The smartest thing at Amazon's event was the stupid clock on the Echo Dot

Commentary: It might be the smallest step Alexa's ever taken -- but it's also sneaky smart.

Ry Crist Senior Editor / Reviews - Labs
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
Expertise Smart home technology and wireless connectivity Credentials
  • 10 years product testing experience with the CNET Home team
Ry Crist
3 min read

Amazon's Dave Limp introducing the aptly named "Echo Dot with clock."

James Martin/CNET

Wednesday marked Amazon's third straight September showcase for all things Alexa. We heard about new smart speakers, sure -- and also eyewear, ear buds, nightlights, routers, countertop cookers, kitchen displays, cars, coffee makers, TVs, dog tags, Ring cameras, Ring doorbells, Ring security systems and also a literal ring. Despite rumors to the contrary, no robots were in attendance (though Bobby Flay made a surprise cameo, and that dude's a machine in the kitchen).

Can't wait for next year, when Amazon goes meta and throws an Alexa kitchen sink at us. Oh wait -- already a thing!

All kidding aside, such a barrage of hardware raises an obvious question: What's the standout? Which one of these gadgets is going to make the biggest impact? And for me, the answer is simple. 

It's that dumb digital clock face on the newest Echo Dot. Seriously.

Read more: The best alarm clocks for 2019

Time to explain

It's no secret that Amazon and Google are battling it out for smart assistant supremacy -- but the true space race here is the Echo Dot versus the Google Home Mini.

"Continued aggressive pricing of the entry-level models seems to continue to encourage new customers to try a smart speaker and existing owners to consider adding more devices to their home," notes Josh Lowitz, a co-founder of the market research company Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

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I'm not saying the clock is a game changer. I'm saying it's a reason people will buy the Echo Dot instead of a Google Home Mini. That's worth quite a lot.

James Martin/CNET

Each one is a respective bestseller for the two tech titans, and that means that their sales have the biggest impact on the overall smart speaker market share. That market share is a crucial indicator of each platform's reach, and one that developers and potential device partners keep a close eye on.  

CIRP's data shows that Amazon has held onto the early lead it established by being first to market with both the original, full-size Echo and the smaller, cheaper Echo Dot, which sold like crazy once Amazon cut the price to $50. Then came the Google Home Mini in 2018, which had a better-looking design and slightly better sound at the same $50 price. Those were easy differences for casual shoppers to understand, even at a glance.

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Amazon's installed base kept growing -- but so did Google's.

That's why I wrote that Alexa had gone on defense when Amazon released the third-gen Echo Dot in late 2018. Amazon protected its magic bullet by beefing up the sound quality and matching Google's attractive, fabric-bodied design.

Now, the clock puts the Dot on offense again. It's another tangible, easy to understand difference between the two devices, and it creates a thing that Google lacks. And as much as these bargain-priced smart speakers drive the overall numbers, that's potentially a pretty big deal.


Worth the additional $10?


Looks could kill?

All of that said, I do think the Dot's design took a step backwards here. Amazon's third-gen Dot nailed it last year, with a classy, understated build that felt more expensive than it was. Now, the addition of a generic digital clock compromises the Dot's uniformity, and since the Dot wasn't originally designed to showcase a clock, it sort of looks like Amazon just sort of slapped it on. 

"It makes me wonder if we're headed for Homer Simpson car-design territory with these," one colleague told me.

Maybe a more distinctive font choice with rounded edges would have done a better job at keeping the thing feeling fancy and modern. Regardless, I just think it's kind of ugly.

Still, as Amazon noted during the big reveal, "what time is it?" remains one of Alexa's most commonly asked questions, so it's probably right that there's consumer demand here. And in the end, I'll bet that a lot of those consumers are going to say "just give me the one with the clock on it." Time will tell, I suppose.

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