This is a review of the newly-announced Amazon Tap and Amazon Echo Dot as they compare to the existing Amazon Echo with its smart voice recognition software, Alexa, and other market competitors.
Amazon Tap Review
Amazon Tap is a portable, traveler-friendly version of Amazon Echo, the November 2014-released device powered by Amazon’s Alexa voice recognition software. Cylindrical in shape, it’s 6.2” tall and 2.6” in diameter (159 mm tall, 66 mm diameter). The charging cradle, also cylindrical but much smaller, is just 0.6” tall and the same 2.6” in diameter (15mm tall ,66 mm diameter). The Amazon Tap weighs 16.6oz (470 grams) and the charging cradle is 3.8oz (109 grams). If you prefer not to use the charging cradle, which seems more convenient for home use, it comes with a microUSB cable and adapter that you can use for charging on the go.
Amazon Echo Dot
Unlike the Amazon Tap, the Amazon Echo Dot requires an Amazon Echo in order to work. It’s shaped like a hockey puck, just 1.5″ tall and 3.3” in diameter (38 mm tall, 84 mm diameter) and weighs in at just 8.8 oz. (250 grams).
How do the Amazon Tap and Amazon Echo Dot compare to the Amazon Echo?
This is only a fair comparison for the Amazon Tap, since the Amazon Echo Dot is meant to be a supplement to the Echo, not a replacement for it.
The Amazon Tap, when you include the charging cradle, is about 70% of the physical size of the Echo and just over 50% of the weight. As you can see from these photos of the two devices below (left to right: Amazon Echo, Amazon Echo Dot, Amazon Tap), most of that size decrease comes from the smaller speakers in the Amazon Tap. The 2.5” woofer and 2” tweeter in the Echo are significantly larger than the dual 1.5” drivers in the Amazon Tap, yet early reviewers have noted that the audio volume and quality in the Amazon Tap are impressive nonetheless. Both devices connect to Wi-Fi, and a great feature of the Amazon Tap that’s not available on the Echo is the ability to connect to mobile networks through mobile hotspots for those times when Wi-Fi isn’t available. Also, both devices can also connect to your phone or additional speakers via Bluetooth, and their voice recognition software gives you the power to control your phone anywhere that your Amazon Echo or Amazon Tap can hear you.
Another exciting feature of the Amazon Tap is that it’s battery-powered, and according to Amazon, the battery is good for 9 hours of playback time or 3 weeks of standby time. The main reason I never got an Echo before is because I’m constantly traveling, and lugging around a kilogram of metal nearly the size of a football isn’t my idea of a good time. But with the much-smaller Amazon Tap, things are starting to make sense. However, with the battery comes some limitations. The Amazon Tap is so named because you need to tap the microphone button in order to use Alexa (in contrast, the Echo listens to you all the time with no physical movements necessary), a move Amazon made to preserve battery life.
And of course, both of them come with a 1-year Amazon warranty, which in my experience, is worth quite a bit. Amazon has really been stepping up their customer service in recent years, so you should feel comfortable knowing that if you do experience a problem, they’ll make it right.
Comparing the Amazon Echo and the Amazon Echo Dot
In a lot of ways, the Amazon Echo Dot is very much like the Google Chromecast. It connects to any speakers, either via Bluetooth or through an audio out cable, allowing you to create the “listening web” that Alexa has become known for. Whether you’re in a noisy room or a quiet one, you can speak to your Amazon Echo Dot in a comfortable voice and it will pick up your audio, even if you’re all the way across the room. It’s able to do this because of its 7-microphone design, one of which will pick up the wake word (normally “Alexa”), and then only listen to the words coming from that speaker. Background noise, other voices, and even music playing from the device itself is ignored in order to interpret that command.
The Amazon Echo Dot technically can be used on its own, though its built-in speaker is comparable to that of a modern smartphone, so it’s best when used with an additional speaker. For things like alarms and timers, though, and for all the commands you’d normally give to your Amazon Echo or directly to your smartphone (“Order an Uber;” “Get the headlines from The New Yorker;” “What’s the weather?”), the Amazon Echo Dot gives you exactly what you need.
Our recommendation: The Amazon Tap
For a traveler, we recommend the Amazon Tap, since it has all of the functionality you want from the Amazon Echo and the Amazon Echo Dot except for two things: it doesn’t actively listen to you (you need to tap the microphone button to activate it), and its size differs from the other two (smaller than the Amazon Echo, larger than the Amazon Echo Dot). Odds are that the size will be an important factor for you, but the active listening won’t, which may even incline you to consider the Amazon Echo Dot as your device of choice. However, if you have any intention of using your device as a speaker, the Amazon Echo Dot is essentially eliminated from the equation (and trust me – once you have a portable travel speaker, you’ll wonder how you went anywhere without it.) There’s nothing worse than having your favourite song come on Spotify and then having to listen to it on a subpar speaker. We’d say go for the Amazon Tap if you’re going to be traveling with this at all.
