The cloud-connected, voice-activated Amazon Echo smart speaker was a bona fide sleeper hit last year, and Alexa, the virtual assistant housed within, is starting to give Siri a good run for her money. Now, in an effort to strike while the iron is still hot, the online mega-retailer is adding not one, but two Echo follow-ups to Alexa's family: the battery-powered Amazon Tap, and the puck-shaped Amazon Echo Dot.
The Echo Dot is the one I've got my eye on. Amazon basically sliced off the top bit of the old Echo (the part with all of the smarts) and chucked out the bottom part (the part with the full-size speaker). The result is a smart gadget that's just as smart as before, but not as loud. If that last bit is a problem, there's a new trick up Alexa's sleeve that you'll like -- you can connect the Echo Dot with your own set of speakers, giving it whatever audio quality you like.
Oh, and it costs half as much as the old Echo -- just $90 (like the original, the Echo Dot isn't available outside of the US yet, though Amazon says they'd eventually like to take it "wherever Amazon is." For what it's worth, the price comes out to about £65, or AU$120).
At $90, the Amazon Echo Dot looks like one of the best deals in tech -- especially if you've got an existing audio setup that's ripe for voice-activated Alexa control. Even if you don't, the Echo Dot still offers all of the original Echo's smarts at a price that might be too good to resist. I'll be surprised if it isn't a smash hit.
Chip off the old block
Like the name suggests, the Echo Dot is a smaller version of the smart speaker that came before it -- so much so that you can hardly call it a speaker at all. Essentially, it's just the top inch and a half of the original Echo, with the full-size speaker squished down into something much smaller and much less powerful.
Everything else is still there -- the ring of far-field microphones, the volume controls and corresponding LED lights, the radios for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity. Like the Echo, the Echo Dot is always on and always listening.
Thanks to those Alexa-powered smarts, the Echo Dot can do anything and everything its predecessor can do -- except fill a room with high-quality sound all on its own. Fortunately, the Echo Dot also does something that the original Echo doesn't: it lets you supplant its tiny speakers by plugging in speakers of your own or by connecting to them over Bluetooth.
The option to use your own speakers is a really, really good thing, and not just because it's something we specifically asked for when we reviewed the Amazon Echo. Though the Echo Dot's speakers actually sounded fuller than expected when I tested them out, they're still too puny to do your favorite songs justice.
Still, they're loud enough to hold their own as an Alexa access point for a quiet environment. The bedroom is an obvious example, and sure enough, Amazon pitches the Echo Dot as a potential alarm clock replacement. Ask Alexa to wake you up each morning at 7:00, and she'll be happy to oblige. Once you're awake, she'll gladly read the morning headlines or turn the thermostat up upon request. I could also see the Echo Dot fitting in nicely on its own in the kitchen, where Alexa's knack for setting timers is especially useful.
Quick audio comparison between the Echo Dot and iPhone 6. Both at full blast. pic.twitter.com/nhh6lqolgK— Ry Crist (@rycrist) March 31, 2016
Of course, there's a lot more that Alexa can do when asked nicely. I'll refer you to this Alexa primer for the full rundown, but the basics are:
- Music streaming from the Amazon Prime, Pandora, and Spotify Premium music libraries
- Internet radio and podcasts from TuneIn and iHeartRadio
- Audiobook playback from Audible and the Kindle Store
- Headlines of the day from sources you choose curated into a "flash briefing"
- Weather and traffic reports
- Native controls for smart lights, smart hubs, smart switches, and smart thermostats
- Shopping and to-do list management with optional voice purchases
- Alarm and timer functionality
- Facts, figures, calculations, trivia, and painfully bad jokes on demand
On top of all that, there's a growing number of optional Alexa "Skills" waiting to be switched on. These are basically Alexa's apps, and each one teaches her to do something new. Recent additions include a pizza-ordering Skill from Domino's, a ride-flagging Skill from Uber and a financial management Skill from Capital One -- the list just keeps on growing.
And, no matter how big that list gets, the Echo Dot will always have the same Alexa capabilities that the full-sized Echo does. That, above all else, is its most important feature.