The Insider Picks team writes about stuff we think you’ll like. Business Insider has affiliate partnerships so we may get a share of the revenue from your purchase.
If you’ve shopped at Amazon at any point in the last year, you’ve probably run into a barrage of ads for the Echo, a home Bluetooth speaker, and Alexa, the cloud-based assistant that powers it. If you’ve kept up with the tech press over that time, you’ve probably read a number of stories proclaiming both of those things to be pretty good.If you’re curious about jumping on the bandwagon, though, you should know that the Echo and Alexa are not one and the same. Today, there are four separate speakers that grant you access to the increasingly capable service, with further Alexa-enabled apps and devices in the works. To help you figure out which, if any, might work best for you, we’ve broken down the landscape below.
As an all-in-one solution, the original Amazon Echo is still the most complete Alexa-enabled device you can get. It’s neither as portable as the Amazon Tap nor as affordable as the Echo Dot, but between the three, it’s the clear flagship. While it doesn’t sound as nice as a speaker this expensive should — a recurring theme here — the big black cylinder is still louder and richer-sounding than its kinfolk. Relatively speaking, it’ll give you the most enjoyable time listening to music or radio. The Echo needs to be plugged into an outlet to work, but the seven microphones on its top give it a consistently strong range for hearing your commands. Since Alexa requires a steady WiFi connection to work in the first place, the Echo’s relative lack of mobility isn’t as big a weakness as it may seem. The Echo was made to showcase Alexa, so, unsurprisingly, it can do everything the virtual assistant is capable of doing. Whether you want to hear the forecast, start up a radio stream, control your smart lights, access one of its many Skills, suffer a dad joke, whatever — if Alexa can do it, you can access it through the Echo. The phone app you use to manage Alexa is messy and dull, but once you have your setup down, the whole thing is a breeze to use: You talk, and, since it’s always listening, it responds. There’s a slight feeling out period for learning exactly how to speak to Alexa, but you get past that soon enough. Generally speaking, the Echo is the preferred Alexa device if you live in a larger space, or you don’t want to pay for a separate speaker. It probably won’t sound bad to the casual crowd at which it’s aimed, and its boosted volume makes it better for bigger homes. Amazon Echo, $179.99, available at Amazon.
Amazon Echo Dot
The Echo Dot is more or less a miniature version of the Echo, with all the good and bad that entails. It lets Alexa do all the same things, and it has the same impressive, always-listening array of built-in mics, but it sounds tinnier and more feeble, and its lack of a built-in battery means it still has to be plugged in all day.It makes up for that in a couple of ways, though. Notably, the Dot can hook up to external speakers, both through Bluetooth and a 3.5mm cable. This makes it something of a “Chromecast for Alexa,” adding the assistant to otherwise “dumb” devices, most of which are better sounding and/or easier to move than the Echo itself. I’ve had a Dot on hand for a couple of months now, and in that time I’ve had no issues pairing separate devices and getting them to work smoothly. Beyond that, the Dot takes up far less space than the normal Echo — it looks as if someone chopped off the top of that device — and, perhaps most significantly, costs half as much. If you live in a smaller apartment, or you have a speaker setup you already enjoy, it should be a much better value. The hangup is that, for now, you need to already have access to Alexa to order one. Amazon has positioned the device as a companion to existing Echos, so if you can’t get your hands on an Echo or Fire TV (which supports a limited version of the assistant), you’ll have a trickier time taking advantage. If you can, though, it gets the most out of your dollar. Amazon Echo Dot, $89.99, available at Amazon.
The Amazon Tap isn’t a bad choice for the right person, but it’s a better idea on paper than it is in practice. It’s the portable option in Amazon’s Alexa family, closer to something like a JBL Flip 3 or UE Boom 2 than one of the Echo devices above. Like those devices, it’s a handsome, cylindrical, lightweight Bluetooth speaker with a built-in battery, which here lasts around 8-9 hours just playing music. You can bring it to the beach, and it’ll still work. (Though it’s not water-resistant.)The issues here are twofold. First, audio performance is once again lacking. The Flip 3 goes for about $50 less these days, and still proves superior in terms of overall clarity and detail. The Tap’s sound is awful by any means, but for $130, it could do better.That wouldn’t be as big a deal if the Tap used Alexa as effectively as the Echo or Echo Dot, but that’s not the case either. In order to access the assistant here, you have to hit (or tap) the microphone button on the Tap’s front. Alexa itself isn’t any different from there, but it turns out that the “always listening” part of the Echos is what gives them their mojo. Simply hitting a button doesn’t take a ton of effort, admittedly, but it’s a chore compared to the alternative, which is as close as an interface gets to effortless. There’s a reason the Tap doesn’t bear the Echo name.What’s more, Alexa still needs WiFi to work, so you’ll have to be connected to some sort of hotspot if you want to use it on the road. Otherwise, you’re left with a portable speaker that’s just okay.Still, the Tap does work if you happen to fit that niche. And for what it’s worth, it should be a little bit easier on the psyche if you’re worried about privacy. It’s still a bit of a confused device, but if you really want an Alexa speaker on the go, it’s worth a look. Amazon Tap, $129.99, available at Amazon.