or find out who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents in fewer than 1,200 milliseconds.
The Echo has received more than 33,000 Amazon reviews at a nearly five-star rating since launching in late 2014 and was one of the best-selling items going for more than $100 over the holidays. Amazon has not released sales figures for Echo, but its rise in popularity and the ability to build upon and integrate with the companion Alexa API have moved the Echo front and center as a must-have device for the smart home.
Amazon is now introducing two new members to the Echo family with slightly different uses in hopes of achieving a similar reaction: Amazon Tap is a portable version of the original Echo, and Echo Dot is a tiny, hockey-puck-sized version that includes a built-in line-out connector to hook into your choice of speaker.
Amazon Tap is essentially a Bluetooth-enabled portable speaker with built-in WiFi and the Alexa operating system.
Tap works by, well, tapping the microphone button and asking for stuff. It weighs about a pound and enables Alexa fans to take the cloud-based voice command service with them on the go so you can order an Uber, a pizza or play music from Prime or iTunes anywhere you want. However, you will need to connect to WiFi or a mobile hotspot for that function to work.
Amazon demonstrated the sound quality to me before Tap went out today and I can say it did provide an impressive musical experience. Duel-firing Dolby speakers enable Tap to provide rich, 360-degree quality sound.
It’s also meant to tote around and comes with a pretty solid battery life for that purpose. A fully charged Tap will last for up to nine hours of playback or three weeks in standby mode.
Amazon says the $130 Tap will ship later this month.
The aptly named Dot is the kid sister version of Echo. According to Amazon, the Dot came about after a whole bunch of customers asked for a way to hook in their own speakers to Echo.
This device is, essentially, an Echo, but for half the price at $90. It comes with the same far-field voice recognition technology, has a built-in speaker with Bluetooth-enabled capabilities and connects to Alexa.
The cool factor is that you can place several of these around the house and they will act as voice-command centers for each room you place them in and will understand your commands from across the room, even you are playing music, kids are screaming or the TV is on, says Amazon.
Like the Echo, Dot can act as your smart home hub. You can tell it to dim your Phillips Hue lights or turn down your Nest thermostat, for instance. An Amazon spokesperson even joked you could ask it how much a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood. Dot’s reply was equally confusing.
However, the device may run into problems if you try to ask it to do things in another room or if there are two devices in the same room. According to Amazon, Dot is meant for one area at a time.
One other possible hiccup here – latency. Amazon’s engineers can’t control the speed of information relayed over the air to Bluetooth-enabled smart home devices.
Amazon is also running a bit of an experiment with the sales of this device. You can only order the Dot from an Echo or Fire TV. It also starts shipping later this month.
A better Clapper
What Amazon is trying to accomplish is impressive. When I was a kid we had the Clapper. You clapped your hands to turn the lights on and off. Now smart home hubs attempt to do the same thing through a very tedious process – you must enable Bluetooth, go into the app, select the device you wish to maneuver and then click the device in charge of your lights.
It doesn’t take a genius to know it’s easier to just ask Echo or Dot to turn off the lights than to click a bunch of things first.
This is perhaps why Echo has become such a hit – not because it can turn lights on and off, but because it aims to raise the IQ of your living quarters as a whole using your words in context and within less than a second.
Amazon says the number of skills Alexa can perform is now more than 300 (up from a mere six in August when Amazon opened it up to outside developers). Amazon continues to build and can update the system in an instant to keep it current.
Combine Alexa’s latest advancements with the newest Amazon hardware additions and you’ve got a seemingly magical system throughout the home and with you wherever you go that would boggle the mind of anyone living just five years in the past.