It was about a year ago when Amazon introduced the Echo: a cylindrical, voice-controlled device that responds to user commands to play music, Audible and Kindle books, and streaming podcasts. The Echo can also be used to set alarms, create to-do lists, enter calendar appointments, and provide answers to questions, from what is the current weather to who won Super Bowl XXVI. Amazon made the application programing interface (API) public, allowing developers from Spotify to trivia game makers to integrate functionality into software known as Echo Skills.

Two New Echo Models: Amazon Dot and Amazon Tap

Recently, Amazon introduced two new members of the Echo family: the Amazon Dot and the Amazon Tap. The original Echo—priced at $179—included a 360-degree, omnidirectional stereo speaker. It also included Bluetooth capabilities, so it could also be used as a remote speaker for a smartphone or computer. The newer Amazon Dot replaces this high-quality audio with a much weaker sound. It does, however, include both Bluetooth capabilities and a line out jack. At $89.99 the Dot is the lowest priced Echo model. It's meant to be connected to the sound system you already own, a stereo system, or a portable Bluetooth speaker. In theory this sounds—excuse the pun—like a good idea, but I see a lot of inconvenient switching back and forth between modes, from music to Dot on your stereo sound system, for example, although the speaker is adequate for voice responses and timer alarms.

The Amazon Tap, priced at $129.99, takes the opposite approach. Basically, the Tap is a portable Bluetooth speaker that includes Echo functionality, albeit in a slightly different form from the original.

The original Echo contains an array of seven microphones that constantly listen for someone to speak the device's wake phrase ("Alexa," "Amazon," or "Echo" based on your settings). After the wake phrase, the user can speak a command, such as "What's the forecast?" or "Who won the game last night?" and the Echo will respond in an excellent, high-quality female text-to-speech voice. Commands can be issued from up to two rooms away from the Echo.

The Amazon Tap includes a single microphone that does not listen constantly, a compromise that enables the device to run on battery power for up to 10 hours on a single charge before needing to be placed atop its coaster-shaped induction charger. Coaster is an appropriate metaphor, here, since the Tap is roughly the size and shape of a "Tall Boy" 16-oz beer can.

The Mystic Access Amazon Echo Tutorial

Along with an informative podcast covering many accessibility topics, the folks at Mystic Access have compiled a growing catalog of reasonably priced audio tutorials for various products and services, with emphasis on using these tutorials with various screen reading technologies. In the September 2015 issue of AccessWorld, Jamie Pauls took an in-depth look at their Victor Reader Stream tutorial. Mystic Access tutorials are also available for TWBlue, Voice Dream Writer, SenderoMaps, Sense Navigation, Viatalk, the Voipo VOIP services and other devices. A tutorial for Voice Dream Reader has just been released for $24.97. Future Mystic Access tutorials will cover the BrailleNote Touch and the Amazon Fire tablets.

A Mystic Access tutorial that was of particular interest to me when I purchased my Tap was the Amazon Echo MP3 Audio Tutorial. The $39 tutorial consists of nearly six hours of hands-on lessons as instructor Kim Loftis takes the user through setting up the Echo and into its various commands, controls, and capabilities. With the introduction of the two new Echo models the tutorial is due for some updating, which I am told is in the works and will also be made available in DAISY format.

Since the new Amazon Dot is basically an Echo minus the high quality speaker, the tutorial is still quite comprehensive. The only additional information the Dot user needs to know is how to connect the device to a sound source using either the line out jack or a Bluetooth connection. The Amazon Tap is a different matter altogether. The physical configuration of the Tap is different—instead of the Echo's array of seven always listening microphones the Tap has a single microphone, which you must access by pressing the microphone button, located near the top of the outside cylinder. The initial Wi-Fi setup is also just a bit different: instead of pressing and holding the top center button on the Echo, the Tap places this button on the bottom of the outer face, opposite the microphone button. Until it can be updated, purchasers of the Mystic Access Echo tutorial also receive a link to a Mystic Access podcast in which the Tap is described. Tap users will also have to remember that whenever Loftis demonstrates an Echo voice command by speaking the wake word "Alexa," they will need to press the microphone button, wait for the beep, then speak the command.

Whether you are using an original Echo, a Dot, or a Tap, to set up the device you will need either a Wi-Fi enabled computer, or the iOS, Android, or Fire OS Alexa app. Loftis found the iOS app the most accessible option, and I concur with this assessment. However, she does not demonstrate the Fire OS app, which I found disappointing since a Fire Tablet can be had for under $50, and since one of Mystic Access's upcoming tutorials will cover Fire Tablet Accessibility. One of the issues Loftis experienced with the Android app was extreme difficulty navigating from tab to tab within the Echo app. I also experienced these problems, and they were even worse in the Fire OS app, so for now, at least, I cannot recommend purchasing a Fire Tablet if your goal is to use it with an Echo, Dot, or Tap.

The tutorial itself is presented in 20 bite-size audio lessons that are both thorough and easy to follow. You are taken through initial orientation and setup. Next, you are introduced to the digital assistant you can summon at any time by speaking the wake phrase on the Echo or Dot, or by pressing the Microphone button on the Tap. By default the assistant uses your Amazon mailing address as your home location for information regarding weather forecasts, sunrise and sunset times, and the calculations of distances. For example, I learned from my Amazon Tap that I live 46.5 miles, or 74.9 kilometers, from Disney World.

