The Good: The second-gen, mini-size Amazon Echo Dot smart speaker is just as smart as the full-size Echo at half the cost. It boasts more skills and third-party integrations than its rival, the Google Home Mini, and it also includes an aux-out jack for quick, direct connections with external audio setups, which the Home Mini lacks. The Bad: The Home Mini offers noticeably better sound quality out of the box, and Google Assistant is better at pulling from the internet to answer a wide variety of questions. The Bottom Line: The Echo Dot takes Amazon's popular smart home speaker and wraps it in an ultra-affordable package -- but the Google Home Mini is a very worthy competitor. Editor's note (9\/20\/2018): Amazon announced a third-generation Echo Dot with a new design and better sound quality that ships to consumers on October 11th, 2018.You can thank the Amazon Echo Dot for the glut of voice-activated everything littering today's tech landscape. At an irresistible price of $50 (or AU$79 and \u00a350 in Australia and the UK, respectively), the puckish smart speaker became an even bigger hit than the original, full-size Amazon Echo -- in doing so, it provided proof of concept for the viability of voice controls in modern, mainstream households. The smart home of tomorrow had found its Model T, I wrote at the time, and it brought the world of retail with it -- everything from Ford and GE to Uber and Domino's. Faster than you could say, "Alexa, open the floodgates," the age of in-home voice computing had dawned. The Echo Dot is frequently discounted from its standard $50 price. Check our list of Amazon device deals to see if it's on sale now. \t \t \t\t Two years after its debut, the Echo Dot remains Amazon's best-selling Alexa gadget, but Alexa isn't the only game in town anymore. Today, she competes for shelf space with Google Assistant -- primarily in the form of the equally puckish, equally low-priced Google Home Mini. Apple, meanwhile has the Siri-powered HomePod, though it lacks anything that can compete with the value of the Echo Dot. Even with all of the new competition, the Echo Dot is still one of the best values in tech, and still a worthy way to welcome AI assistance into your home. It's a weaker speaker than the Home Mini as far as sound quality is concerned, but the inclusion of an aux-out jack -- which the Home Mini lacks -- makes it easier to connect the Dot to external audio setups that can amplify Alexa's sound. And, while the Google Assistant has a lot of momentum right now, the battle to one-up Alexa with new features has only brought it to a virtual tie with Amazon -- and it still hasn't surpassed Alexa in terms of skills or integrations with third parties. Most importantly, the Echo Dot does everything the full-size Echo does, but at half the price. It's your most affordable way into the Alexa ecosystem, and if you're interested in AI or smart home tech, that's an ecosystem worth buying into. \t \t \tAlexa in a nutshell "Alexa" is Amazon's cloud-connected, voice-activated virtual assistant. You wake her up by saying her name, or by saying one of your three other wake word options, "Amazon," "Echo" or "Computer." The array of microphones inside of the Echo Dot is always listening, and when they hear the wake word, they'll start recording whatever you say next, then send the audio snippet through the cloud to Amazon's servers. Those servers will figure out what you're asking for, then tell Alexa how to respond. All of this happens in about a second. One of the challenges in launching the Echo in a range of countries is making sure Alexa understands different accents and knows when words are used in different contexts. \t \t \t \tFor example, sports fans can ask for the result of the latest "Spurs game". The US version of the Echo will know you probably mean the San Antonio Spurs and give you a basketball result, while the UK version knows you mean Tottenham Hotspur and gives you a soccer result. The UK version also gives you British English spellings and jokey Easter eggs relating to British cultural touchstones like "Monty Python", among a number of uniquely UK-focused features -- this video shows just some of those British features in action. \t \t \t \tYou can ask Alexa to do all sorts of things. For starters, she can stream music from Amazon Prime Music, Pandora or Spotify. She can can play podcasts from iHeartRadio or TuneIn. She can set kitchen timers. She can look up facts. She can wake you up in the morning, either with an alarm or with a song. She can manage your calendar. She can make phone calls and send messages. She can tell your kids