Limp has two new voice-controlled devices, both launching today, which join the Alexa collection alongside the Echo and the Fire TV set-top box. The Amazon Tap ($129.99) is an Alexa-enabled portable speaker along the lines of a Bluetooth model like the UE Boom. The Echo Dot ($89.99) is like a tiny Echo, all the microphones and smarts and almost none of the speakers. Both can do everything the Echo can, anything you can do with a sentence that begins with “Alexa…” In short, they put the platform in a lot more places: in small rooms and next to TVs, to the beach and into the car and on vacation. Alexa is free to roam the world now.
To see what Alexa can really do, though, what Amazon as a whole can do, stick to the kitchen. A few feet away from Limp, two Dash Buttons stick to the metal fridge, ready to replenish supplies with a click. A Dash wand hangs next to ribbed white mugs. A TV hangs above the sink, and the counter is lined with Amazon’s new auto-replenishing water filter, a Bosch oven, and a Nest thermostat. Down the hall there’s a makeshift bathroom, a washer and dryer, the normal home staples. Back in the kitchen, Limp has a red Kindle Fire tablet on a wooden stand, and—of course—two Echos to control it all.
Eventually, he says, all these things will be connected. “Your kitchen is not going to be a homogenous environment,” though. “We can’t rely that Amazon or anybody else is going to build all those devices and control them for your home.” That goes double for the outside world, where we’ll constantly interact with technology we didn’t buy and don’t know how to use. That’s why Amazon hopes Alexa is bigger than any device, or even any device type—it’s supposed to be everywhere you are. Any device can use Alexa; anyone can make Alexa do new things. In the quickening race between super-powerful voice assistants, Amazon’s is the one that’s leaping off your phone and into the real world. That’s why it’s winning.
The Tap is more or less the device everyone’s been asking for since the Echo first appeared a year ago. It’s an Echo, except you don’t have to plug it in all the time or shout at it from across the house like a misbehaving child. The one-pound, cylindrical black speaker has a rugged mesh exterior, playback controls on the top, and a big microphone button on the side. Tap the button, and you can speak to Alexa just as you always would. It can tether to your phone, or connect to Wi-Fi. The big thing missing here is the always-on, far-field listening tech that makes it possible to shout at your Echo from across the room. You can’t do that on a battery-powered device, unless you want the battery to last about five minutes. This one lasts for nine hours of playback, Amazon says.
If you ignore all the built-in voice features, you’re left with a fairly standard portable Bluetooth speaker. Dual stereo speakers inside the Tap spit out sound in all directions, and for a portable Bluetooth speaker, it actually sounds pretty good. It doesn’t seem to be as rich or clear as the UE Boom, for instance, but it’s about on par with what I’d expect for the price. You can pre-order the Tap today, and it’ll start shipping later this month.
There’s only one way to buy the Echo Dot, on the other hand, and that’s from your Echo. (“Alexa, order Echo Dot” is the magic phrase.) The Dot is sort of a companion for the Echo, kind of, but not necessarily. It’s just a smaller Echo, with a tiny (and bad) speaker. It still plugs into the wall, still does far-field voice recognition, it’s still named Alexa. It’s just small enough now to go on your desk, or your bedside table. It’s going to be a lot of people’s new alarm clock. Best of all, it has an audio-out port, which means you can connect it to any old speaker in your house and suddenly it’s connected to all things Alexa. It can even connect to a Bluetooth speaker, if you’d rather connect that way. Suck it, Chromecast Audio.
You’re probably wondering: How crazy does this get? Can I set up a mesh network of all my Alexa products and control everything from anywhere? Well, yes and no. Since everything the Echo does happens in the cloud anyway, you can definitely now control your living room temperature from the comfort of your hotel. That’s great. But you can’t yet rig up a synchronized music system through your house, or have Alexa scare someone in the other room. All that is probably possible, though. Since so much of the system’s power is not on the device itself, Alexa can update in a big way without touching the hardware.
We’ve been saying this for a while, but it bears repeating: The Amazon Echo is all grown up. It can play Spotify, control your lights, read you the news, answer your questions, order you pizza and an Uber, and so much more. As of today, it can also control your thermostat, thanks to a new Thermostat API. Amazon’s worked with Nest, Honeywell, and others to make changing the temperature as easy as saying it out loud. And as Amazon adds more capability to the service, it wants developers to do so as well; Amazon wants to be the voice-controlled back-end for everything you own and use.