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Hi, Alexa: The 101 on Amazon’s Echo, Echo Dot, and Tap

Even if Alexa—Amazon’s voice-activated personal assistant—isn’t part of your family, you’ve likely heard of her. Amazon’s line of Alexa-enabled products became the most popular tech items of 2016: the Echo and Echo Dot sold out at Christmas and topped numerous best-of lists.

Amazon’s three artificial intelligence devices—the Amazon Echo, Amazon Echo Dot, and Amazon Tap—all operate with the same software. Though their brains are the same, and they all perform similar functions, they have slight design and programming differences that set them apart. We’ve written an Amazon Echo review before and gone into detail about its capabilities, but here we’ll explain all three Amazon devices—and how they can work together.

What Does Alexa Do?

The Alexa Voice Service—Alexa, for short—fits into your daily routine. Alexa’s skills range from basic functions, like setting alarms and timers, to Bluetooth-enabled tasks, like playing music from an online playlist. Alexa also offers customizable features, like sharing daily headlines from your favorite news outlets.

Designed to be a hub for your home, Alexa is like a personal butler. It can integrate with smart home features, fitness wearables, and IoT products. Alexa responds to thousands of commands and performs various tasks. And this list of abilities is constantly growing as Alexa’s software updates, learns, and adapts to your voice commands.

There are over 1,000 Alexa-specific skills that you can launch in the Alexa mobile app. Alexa can narrate books, share weather forecasts, play Twenty Questions, call an Uber, fill a shopping list, order Domino’s Pizza, share stock updates, integrate with smart home technology, explain recipes, search local traffic, and recite jokes and pickup lines.

Using far-field technology, Alexa is hands free and can hear a voice from anywhere in a room. It is activated only after the wake word—which is “Alexa” by default—is spoken. Alexa Voice Service updates over the Cloud, so you won’t have to install software updates. 

Amazon Echo

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At nine inches tall, the Amazon Echo features a powerful, crisp 360-degree speaker. The Echo is meant to be the centerpiece of a home, as its Alexa can hear voice commands from across the room, even when other noises are present.

Pros:

It has a great speaker. The speaker on the Echo is excellent, especially for its compact size. The volume can go incredibly loud, and the rich bass sound is impressive. Although it doesn’t compare to a Bose system, the Echo definitely holds its own.

It’s a central command center. Because of its powerful speaker and ability to hear you from far away, the Echo can be the central command unit for your home. An awesome feature is the Echo’s ability to search the web for you, so you can ask for sports highlights or the solution to a math problem.

Cons:

It stays put. The Amazon Echo is not designed to leave its home—after setting it up and plugging it into an electrical outlet, it’s ideal if it stays in that spot.

It’s somewhat expensive. At nearly $200, the Echo is the priciest of the three Amazon AI units.

It has limited customization. Black or white are the only color options.

The Bottom Line: The Echo is ideal for a common area of your home. It can be a hub that will perform a variety of tasks, stream music, and manage your smart home features. Whether you have already outfitted your home with smart features or you are just getting started, the Amazon Echo is a valuable tool that will help you manage your connected home.

Amazon Echo Dot

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The Amazon Echo Dot has the brain of the Echo without as much body. The Echo Dot is the same style and circumference as the Echo, but it is much shorter. The speaker is not meant to be a stand-alone audio device like the Echo, but the Echo Dot can connect to another speaker system with Bluetooth or its included cable.

Pros:

It’s a great value. The Echo Dot provides many of the same functions as the Echo, but at a significantly lower cost. You’ll get the incredible AI software without the expensive speaker component.

It includes audio-output capabilities. Though the Echo Dot speaker is nothing to brag about, it comes with a 3.5 mm speaker cable and can connect via Bluetooth.

Cons:

It has a basic speaker. The Echo Dot alone does not provide a great listening experience—especially if you’re across the room. Its speaker is comparable to a cellphone speaker. The volume level is minimal, and the bass is practically nonexistent.

It’s not portable. The Echo Dot is not designed to move from room to room.

It has limited customization. Like the Echo, black or white are the only color choices.

The Bottom Line: The Echo Dot is a great introductory device to the Alexa products. If you already have an excellent entertainment system setup, you will appreciate the Echo Dot because you can connect the unit to your speakers and access all the Alexa AI capabilities. The Echo Dot also works well as a companion to the Echo and would be ideal for a smaller room or a different floor than your Echo.

Amazon Tap

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An on-the-go Alexa device, the Amazon Tap is portable. The Tap does not carry the Echo name because it does not have a hands-free speaker: Alexa activates when you tap a button at the top of the unit next to the controls, like volume, fast forward, or rewind. The Amazon Tap trades in the active voice listening capability for battery-operated mobility. It can run for nine hours on playback without needing a charge, and its Bluetooth connectivity makes it an excellent speaker to stream music from your smartphone.

Pros:

It’s portable. The Tap is lightweight—it weighs just one pound—and made to travel, unlike the Echo and Echo Dot that remain attached to one spot.

It charges wirelessly. Charging is easy with a wireless charging dock.

It has a customizable design. The Amazon Tap Sling Cover helps easily transport the Tap and comes in six colors. The Sling will also protect your device from bumps and drops.

It has a great speaker. The 360-degree speaker is Dolby powered and offers full-range sound.

Cons:

It doesn’t have active voice listening. Unlike the Echo and the Echo Dot, the voice controls on the Amazon Tap are not accessible until you push the microphone button on top of the unit.

It operates only with Wi-Fi. Like the other Amazon AI devices, the Tap works only when it is connected to Wi-Fi, which means you can’t truly access Alexa anywhere.

It has no audio-out function. Unlike the Echo Dot, the Tap cannot connect to a speaker system. The Tap has only audio-in features.

The Bottom Line: The Amazon Tap is great for travelers. If you want a portable Bluetooth speaker and don’t mind pressing the unit to access the voice-control features, the Tap is the right device. The Tap is also ideal if you’re on the go and want to manage your smart home functions, like locking the doors or turning off the lights remotely.

How the Amazon Products Can Build a Smart Home

These Alexa-enabled products can be a central hub for your connected smart home. Voice-controlled thermostats, lights, security systems, sprinklers, and locks are now a relatively affordable reality with Amazon’s Alexa line.

The software powering the Amazon Echo, Amazon Echo Dot, and Amazon Tap integrates seamlessly with home automation products. This hands-free capability is a major draw—you can simply direct Alexa to “change the temperature in the dining room to 68 degrees” or to “set the alarm system.” Various smart home products tie-in to the Alexa interface. The major ones include Nest, Belkin WeMo, SmartThings, Wink, Honeywell, Philips Hue, Ecobee, Vivint, and Scout—so you’re sure to find a connectivity option that works for you.

Though you don’t need all three of Amazon’s Alexa-enabled products to power your smart home, they can work together. An Amazon Echo can be your living room hub, the Amazon Echo Dot can live in your master bedroom, and you can use the Amazon Tap when you’re away from home.

If you’re debating which Amazon product to put in your home, evaluate your needs. Each product is designed with different features that appeal to various lifestyles. But no matter which you choose, you’ll wonder how you ever functioned without it.

Amelia Nielson-Stowell

Find out more about Amelia, here.

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