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Amazon introduces smaller, cheaper versions of Echo (+video)

You will soon be able to hear Alexa's voice pretty much everywhere.

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    An Amazon Tap in San Francisco (March 2, 2016). Amazon.com is introducing two devices, the Amazon Tap and Echo Dot, that are designed to amplify the role that its voice-controlled assistant Alexa plays in people's homes and lives.
    Jeff Chiu/AP
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Amazon's Alexa is going small.

Amazon is planning on introducing two new products in the tradition of its Echo speaker: the Echo Dot and the Amazon Tap. They are scheduled to go on sale at the end of March, but can be pre-ordered now.

Echo Dot, the first of the two new products, is more or less a smaller version of the regular Echo. Amazon is also positioning it as a companion to its larger cousin -- currently, it is only available for purchase by using the voice-command function on a full-size Echo. Unlike the big Echo, the Dot is wireless, with a small speaker that could be used for listening to headlines or as an alarm clock.

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The Amazon Tap is marketed as Echo’s younger, cooler sibling. It’s designed to be lightweight and portable, with an optional carrying sling so people can take it with them wherever they want to go, whenever they want to travel.

Another key feature of the Tap is its musical abilities: like the Echo, the Amazon Tap can access a full suite of music apps like Spotify, Pandora, and iHeart Radio, but it doesn’t need Wi-Fi. It can play music by using mobile hotspots. Another crucial difference is that because it is battery powered, the Amazon Tap doesn’t rest in standby mode like the Echo or Dot, waiting for its name to be spoken.

Since its debut last year, the Echo has been a hit with consumers and developers alike. The appeal lies in its simplicity. The speaker’s internal cloud computing system can be awoken, Ex-Machina style, by speaking her name, Alexa, and then giving her simple commands, like ordering take out or calling an Uber. That’s made Echo extremely popular with consumers, with over 20,000 five-star reviews for the product online. Some industry analysts have speculated that the Echo’s tremendous success may make it a new billion-dollar business for Amazon going forward.

It’s also become popular with developers, who have been developing “skills,” or capabilities, for Alexa to follow. For example, developers at Campbell’s have created prompts that allow Alexa to respond with a collection of recipe options when asked. On Tuesday, NBC News announced that it had created a skill that authorizes Alexa to read headlines and news updates about the 2016 elections.   

Alexa’s capabilities are very similar to the ones that Siri, Apple’s personal assistant for iOS devices, has. With the new HomeKit function, for example, Both Siri and Echo, for instance,have the power to manage smart-home capabilities like dimming the lights or adjusting music when prompted.

The key difference between them is that Echo needs to be connected to other apps and devices, like Spotify or Pandora. Siri needs some of those, too, but already has many of its own answer-giving abilities in-house.

Google Voice is a completely different function, and holds more similarity to free calling and messaging services like Skype or WhatsApp than Siri or Echo. Using Google Voice, users can set up one number that works across all of their phones. Users can also check their voicemail and send text messages from their Internet browsers.

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