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Amazon Echo Dot (2nd Generation) review:

The smart home of tomorrow just found its Model T

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Amazon Echo Dot (2nd Generation, Black)

(Part #: DOTBLACK)
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The Good The second-gen, mini-sized Amazon Echo Dot smart speaker is just as smart as the first at nearly half the cost, and it's better at hearing you, too. It's also the only Echo product you can connect to an existing audio setup.

The Bad Amazon's Echo products still can't offer audio that syncs across multiple devices in multiple rooms.

The Bottom Line The new and improved Echo Dot takes Amazon's best-in-class smart home speaker and wraps it in an ultra-affordable package.

CNET Editors' Rating

9.5 Overall
  • Features 10.0
  • Usability 9.0
  • Design 9.0
  • Performance 10.0

Apple is rumored to be working on a Siri-powered smart home speaker with built-in cameras. The Google Home smart speaker could go on sale as soon as tomorrow, October 4.

Alexa finally has some competition.

That's almost certainly why we have a second-gen Amazon Echo Dot. With the price slashed to a near-absurd $50 (or £50 in the UK, where Alexa launched just last month), Amazon's goal is obvious -- get its virtual voice assistant into as many homes as possible now, before people have other options. That means that the Dot is designed to sell, sell, sell. And to step all over the arrival of Google Home.

Not that it needed much help. The original Echo Dot, launched just last March as a pint-sized follow-up to the surprise smash-hit Amazon Echo smart speaker, was by all accounts just as successful as its predecessor. It sold out quicker than even Amazon had anticipated and won rave reviews, including an Editors' Choice distinction here on CNET.

Now, after being out of stock for months, the Dot is back, and more affordable than ever. (It isn't available in Australia, but were you to import one the price converts to about AU$65.) It's just as smart as before, too, with all of the same Alexa tricks along with plenty of new ones thanks to a rapidly growing library of third-party voice app "skills." And, despite the lower cost, it's an even better performer than the first generation, with microphones that do a better job of hearing your voice commands over music playback or background noise.

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.

In other words, the already-great Echo Dot got a compromise-free price cut. It was an Editors' Choice-winner back in March -- now, it's close to a must-buy for just about anyone who's reading this.

Alexa in a nutshell

The Echo Dot is always listening for its wake word, "Alexa." Say it, and the Dot will light up and listen to your question or command.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

"Alexa" is Amazon's cloud-connected, voice-activated virtual assistant. She's Siri in a speaker. You wake her up by saying her name, or by saying one of your two other wake word options, "Amazon" or "Echo." The array of microphones inside of the Echo Dot is always listening, and when they hear the wake word, they'll record whatever you say next and send it off 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.

You 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. 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 thanks to an increasingly robust market of third-party voice apps called "skills." There are over 3,000 of them at this point, and each one teaches Alexa a new trick. 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. You can also just ask Alexa to turn one on by saying something like, "Alexa, enable the Jeopardy skill." And, as of now, none of them cost anything.

Alexa 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. Here are some of the most popular options:

We've been using Alexa to control gadgets like these in the CNET Smart Home for over a year 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.

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.

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For 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.

Small, but mighty

The new Echo Dot is a little smaller than the original, with two new volume buttons replacing the volume ring. It's now also available in white.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The new Echo Dot is a little shorter than the original 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 new 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.

Like every other Echo product, the Dot is really just an access point for the Amazon Alexa cloud platform. That means that you're getting the exact same Alexa features as you would with the full-size Amazon Echo or the battery-powered Amazon Tap. The Dot just has a less powerful speaker.

There's an ace up the Dot's sleeve, though, and that's the fact that you can connect it with existing speakers and audio setups over Bluetooth or via line-in cable. Do so, and you'll essentially make an Echo out of whatever speakers you like. The Echo and Tap can't do that -- with both, it's the built-in speakers or it's nothing.

You can connect the Echo Dot with your existing audio setup using Bluetooth or a line in cable (not included).

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

That makes Dot the most flexible of the three, and the most intriguing, too. After all, music is a big part of the Alexa experience, and most music lovers already have an audio setup they're happy with. The Dot lets them give that audio setup a brand new brain.

Just one, small quibble: Amazon doesn't include a line-in cable with the new Echo Dot like it did with the first one. You'll need to spend five or six 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?

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