Amazon is extending its quietly successful Echo family of wireless speakers and voice-command devices.
The original Amazon Echo speaker/personal assistant has been one of the more successful consumer electronics products of the past year. Having shipped three million according to analyst Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, Amazon is looking to extend the range in form factor, portability and price.
Two variations have just launched in the US. The Amazon Tap, the subject of this teardown, is a smaller, battery-powered Echo. The Amazon Echo Dot is a hockey-puck-sized and mains-powered version. The Tap costs $150 (£103 pre-VAT) and the Dot is $90. Echo continues to retail at $180. The company says that it will roll out the new products in the UK and the rest of the world during 2016.
On paper, both new devices promise to do much the same as an Echo. They incorporate the Alexa voice-recognition system, speakers, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity/media streaming. However, the price points reflect some reduced performance and functionality.
Quickly dispensing with the Dot, its size (38mm x 84mm x 84mm) limits it to a speaker size equivalent to a laptop or smartphone. It has Echo’s multi-?microphone ‘far-field voice recognition’, so Alexa can clearly answer your questions, but it will not fill a room with music like its big sister.
Rather, the Dot is aimed at the budget-conscious and existing Echo owners who want to put Alexa in more of the house while the main unit is tethered to the mains in a homebase. There is nevertheless a 3.5mm port through which the Dot can connect to external speakers.
The Tap takes portability much further. Amazon is claiming nine hour battery life off its 2850mAh, 3.7V lithium-ion cell, with charging available from either a base cradle or side-mounted USB port. There are trade-offs involved here too.
Unlike the Echo and Dot, its personal assistant is not always-on. You cannot just wake Tap up by spontaneously declaring, “Alexa, please delete all Coldplay files.” You need first to push a button on the front to turn on the microphone array. The reason is what you probably suspect: the Tap’s sleep mode suspends voice recognition to preserve that long battery life.
The second trade-off is once more a result of size and resulting speaker capacity. The Tap (159mm x 66mm x 6mm) is 40 per cent of the volume of the Echo (235mm x 83.5mm x 83.5mm). So that limits it to two 3.8cm drivers. Even with the addition of passive radiators to improve lower-end frequency performance instead of larger drivers or a bass response tube, initial Tap users report noticeably tinnier audio output than from the Echo and more distortion at higher volumes. Still, there is also a 3.5mm port.
However, there is plenty the Tap can do that the Echo cannot. It does liberate the owner within the home, following them from room to room to garage to garden. But where it arguably comes into its own is in transit.
Stuck in a hotel room with only a couple of power sockets and a slew of electronics? That battery life should see you through. Similarly, while travelling you can hook up the Tap to your smartphone’s mobile hotspot, though your handset’s battery will suffer drain.
Yet for the road warrior looking for more than just audio playback - and the Bluetooth speaker market is getting very crowded, so differentiation matters - the Tap has significant attractions. Weighing just 1kg, it fits easily into a carry-on bag.
In terms of industrial design, the links between the Echo, Tap and Dot are strong, all coming in the same black cylindrical form (although the Tap has a control touchpad rather than the control wheel on the other two). Going inside the Tap, it also takes many cues from the original Echo and Amazon’s cost-control preference for off-the-shelf (COTS) devices.
The engine room is a standard 1GHz ARM Cortex-based i.MX 6SoloLite applications processor from NXP Semiconductors (part of the range it acquired when it bought Freescale Semiconductor), Broadcom supplies a COTS Wi-Fi/Bluetooth module and the National Semiconductor LED driver is common to all three Alexa cylinders.
Then, Amazon has opted for Samsung’s embedded multi-chip package (eMCP) memory, which typically seeks to incorporate NAND flash and DRAM capability within a single unit for lower-cost portable products.
The iFixit teardown team found that the outer base is stuck rather than screwed in place and that removing the cowling from the main inner cylinder is tricky, requiring slightly more brute force than you might like. But otherwise, the Tap follows a straightforward design based on an inner clamshell and the use of standard clips, connectors and T9 Torx screws.
However, the supporting documentation is gnomic. Scoring the Tap at a solid seven out of ten for repairability, iFixit nevertheless notes, “Repairs are straightforward if you know your way in, but could be daunting without a service manual.”
Amazon’s PA looks set to attract a new set of users with the Tap and the Dot. The general view is that the Tap has room for improvement, notably in terms of audio performance. However for a first pass, it does its job well enough and has workarounds for its deficiencies.