When should you get the Amazon Echo Dot? Well, the Echo Dot is perfect for home use if you already have an existing set of speakers, since it’s basically the Echo without its speakers.
Cool things you can do with these devices
When the Amazon Echo first launched in August 2014, it was limited to just 6 “skills”, which is what Amazon calls the things that Alexa can do. Today, there are over 300 Amazon Tap hacks, which are compiled in a list here. Here are just three:
Get the headlines from your favorite news source
“Alexa, ask HuffPost for headlines”
Order your usual pizza from Domino’s
“Alexa, open Domino’s and place my Easy Order”
Find your phone
“Alexa, find my phone”
You may not use these ones as much as you would, say, Uber or Spotify. But the reality is that you can do a lot more with Alexa than you can with Siri or OK Google on your iPhone or Android. It also works alongside a lot of other smart devices, such as the Belkin WeMo Switch, the Nest Thermostat, your Fitbit, the Scout Alarm, and Garageio.
Is the Amazon Echo Dot any better than the Google Chromecast?
Well, the Amazon Echo Dot and the Google Chromecast are only really similar in the sense that they make dumb devices smart. Beyond that, there aren’t that many similarities.
Google Chromecast is a very simple device: it allows you to take content from your phone or laptop and play it on your TV or set of speakers. There’s no listening capability to the Chromecast, so it acts as more or less a new distribution method for existing technologies – instead of transmitting music to a set of speakers over BlueTooth, or connecting your laptop to a larger TV screen with an HDMI cable, the Chromecast performs both over Wi-Fi.
But there’s nothing about the Chromecast to suggest it will make your life substantially better, except for being able to entertain yourself more easily. Alexa’s ability to take notes, give you updates on news and weather, and even order pizza from Domino’s with a single voice command places it a large step ahead of the Chromecast.
Are the new family of Amazon devices financially worth it?
In order to make a sound financial comparison of the Amazon Tap and Amazon Echo Dot, we need to think about how long these devices will be at the forefront of technology before they are replaced by better models, which also determines how long you, as a tech early adopter, will want to hold on to yours.
Looking at the smartphone market as the closest comparator, it takes 12-24 months for a new wave of smartphone models to supersede the previous generation. And the Amazon Tap and Amazon Echo Dot devices themselves came 18 months after the release of the original Echo, which sets a good standard for the industry’s rate of technological progression. So we’ll use 18 months as our product lifetime.
A product lifetime of 18 months means that the Amazon Tap will cost you about $7.20/month, and the Echo Dot $5/month at the current prices of $130 and $90 respectively. If you filter that down to a daily cost structure, that means you’re looking at about $0.25/day for the Amazon Tap and about $0.17/day for the Echo Dot.
When you think about it in these terms, which assumes that you junk the device immediately at the end of 18 months and don’t resell it for a portion of the cost you paid (which is likely to be very easy, given the robustness of Amazon’s reseller program), it makes the decision a lot easier.
Am I willing to pay $0.25/day for a portable speaker that also simplifies a whole host of tasks for me and makes my days more enjoyable? Absolutely.
Similarly, Am I willing to pay $0.17/day for a device that fits in my pocket, simplifies a whole host of tasks for me and makes my days more enjoyable? The answer is still a definite yes. So the real question becomes…
Am I willing to pay $0.08/day extra for a portable speaker?
Definitely. My evenings, and sometimes my mornings as well, often turn into dance parties currently fuelled by either my Yurbuds or these over-ear headphones from LSTN, though I’m always wishing I had a portable speaker solution so I could take these parties to the next level.
So for me, the Amazon Tap is the way to go, and it’s absolutely worth the $130 purchase price. I’ll be ordering mine as soon as it’s released this Thursday, March 31, 2016.
Comparisons to other Portable Speakers
If you’re still on the fence though, take a look at three similar products that may sway you one way or the other:
A splashproof Bluetooth speaker with an Amazon rating of 4.6/5. The main critiques are extremely loud on/off sounds that can’t be turned down or off, poor quality connection that makes it difficult to move your smartphone when using the speaker, and low range. Several reviewers also noted that the minimum volume wasn’t low enough, making quiet, peaceful music nearly impossible, and when the volume did approach its minimum, a hissing sound became apparent.
A compact (5.3” x 5.0” x 2.1”, or 135mm x 127mm x 53mm) Bluetooth speaker with an Amazon rating of 4.7/5. Critiques here centred on surprisingly poor audio quality, especially as volume increased, and many reviewers even said that the maximum volume was less than impressive. Also, a lot of customers weren’t happy with Bose after they learned of the device’s 300-charge cycle, after which battery life severely diminishes. Replacing the battery costs $90, nearly the cost of the entire unit.
