Why I love both of Amazon’s new Echo smart speakers [Reviews]

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The Amazon Echo Tap is the portable, battery-powered member of the smart speaker family.
The Amazon Echo Tap is the portable, battery-powered member of the smart speaker family.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

Best List: Amazon’s Echo Dot and Echo Tap

Ask Amazon’s Echo smart speaker “How much does the Earth weigh?” and she’ll rattle off the answer in pounds. It takes about a full minute and is genuinely amusing. It’s just one of many surprises up Echo’s sleeve (see this crazy list of Echo Easter Eggs on Reddit). It proves she is by far the best computer you can talk to. Sorry Siri.

And now there are two new members of Amazon’s smart speaker family, both with significant advantages. I love them both, with a couple of caveats.

Connect the Amazon Echo Dot to your existing speaker system, and you bingo! -- your speakers just got smart.
Connect the Amazon Echo Dot to your existing speaker system, and bingo! — your speakers just got smart.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

Echo Dot: Add Alexa to your existing speakers

Just released — and already impossible to get — is the Amazon Echo Dot, a little black puck that plugs into your existing speaker system. It’s like the top half of the Amazon Echo speaker released last year — the part that listens to you — and as such, costs half the price ($89.99). It makes any speaker smart, including Bluetooth speakers or home theater systems.

I have it plugged into a pair of bookshelf speakers at the office, and it’s pretty darn great. I love playing music with it, from favorites on Amazon Prime Music to BBC Radio 1Xtra in London.

The best thing? She’s flawless and fast. Unlike Siri, Alexa understands almost everything you say and then executes what you want freakishly fast. Speaking to a machine is a pleasure, not a pain.

Echo Tap: Alexa on-the-go

The other new member of the family is the Echo Tap, a portable, battery-powered smart speaker. The Echo Tap resembles the small cylindrical UE Boom 2 bluetooth speaker from Ultimate Ears, which we reviewed and love.

Although it’s more expensive than the Boom 2, and doesn’t sound as good, it does add voice commands.

Like the Dot, I use it mostly to play music, although I have set timers and alarms and checked the weather and traffic. Both devices will do a bunch more, including sports scores, answering facts and trivia, controlling the lights or reading an audiobook. Every week, Amazon adds more functions and is aggressively adding ever more.

It sounds silly, but it’s really compelling when a machine understands and acts on your commands. Who knew you had an inner Mussolini so eager to bark orders? Speech is such a natural interface, especially when you don’t have to think of weird, machine-friendly ways to put things.

Buttons: the tiny fly in the ointment

There are drawbacks with both. The key thing about Echo is that she’s always on, always listening. With the battery-powered Tap, you have to hit a button to get her to listen. There’s no standby mode, even when the speaker is sitting on its clever charging pad (which would be an awesome fix in future software). Pressing a button is small but significant — you can’t yell at it from across the room. Picking it up spoils the total convenience. Yeah, this is a first world problem for sure, but it does make a difference. On the other hand, you gain awesome portability. I carried the Tap all around the house the other day while I performed a bunch of chores, and loved being able to play any song I wanted while I battled some Ikea furniture.

I have almost the same problem with the Echo Dot plugged into my bookshelf speaker. The speaker system auto powers off when not in use. That’s great for saving energy, but I always have to get up and turn it on. Again, it ruins the always-on-and-listening convenience. Small inconvenience, but still.

Wake up and smell the bacon

I haven’t even cracked the surface of what Alexa can do. There are lots of home automation and shopping functions that my life isn’t set up for. I haven’t re-ordered laundry soap yet from my Prime account, but I’m really looking forward to the day when Amazon integrates Alexa with Amazon Fresh, it’s grocery delivery service. I just found out that Amazon Fresh offers pre-dawn deliveries of supplies like eggs or milk. They show up before sunrise, which sounds perfect. “Hey Alexa, order me eight pounds of bacon.”

Amazon Echo Dot

.com/b?node=14047587011">Amazon (exclusive to Prime members and only through another Amazon Echo)

Amazon Echo Tap

.com/dp/B00VXS8E8S/?tag=cult087-20" title="Buy from Amazon" class="norewrite" rel="nofollow">Amazon (exclusive to Prime members)

Amazon provided us with review units for this article. Cult of Mac’s Best List is a roundup of products that make us want to drool. Read more Best List reviews.