Amazon’s Echo loudspeaker has become a surprise hit in many people’s kitchens. Now, the company wants to invade the rest of your house: Amazon introduced two new Echo devices Thursday that are meant to bring the power of the Echo’s smart assistant Alexa everywhere.
The $90 Echo Dot packs much of the same technology as the original Echo in a much smaller package, with one key difference: The Echo Dot doesn’t contain a powerful loudspeaker, but instead connects to existing loudspeakers or stereo systems with an audio cable.
It can also be wirelessly paired to any Bluetooth speaker within range. And there is a tiny integrated speaker, about as powerful as a cell phone speaker, to use the device as an alarm clock on a bedside table.
Like the original Echo, it still contains an array of microphones that can identify voice commands from across the room, even when music is playing or household appliances are making noise in the background. And just like its bigger brother, the Dot gets all of its smarts from the cloud powered Alexa personal assistant, allowing users to play music from Pandora or Spotify, order items from Amazon, control their light or thermostat or read the news.
In addition to the Echo Dot, Amazon is also introducing a new $130 portable speaker called Amazon Tap that’s a bit like a Bluetooth speaker on steroids. With nine hours of battery life and Bluetooth connectivity, the Tap can be taken everywhere to play music from a nearby mobile device. Within range of one’s home router or any other source of Wifi connectivity, the Tap gains full Alexa integration.
The Amazon Tap loudspeaker comes complete with a wireless charging cradle, but it doesn’t pack the complicated microphone technology integrated into the original Echo loudspeaker or the new Echo Dot. That also means that you won’t be able to summon Alexa’s services with voice commands from across the room. The device instead features a simple microphone button. Press it, and the speaker will mute to hear your voice command. An Amazon spokesperson explained during a press briefing this week that the company decided for this more hands-on approach to maximize battery life.
Amazon is starting to sell the Tap immediately, and will ship the device by the end of the month. The company is being a bit more selective with the Echo Dot: For now, only consumers that already have an Echo in their home are able to order a Dot, and orders are limited to two per household. The company wants to eventually open up orders to anyone.
Amazon first introduced the original Echo loudspeaker in limited quantities at the end of 2014, and made it more widely available last year. Amazon devices SVP Dave Limp said at a press briefing in San Francisco Wednesday that the device turned out to be a lot more successful than his team had hoped for. “Consumer electronics are hard,” he said. “The roads are littered with consumer electronics failures.”
Amazon itself has had mixed success with devices in the past. The company’s Kindle e-book readers have been a hit, and its Fire TV streaming video devices seem to do reasonably well too. But Amazon’s attempt to enter the smart phone market with the Fire phone in 2014 flopped because the company couldn’t compete with more established products.
Limp attributed much of the Echo’s success to advancements natural language processing and speech synthesis over the past few years. At launch, the Echo still sounded a bit robotic, he admitted, but argued that Alexa is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from humans.
The new devices should help Amazon to get Alexa into the hands of many more customers. The Echo Dot in particular is an interesting product because it can be used to bring voice control into multiple rooms of a house. At this point, those individual Echo devices don’t talk to each other yet, but it’s likely that Amazon will eventually add additional functionality, including multi-room audio support.
The ultimate reason for Amazon to build these devices was to establish a new interaction model with technology, and a platform that will allow users to more easily access information as well as control devices in their home, said Limp. “At Amazon, we believe that the next big platform is voice.”