A “waterproof, shockproof, designed for adventure” Bluetooth speaker with a 100-foot wireless range and an Amazon rating of 4.6/5. Nearly all of the critics made mention of a less-than-impressive sound quality, especially with the speaker’s bass, and some connectivity issues were noted as well. Plus, a lot of people said it doesn’t justify the significantly higher price point, and they noted a variety of cheaper speakers that they said performed better.
You can see Amazon’s own comparison of these three speakers against the Amazon Tap which, although it’s clearly biased in Amazon’s favour (it doesn’t highlight the splashproof design of the JBL Flip 3, for example), gives a fairly good look at some of the key differences between them. In my opinion, though, it all comes down to the last line: Alexa Voice Service. That’s what puts Amazon head and shoulders above the rest here.
But perhaps you’ve discovered that you actually don’t care about Alexa Voice Service, and instead you just want a great portable speaker. In that case, I recommend that you look into AmazonBasics’ line of speakers.
If you aren’t already familiar, AmazonBasics is Amazon’s line of low-cost, high-quality essential products. All of the manufacturing on the AmazonBasics line is overseen by Amazon, and they’re applying every bit of rigor that you see in their distribution into their manufacturing processes. They don’t cut any corners, and it shows in their products.
A quick aside on AmazonBasics: my first exposure to AmazonBasics was with a DSLR camera bag. I bought it because it was relatively cheap, had minimal branding, and was the perfect size for my traveling DSLR kit of just a Pentax K-50 with kit lens and one additional prime lens. I loved the case and it was extremely sturdy, so when that was stolen (that’s another story altogether), I decided to upsize to their DSLR backpack.
And you know what? I love my AmazonBasics backpack. I’ve used it every single day for the past six months, doing everything from hiking to safaris to lugging around my now-expanded photography ensemble, and it still looks like it’s brand new. This is what’s really sold me on the AmazonBasics brand, and the fact that they build such high-quality products at such low prices backed by Amazon’s amazing customer support makes it a huge win.
All of that is to say that AmazonBasics is a force to be reckoned with, and their reviews show it. All of their portable Bluetooth speakers are rated at least 4 out of 5 stars, so if you’re looking for a portable music player, not a smart, time-saving device, I’d definitely encourage you to take a look at their product line.
The Amazon device family as travel tools
So here’s what you’re all wondering: are these devices I can travel with? As someone who travels full-time with just a backpack and a day bag, I give it a tentative Yes. Of course, you don’t need these devices; you can do everything that these devices can do in one form or another using your phone or your laptop. Sure, you’ll need to type instead of speaking, and the audio playback won’t be as loud or clear, but you can still do things to some degree.
On the other hand, though, they take up a really small amount of space and weight; the Amazon Tap is just slightly larger than a Coke can (same diameter, one-third taller) and weighs about a pound, while the Echo Dot is just 10% larger than a hockey puck and about half a pound, making them both extremely portable. But what would you actually use them for while traveling?
Well, Skyscanner has announced a partnership with Amazon that will allow you to instantly search for flights (though we still recommend talking with a real flight hacker at Yore Oyster to get the best prices), which shows that Amazon is thinking about travelers while they build their devices. Traffic updates and weather reports delivered via Alexa’s audio would be handy if you’re on a road trip in a jurisdiction where using your phone while driving is illegal, and we’ve already mentioned the portable speaker aspect of the devices, which is a major draw.
And to make your Amazon Tap even more travel-friendly, Amazon has released a set of silicone sling covers, designed specifically for your Amazon Tap and on sale for just $20 with free shipping.
If you’re like me and you’re willing to pay $0.25/day for a portable speaker that does some other cool stuff too, go for it. You’ll impress your travel mates, save a bit time in your daily routine, and maybe even sell it back on Amazon 12-18 months from now when a newer device is released.
Does Amazon ship to my country?
I used to run into this problem all the time: I’d find an item I loved, go through the checkout process, and then right before I was ready to buy, I’d get hit with the infamous “Amazon doesn’t ship to your location” message. There’s nothing more frustrating than that, so I hacked together a workaround:
Login to your Amazon account and go to Your Account -> Manage Shipping Address.
Turn on 1-click ordering and add your travel address as your 1-click default address. If you don’t have a mailing address because you’re staying in Airbnbs or hotels, think about asking them to receive a package for you. I’ve done this in countless hotels around the world with no issues – just remember to include “c/o Your Name” and the dates of your hotel stay on the package so they know who to give it to.
That’s it. Now that you’ve got 1-click ordering on, just look at the right side of your screen whenever you’re on the product page for an item you want to buy. If nothing looks out of order, you’re in the clear! But if there’s a message saying that the item can’t be shipped to you, you’re out of luck at your current address, and you’ll have to wait a bit until you reach a new country. Frustration = avoided.
Get your Amazon Tap or Amazon Echo Dot today.