The ‘smart speaker’, as it’s become known, was a means for Amazon to take its voice assistant, Alexa, and turn it from a piece of software made primarily for searching video catalogues into a much more general assistant.
Alexa has grown from an interesting curiosity into a very capable voice assistant that can help you with everything from telling you the weather to playing music from Spotify.
But the biggest problem with the original Echo is its built-in speaker, which has drawn flak for its poor sound quality. It’s fine for giving you news and weather updates, but it’s not something you’d want to use to listen to music.
Enter the Amazon Echo Dot, which slims down the built-in speaker while also allowing you to connect to any external speaker you please.
This form factor makes an enormous amount of sense, and although the Dot isn't quite seamless in how it uses external speakers, it's still a massive improvement over the full-size Echo.
In many ways, its cheaper price and smaller size make the Dot the perfect way to get Alexa into your home.
See how we got on when we used the Echo Dot over the course of a week.
Design and set-up
The Echo Dot is a good-looking little product. It’s around the same circumference as the full-size Echo, but this new Dot lacks a volume ring, meaning it has an additional two buttons on its top to control volume directly, in addition to the mute and listen buttons.
The Dot also has the same light ring found on the Echo, which indicates when Alexa is listening to you through its seven-microphone array or whether the speaker is muted (useful if you’re watching a movie and don’t want to be interrupted when Alexa thinks she’s heard her name).
The most striking difference from the Echo is the Dot’s height. At just 32mm tall the device is a full 20cm shorter than its bigger brother. It’s not as small as the aforementioned Chromecast Audio, but it’s pretty dinky all the same.
Its size means it’s much easier to tuck away in a nook or cranny of your choosing, although naturally you’ll want to make sure it’s still able to hear you speak.
We found that the Echo Dot worked well in the kitchen, where it was able to easily fit on top of a microwave, but placed next to a stereo was also good, so long as the hardware wasn’t too close to the speakers, making it hard for the microphones to pick up commands properly.
Around the rear of the device is a micro USB port to provide power to the speaker, as well as a 3.5mm port to allow the Dot to connect to an external speaker. Unfortunately there’s no option for digital output, like with the Chromecast Audio’s hybrid 3.5mm analogue and optical port.
Anyone who’s had to set up an internet connected speaker before shouldn’t have any trouble setting up the Echo Dot. Once it’s plugged in you can connect to it like any other Wi-Fi hotspot, at which point you use the Alexa app to tell it your Wi-Fi details and it’ll get itself connected.
In the second step of the set-up process you’ll select whether you want to use its diminutive built-in speaker, or an external speaker via either Bluetooth or a 3.5mm jack (not included); this can be changed easily at a later date.
For example, if you set the speaker up to output its sound through its 3.5mm line-out you can switch to its internal speaker by simply unplugging its jack, or if you want to disconnect it from a Bluetooth speaker you can instruct Alexa with your voice to ‘disconnect’ (more on this later).
The Dot maintains the Echo’s exceptional ability to recognise your voice while giving you the option of improving upon its biggest flaw, the sound quality, providing you've got an additional external speaker handy.
Being able to use an external speaker is excellent, and means we regularly ended up using the Dot like a Chromecast to listen to tracks off Spotify, where it was surprisingly intuitive to get songs and artists playing.
In order to do so you’ll need to provide your Spotify login details, and set it as your default music service over the standard Amazon Prime Music. Once that’s done you can simply say “Alexa, play Royal Blood” and be almost instantly serenaded by the rock duo, for example.
But the biggest problem with using a pair of external speakers is that, unlike the Echo Dot itself, these are not meant to be ‘always on’ devices.
This leaves you in a bit of a dilemma. Either you leave the Echo Dot connected to a speaker that’s left permanently on and using power, or you rely on the Dot’s tinny internal speaker.
What we ended up doing was juggling the two. We’d leave the Dot unplugged the majority of the time to avoid wasting too much power, and then plug it into an external speaker when we wanted to listen to some music or a podcast.
The process is a little more seamless if you’re using Bluetooth to connect your Dot to an external speaker, since in this instance you can simply instruct Alexa to ‘Connect’, and it’ll automatically pair with the most recently connected Bluetooth device.
It would have been nice to have a similar option when using line-out, or alternatively be able to choose a type of speaker output with a voice command. It would be great to be able to say “Alexa, play White Stripes through external speaker”, rather than having to mess around with unplugging and replugging in cables.
We were impressed with how well the Alexa was able to pick out our voice, even while music was playing loudly from a nearby speaker. There’s naturally a limit to how far you can push this (it’s not magic), but it’s not something you have to think about balancing during a normal, non-deafening, music session.
Outside music, the Echo Dot has exactly the same amount of smarts as the full-size Echo. You can use it to set timers while you’re cooking, have it give you a one-minute news roundup while you’re eating your cereal in the morning, or even order an Uber if you’ve entered your Uber login details into the Alexa app.
Developers have already made around 3,000 ‘skills’ (essentially voice-activated apps) for Alexa, but while the number of things Alexa is capable of doing continues to increase, there’s still some functionality for the speaker that we’re amazed no one has put together yet.
For example, there’s a Jamie Oliver skill available, but when you install the celebrity chef onto your device all it’s capable of doing is emailing you a recipe that you've found using a search command. Where's the option to have the speaker lead you through a recipe using voice-activated prompts?
As more Echos make their way into the wild this situation is sure to improve, but the important thing is that the base hardware, with its exceptional voice recognition, won’t be in need of a physical upgrade any time soon.
See how Alexa stacks against to those other digital assistants
The Echo Dot packs a lot into a tiny package. It’s got the same excellent voice-recognition chops as the full-size Echo, but it dispenses with the bulky speaker that most people will agree wasn’t great for any serious music-listening in the first place.
Being able to use a decent external speaker with the Dot is a game-changer, and it feels great to be able to quickly get songs or even just the radio playing. It was so quick and easy that we found ourselves listening to music at times when we wouldn’t normally have made the effort, such as when we were passing through the kitchen in the morning.
Its size means you can tuck it away into a corner of a room, where you’ll soon be using it for everything from checking the time and weather to setting timers and alarms.
Using an external speaker is an excellent feature, but we wish this was handled just a little better. It would be great to have a voice command to switch between the Dot’s internal speaker and an external one.
There are a lot of skills already available for Alexa, but there’s also plenty of unexplored potential. This is something that’s a little out of Amazon’s hands, but much like waiting for enough games to come out for a new console, you might similarly want to wait for more skills to bulk out Alexa’s repertoire before buying.
Digital audio output would be a great addition for audiophiles, too.
Amazon’s Echo Dot is a great little product. It maintains almost everything that made the original Echo so great, while also bringing a substantial cut in price.
Being able to use an external speaker means the Dot is genuinely a great way of listening to music around the house, but its internal speaker is also surprisingly adept at dealing with simpler requests.
If you’re curious about the Amazon Echo experience, then the Dot is a great way of trying it out at a much cheaper price, and in some ways its audio output options mean it’s actually the superior device.
We’re not quite living in the age of Tony Stark’s Jarvis just yet, but if developers continue to rally behind Alexa by developing ever more intelligent skills, then the future may be just around the corner.