For other local inquiries, such as where to get a hamburger, the Tap offers up a list of names, and then refers you to the Alexa app or web interface for additional information. Loftis does an exemplary job describing both the mobile apps and the Echo web interface. Using any of the Echo models, you will find yourself needing to use the web interface or mobile app frequently, not only to review the additional information not voiced by the device, but also for inputting various settings, such as your work address (for relevant traffic reports), Google Calendar login, and selecting among dozens of news sources for Flash Briefing and Sports Updates so it can offer up the news and sports scores tailored to your interests.

The Echo, Tap, and Dot can answer any number of questions, from "What does 'sanguine' mean?" to "Who was the seventh President of the United States?" I can see where this sort of ability might prove handy when you're in the kitchen, say, and want to know how many tablespoons are in a cup. Then you might wish to be able to ask a question without having to stop to wash and dry your hands. However most questions can be just as easily answered using either Siri or Google Now. And your mobile phone or tablet rarely instructs you to consult another device for additional information.

Where the various Echo models shine is when it's time to play music, radio, or listen to either an Audible or Kindle book. All three models locate your place in a Kindle book and begin reading with exceptional voice quality, assuming the title is text-to-speech enabled, which, thankfully, most are. You can also pick up where you left off in any title in your Audible library and listen. Unfortunately, you cannot make any tone or speed adjustments for either books or podcasts. Hopefully this will change soon, as after years of playback speed adjustment, I find it difficult to listen to voice recordings at a normal speed. This is where the Echo's Bluetooth abilities are quite handy. I can pair the Echo with my phone or tablet, start my Audible or podcast app set to the appropriate speed, and listen to the playback using the Echo's higher quality speaker.

As Loftis aptly demonstrates, the Echo will play any music you have purchased from Amazon. It will also play music you have uploaded to your Amazon music library. Unfortunately, Loftis does not mention playing music you have uploaded to the Cloud, though there is a link in the accompanying readme file with instructions. If you are an Amazon Prime member, your Echo can also stream content from Amazon Music. You can request to hear songs, artists, or stations with music similar to your favorite artists or genre, by issuing commands like "Play folk music" or "Play the top hits."

The Amazon Echo also comes with TuneIn Radio, iHeartRadio, Pandora, and Spotify premium (the free version is not supported) preconfigured to run. "Play KROQ" summons that Los Angeles FM station on TuneIn Radio. "Play my Spotify Christmas list" puts me in a festive holiday mood.

The Amazon Echo family also works with various third-party controls, which are called Skills. This ever-growing list can be enabled or disabled from the Alexa app or web interface, and range from skills that will offer up the latest stock quotes to several word games you can play anytime. Even some thermostats, home lighting, and security systems offer Skills that enable you to control them via voice commands. Again, here, the Mystic Access tutorial does an excellent job describing how to find, enable, and use various existing and new Echo Skills.

Final Observations

The Amazon Echo is still in its infancy, so it will be a while before its full potential as a personal assistant is achieved. For now, most of what you can do with the various Echo models can be done just as easily using an Android or iOS smartphone, if you have one. Siri and Google Now can function pretty much anywhere using cellular data; you are not limited to a Wi-Fi hotspot. Of course the original Echo and Dot do not require you to reach for a device to ask a question or issue a command, if say, your phone is upstairs and you are downstairs.

Amazon Fire users do not currently have a built-in personal assistant, such as Siri or Google Now, and for those users the Echo does add some much-needed functionality. Many people also still prefer to use a feature phone, and the Echo would make an extremely useful addition to their accessibility technology. I can also see a strong use case for seniors who are newly blind and others with limited screen reader experience, who will doubtless feel much less intimidated by the Echo after listening and following along as Loftis guides them along their way. For these users, it would be helpful to move the section titled "Alexa Encouragement Corner"—where Loftis encourages listeners to not give up, to keep trying, and to take small steps in order to master the device—nearer the beginning of the tutorial, before the novice user can become frustrated and give up.

I found the Amazon Echo tutorial to be an excellent value. Its "learn by listening and then doing" approach works well for what is, essentially, a new class of devices. It also fast-tracked my Echo experience, since using the tutorial I was able to learn pretty much everything I needed to learn in one place, instead of picking up tidbits here and there.

I do expect the Amazon Echo line to become even more powerful and useful over time, as more developers add Skills. In the meantime, for me, the new Amazon Tap has one capability that makes it well worth the price: the ability to play media directly via a built-in or third party Echo Skill. Its form factor practically begs the user to carry it around, and whenever I am working in my backyard vegetable garden I always place it on the porch, where I have a Wi-Fi signal, and play music or a talk radio station. This way I can keep my phone in my pocket for answering calls, while my Tap, which remains on the porch, keeps me oriented as I move about the yard.

Then it's inside to get cleaned up—literally, without missing a beat.

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Bill Holton
Article Topic
Product Evaluations and Guides