The Amazon Echo was a clumsy implementation for what ended up being an idea with legs. People have an appetite for a seamless voice-controlled assistant. The Star Trek Computer! Jarvis! Hal! Except not evil! It’s legitimately cool how easy it is to ask this gadget something and get answers. Yet the Echo didn’t do much, and the unvarnished tubular design that required outlet power didn’t seamlessly slide into your life like a voice assistant ought to.
But its always-on listening trick turned out to be quite compelling, and so Amazon’s at it again.
With the Alexa-enabled Echo Dot and Tap devices, Amazon explores how exactly its voice assistant might more conveniently fit into our lives. The $90 Dot is a hockey puck-sized version of the Echo (sans giant speaker), which needs outlet power and is always listening for your commands. You can use it on its own, or plug it into your existing sound system. The Tap is a variation on a cylindrical portable Bluetooth speaker, like the UE Boom, with Alexa powers built in. The catch is that the Tap requires that you activate the Alexa’s listening by touching a button—no always-on listening here.
As with the Echo, setup is very simple. Download Amazon’s Alexa app, and you’re quickly guided through connecting the devices to wi-fi. Since the Tap isn’t theoretically always in your home, you can also connect it to your phone’s data connection, but it’s a pain to do that on the fly and no one would ever bother.
The Echo Dot is wonderful and the Tap is a mess. They’re the best and worst prototypes of what a personalized voice-assistant might one day be.
The Dot’s become part of my daily routine as a glorified alarm clock that sits on the table next to my bed. At night as I’m dozing off, I bark at it that I want to be woken up at 6:45, and it dutifully sets the alarm and wakes me up with a soothing melody. Once out of the shower, I ask it for my “flash briefing” and it plays me the headlines from NPR News, and tells me what the weather’s like.
All of this, mind you, is stuff the Echo could do, but whereas the Echo is an unwieldy tube that blocks the light from my lamp, the Dot’s compact size makes it a convenient nightstand accessory I can easily shift around.
In theory, the Dot is designed to plug into another speaker system via little aux cable or Bluetooth, but I actually prefer to use the dinky speaker built into it. When I want to play music, I use something else.
Though I’ve managed to effortlessly slide the Dot into my life, the Tap mostly just sits on my desk in its charging dock unused. I don’t want to have to wake it up for it to work. Having to push the little microphone button creates just enough friction that I don’t use it. It’s a paperweight.
On the surface, the Tap seems to be a logical evolution of the Echo. The Echo kind of looked like a portable Bluetooth speaker, but it wasn’t portable. Moreover, it makes sense to have a portable assistant: I’m only in my bedroom or my kitchen at certain times of day, and it would be great if I could just carry it around everywhere I go. In practice, the Tap doesn’t really work like that. It’s nonsensical to carry the thing around everywhere I go. I’m not going to lug around a whole speaker on the off chance that I might need a voice assistant. The tech makes more sense built into a phone, and unfortunately, Amazon’s really, really bad at making phones.
The Tap’s also not a good enough speaker for playing music. It’s fine, sure, and at very low volume its playback is even and balanced. Yet turn it up even a little bit and the detail in your tunes gets muddled. Television’s swirly guitar solos got all bright—the high-end shredding your ears with a shimmery sheen.
Setting aside the design of the Dot and the Tap, the Alexa assistant itself suffers from many of the same frustrating limitations as the Echo. Amazon has spent the last year integrating more and more services you actually use into the Echo—you can use it to order Domino’s, call an Uber, and even to play music from Spotify—but the voice assistant still doesn’t do nearly enough. I can ask some very easily Googleable questions like “How tall is Barack Obama,” and I can call an Uber, but Alexa doesn’t know what time the dinner party is (unless I attach it to a very specific Google calendar), or what my friend’s cross streets are.
Also, the execution of the assistant powers is still clunky. The natural language recognition isn’t quite there yet. I can say “Alexa Play Nirvana from Spotify” and it’ll play top tracks from the band, but if I say “play Nirvana Nevermind from Spotify” it stalls, failing to recognize that I’m looking for the legendary record.
You have to really think about the commands you’re giving the device, and if you stall in the middle of giving a command it gets confused. If I say “Alexa play, er, um,” the devices just start playing some playlist from Prime Music I might like. Sure I like Tame Impala—but it’s not Nevermind, dammit.
In short, Alexa lacks the functionality and polish to really be part of my life in a meaningful way. At best, Amazon’s new gadgets, like the Echo before, are fun toys. At $90, the Echo Dot is cheap enough, and offers enough that I would buy it just for fun. The Tap on the other hand isn’t good at much of anything, and I wouldn’t bother with it.
Amazon’s concept for smart gadgets still feels like the future. It’s a future based on some smart ideas, too. For now, you should probably wait for the future to buy in.
- The Echo Dot is basically a fun glorified alarm clock.
- The Tap wants to be a cross between a portable Bluetooth speaker and voice assistant and does neither well.
- It’s really fun to ask Alexa dumb questions.
- Alexa is frustrating to use at times and doesn’t do all that much.