It’s not a leap to call Amazon’s line-up of smart speakers some of the most innovative products of the 21st century. From the original Amazon Echo to the high-end Echo Plus and the Dot, which may be small but packs a punch.
Regardless of whether you opt for the Plus, the Show or the Dot, Amazon has successfully proven that voice has the potential to be way more superior than touch when it comes to playing music, controlling your smart home and barking commands at your smart home assistant.
All of these smart speakers were originally a means for Amazon to take Alexa and turn it (her?) from a piece of software made primarily for searching through video catalogues into a much more handy general assistant.
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Fast-forward just a few short years and now Alexa has grown from an interesting curiosity into a very capable voice assistant. She can help you with everything from telling you the weather to playing music from Spotify - with plenty more to come.
Over the years, Amazon's smart speakers have gained hundreds of new skills, learned to talk to dozens of new smart home products and, thanks to the Drop-In function, allow you to chat with anyone, anywhere by calling either their smartphone or Echo device.
The Amazon Echo Dot may be tiny in comparison to the rest of the line-up, but it takes what made the original Echo great and slims down the built-in speaker. What this leaves you is a built-in speaker that’s capable (but not great) and the option to connect the Dot up to any external speaker you please.
By doing away with a more capable built-in speaker, you’re left with a much smaller piece of hardware that ends up resembling a Chromecast Audio in addition to its other voice-activated smarts.
This small form factor makes an enormous amount of sense, particularly for those who aren’t sure about how a smart speaker will (literally and metaphorically) fit into their current smart home set-up.
Its small form, in addition to its radically reduced price tag of $39.99 (£39.99, AU$79), makes the Dot the perfect way to get Alexa into your home without the fuss or investment, and therefore it’s one of our most recommended products to friends and family members.
If the Dot sounds really up your street but you've got kids and you're not sure how they'd get on with Alexa, then check out the Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition, which comes with some unique, child-friendly perks, including a two-year damage replacement warranty, a colorful rubber case in either red, blue or green and a year's subscription to the FreeTime Unlimited kid-focussed service.
[Update: There are constantly rumors circulating about new Alexa features, but Amazon has recently updated all of its Alexa smart speakers with a beta feature called CanFulfillIntentRequest. This will mean that if you forget the triggers for specific Skills, Alexa will still (hopefully) be able to understand what you were hoping to do.]
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 great-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 more than 30,000 ‘skills’ (essentially voice-activated apps) for Alexa and while there's always room for improvement, it's great that Amazon (and third party apps) are constantly paving the way for Alexa to lean more and more 'skills' and in doing so become more and more useful.
And it's not just 'skills' that are constantly updated. Earlier in the year, Amazon added music and live radio to its 'Routines'. Launched in 2017, Routines are a way to get your smart assistant to accomplish multiple tasks with a single command – say “Alexa, I’m home” for example, and you could have your lights, heating and TV switched on in one fell swoop. Now, though, you could add whale sounds from Spotify to that Routine for those particularly stressful days.
More recently, Amazon has rolled out a new beta feature called CanFulfillIntentRequest, which will let the developers of Skills tell Amazon the kind of questions their tool can answer. What this means is that if a user makes a vague request, the new feature will scan all of the Skills in its database to find the one most likely to respond appropriately. Less thinking on your part and more thinking on Alexa's.
There's also rumblings of a slew of new voices for Alexa, as well as a new 'Brief Mode' that'll make Alexa less likely to respond to your voice. That may sound like it defeats the object of having her around at all, but it's to stop the voice assistant constantly interjecting in conversations and could be handy if you find her a little overwhelming sometimes. Or if you have a family member called Alex and Alexa - we feel for you, that's got to be confusing!
In contrast, Alexa Brain’s head, Ruhi Sarikaya, is looking to create more ‘friction-less’ interaction with the personal assistant. In the future, that will mean Alexa will be able to continue conversations more naturally - e.g. you can ask about the weather today, the weather tomorrow and the weather next week, all without pausing the conversation to say ‘Alexa’ in between in each query.
Although some of these new, smarter updates to Alexa are yet to land, the promise of these upgrades and improvements means this tiny Dot really is worth the investment.
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 some people will agree wasn’t great for serious music-listening in the first place.
Using 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 have 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.
Finally, 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 to listen 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 to try 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.
Every week it seems there's either a new update to Alexa's voice recognition and skills, or at least news of one on its way, and this sense of constant innovation is what really sets Amazon and its Alexa voice assistant apart from the rest.