2018's third-gen Echo Dot has been one of the best smart speakers in the short history of smart speakers. Its combination of a clever voice assistant and impressive hardware packed into a tiny device with an even tinier price made it wildly and understandably popular (in sheer number of buyer reviews, it dwarfs every other Echo device on Amazon's online store).
Now, Amazon's new Echo Dot faces a problem. It's a solid smart speaker and an easy entry point into the market, but it's competing with 2018's still-excellent Dot, which has seen prices in recent weeks as low as $19. And on the other end of the price spectrum, Amazon's new $100 full-size Echo represents a serious upgrade in sound quality and smart home control.
Is a new Echo Dot worth $50? In a vacuum, definitely. But pressed on both sides by the superior smarts and sound of the $100 Echo and the only slightly inferior Echo Dot at huge discounts? The answer isn't so straightforward.
For many customers, this ball-shaped Dot probably isn't the best pick for the price.
Like the new, full-size Echo, the 2020 Dot boasts a striking new spheroidal aesthetic. OK, it's not really that striking -- the muted, mesh-covered speaker has simply adopted a slightly fresher geometric shape (one quite similar in shape and size to Apple's upcoming HomePod Mini). And like the Echo, it only comes in three colors: Charcoal (black), Glacier White and Twilight Blue.
But this Dot does represent the clearest aesthetic divergence since Amazon's speakers exchanged hard plastic shells for soft cloth exteriors, and a little visual evolution is welcome. Amazon even smartly kept the Dot's footprint the same as previous generations, so despite the taller frame, it won't take up more shelf space.
Along with the footprint, the niche the Dot seeks to fill hasn't changed: it's an entry point to smart speakers, the route to try Alexa without breaking the bank. And the $50 price tag remains intact for this fourth generation.
The new Echo Dot's big change, other than in profile, is in sound. Its 1.6-inch speaker is more powerful than the third-gen's 1.1-inch speaker, but that half-inch upgrade isn't as meaningful as the half-inch between the second- and third-gen Dots. For perspective, the new Dot at 90% volume is about equivalent to the third-gen Dot at max.
But how does it compare to the competition?
When we tested them side-by-side last year, Google's Nest Mini boasted slightly superior sound to the third-gen Echo Dot, and this time around, the new Dot just edges past the Mini. If you're listening to acoustic music, such as Bon Iver's "Re: Stacks," at 50% volume, the speaker boasts warm tones, solid track distinction and good balance.
Of course, everything is relative. Playing a song like "This Life," by Vampire Weekend, with distinct bass, guitar, vocal and drum tracks, quickly falls into messy noise at any volume above 80%. Even below the high volumes, the track loses distinction, becoming fairly muddy behind the clean vocals.
The bass, which has never been strong in small speakers like Echo Dots and Nest Minis, remains particularly weak here. If you listen to trap music or hip-hop, it simply won't sound very full on the new Echo Dot -- and Lil Wayne is much less enjoyable when his higher pitched rasp isn't counterbalanced by booming bass.
Two Echo Dots can still be paired for stereo sound, but I can't imagine recommending this over buying a better quality $100 speaker, like the Nest Audio or 2020 Echo. Ditto setting up surround sound for your home theater.
That said, though some of the novelty has worn off, it's still worth standing in awe of what companies like Amazon and Google have accomplished in such an affordable product. This is not a speaker that will envelop you in music, but it's useful for casual listening nonetheless -- and at least marginally better than the current Nest Mini and third-gen Echo Dot.
With this continual impressiveness, though, does come the trade-off of privacy. Amazon, like its competitors, profits immeasurably from people using their devices, talking to Alexa, teaching their technology and providing vast amounts of private data for free. Using a Dot, as with any Echo device, requires you to use an Amazon account, which means agreeing to the company's terms and conditions. I've written extensively about the problems of this structure, both for market competition and for individual privacy. This is the problem of voice technology, and it remains mostly unchanged with this new Dot.
Dot, Dot, Dot…
My disappointment in the new Echo Dot is more general than acute: not every new generation can revitalize a device (as the third-gen full-size Echo demonstrated), but a little more creativity would be nice to see. The new Dot doesn't even include Amazon Sidewalk support -- one of the most interesting connectivity features of the new Echo smart speaker and the upcoming Echo Show 10. Where Amazon appears to be innovating now is not in the standard Dot, but rather in its alternatives, the Dot with Clock and the Kids Edition Dot.
Last year's Dot with Clock was a great device, adding a small-but-useful upgrade to the Dot. This year's Kids Dot adds a fun tiger- or panda-themed design and genuinely interesting kid-facing content that you won't get on other Echo devices without a subscription (the Kids Dot comes with a free year of Amazon Kids+, which normally costs $3/month). These alternative Dots use the exact same basic hardware, but they're more exciting products in part because they represent something beyond simple iterative improvement. They feel more sensitive to customer needs.
Of course, the Dot with Clock and Kids Edition Dot both cost $10 more than the standard Dot.
Waiting for Go(Dot)
The 2020 Echo Dot is a solid device. It improves the sound of 2018's Echo Dot, and the new design is fresh, if not revelatory. But Amazon seems to have saved its true innovations for other devices this generation -- adding better smart home control to the full-size Echo and more interesting features to the Kids Edition.
As a result, the 2020 Dot feels non-essential. It remains a great entry point to voice assistance and the smart home, but I'd probably recommend a sale-priced, third-edition Dot before shelling out much more for the newest generation. And if you're after sound quality or hoping to really jump-start your smart home, the $100 Echo will be a much better investment than a Dot.
In short, as the conventional wisdom seems to suggest about Echo Dots, wait for it to go on sale. Otherwise, there are better products to fulfill your needs.