painfully bad jokes. She can read off the day's headlines from whatever news sources you like (including, ahem, CNET). All you have to do is ask. On top of that, Alexa keeps getting smarter, with new features arriving seemingly every week, often as part of a perpetual back-and-forth with Google. Just recently, Alexa's learned how to remember things, how to control smart locks and how to make announcements throughout the house whenever dinner is ready. And then there's Alexa's "skills" -- the tens of thousands of third-party voice-apps that teach Alexa new tricks whenever you enable them. The Uber and Lyft skills let you tell Alexa to call you a ride. The Capital One skill lets you tell Alexa to make a credit card payment. The Domino's skill lets you tell Alexa to order a pizza. A skill called The Wayne Investigation lets you talk your way through an interactive mystery set in Gotham City. You can browse through them all in the Alexa app, then pick which ones you want to enable, or you can ask Alexa to turn one on by saying something like, "Alexa, enable the Jeopardy skill." As of now, none of them cost anything. British skills include UK services like Sky News, The Guardian and National Rail as well as control of the British Gas smart home system Hive. Unfortunately, you can't filter skills by nationality in the Alexa app so British Echo owners have to scroll through irrelevant US skills to find ones that work in the UK. \t \t \t \tAlexa can control a growing list of smart home gadgets, too, including connected lighting setups, smart thermostats, and popular smart home platforms. Ask her to turn the kitchen lights off or raise the temperature a few degrees, and she'll happily comply, provided you've got the right gadgets installed in your home. Here are some of the most popular options: Philips Hue connected LEDsLIFX connected LEDsLedvance Lightify connected LEDsLutron connected lighting setupsHaiku smart lights and ceiling fansBelkin WeMo SwitchesAugust Smart LockScout Home Security systemEcobee3 Smart ThermostatNest Learning ThermostatSmartThings connected home platformWink connected home platformInsteon connected home platformGE smart appliancesGarageio garage door openerLogitech Harmony Hub entertainment controllerControl4 smart home setupsNexia smart home setupsCrestron smart home setupsWe've been using Alexa to control gadgets like these in the CNET Smart Home for years now, and she's terrific at it. If you have any interest in smart home tech whatsoever, then the Echo Dot is an absolute no-brainer. \t \t \tSmall, but mighty The second-gen Echo Dot is a little shorter than the first-gen version it replaced after just six months, largely because there's no longer a ring around the top that you turn to control the volume. Instead, you turn things up and down using two volume buttons on the top of the device. It's also a bit lighter, with a glossy plastic casing instead of the matte black body of generation one. And, of course, it's available in white now (which looks quite good, in my opinion). Other than that, this is the same Dot as before: same plug-and-play simplicity, same voice-activated smarts. If you bought the first-gen version, there's no need to upgrade. Like every other Echo product, the Dot is really just an access point for the Amazon Alexa platform. That means that you're getting the exact same Alexa features as you would with the full-size Amazon Echo. The Dot just has a less powerful speaker. Thankfully, you can also connect the Dot to external speakers via Bluetooth or via auxiliary cable, a key feature that Amazon wisely extended across the entire Echo lineup. That gives them a slight advantage over the Google Home family of speakers, which don't include aux out jacks and can only connect to external speakers via Bluetooth or Chromecast. Just one, small quibble: Amazon doesn't include a line-in cable with the new Echo Dot like it did with the first one, so you'll need to spend 5 or 6 bucks on your own (or dig one out of your junk drawer). It's a clear sign that Amazon was trying to get the entry cost as low as possible, and a forgivable omission given that you can still connect with external speakers right out of the box using Bluetooth. Still, I'd like it better if the cable came included. So, the Dot is an Alexa access point, and a very clever one. But is it a good one? Specifically, can its microphones hear you as well as the ones in the full-size Echo? This was a small problem with generation one, especially during music playback, where I'd often need to shout to get Alexa's attention, even at close distances. Is the new Dot any better?