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Amazon Echo Dot review: Sometimes, less is more

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Editors' note: This article was originally published April 2 and has since been updated with new information. In 2016, Amazon replaced the original Echo Dot, reviewed in full below, with a less expensive model that delivers superior audio performance and a more attentive Alexa. The second-gen Echo Dot offers the basic same value proposition as the original but, at $50, costs roughly half as much. Since then, the company has expanded its Echo offering and continued to beef up Alexa's skill set and contextual awareness

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Amazon Echo Dot

The Good

The Amazon Echo Dot does everything that the original Echo does for half the price. Unlike the Echo, you can plug the Echo Dot into your own speakers, or connect to them over Bluetooth. Even if you don't, the Echo Dot's tiny built-in speakers do more than enough to give Alexa voice in quiet environments.

The Bad

The Echo Dot seems to be a little worse than the Echo at hearing its wake word during music playback, and you can't synchronize multiple units to play at the same time.

The Bottom Line

The future is here, and now it costs less than a hundred bucks. Amazon Echo Dot might currently be one of the best deals in tech.

The original Amazon Echo Dot review, originally published in April 2016 and updated in September 2016, follows below.

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 or £50. (Amazon says it'd eventually like to take it "wherever Amazon is," although it offers none of its physical products in Australia. For what it's worth, the price comes out to about 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.

A close look at the Amazon Echo Dot mini-speaker (pictures)

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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.

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Plug your speakers into the Echo Dot's line out jack, and Alexa will take charge of your audio.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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.

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.

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Alexa, get to work

I tested the Echo Dot out in the CNET Smart Home, where we already use the Amazon Echo to control our connected gadgets. The Echo Dot fit right in. As soon as we plugged it in and synced it up with the home's Wi-Fi network, the Echo Dot instantly learned each and every trick we'd already taught Alexa. Gotta love the cloud.

The Echo Dot works just like the Echo does. It's always listening for its wake word (the default is "Alexa," but you can also go with "Amazon" or "Echo"). As soon as it hears that wake word, the Echo Dot will light up and transmit whatever you say next to Amazon's servers which will, in turn, figure out how Alexa should respond.

Alexa learned a bunch of new tricks at CES 2016

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Something else the Echo Dot has in common with Echo: though you can use more than one at once, you can't configure multiple units to play in unison. It's a feature that frequently gets asked about, says Amazon Devices Senior Vice President Dave Limp, who introduced the Echo Dot in San Francisco last month. Amazon says they're looking into making it happen, but for now at least, your dreams of synchronizing an Alexa-powered party playlist throughout multiple rooms will have to wait.

The Echo and the Echo Dot have the same array of far-field microphones packed inside, and both claim that they'll hear you from across the room or over the sound of music playback. The former holds more true than the latter. Like the Echo, the Echo Dot did a good job of hearing me say the wake word from afar, but again, like the Echo, the Echo Dot didn't always hear me over the sound of its own speakers.

The problem actually seemed to be slightly more pronounced with the Echo Dot than with the Echo. If I was playing a song at anything more than seventy percent volume or so, it would often take a couple of "Alexas" before the thing would light up and pipe down.

Still, that's only really a problem if you plan on listening to a lot of music on those built-in speakers. And, with more distance between microphones and speakers, the Echo Dot will obviously hear a lot better if you hook it up with an external audio setup.

Doing so is dead simple. For a wired connection, just plug the Echo Dot into your audio setup's line in jack with the included 3.5 mm cable. As soon as you do, the audio will pipe right through. For a Bluetooth connection, just put your speaker into pairing mode and tell Alexa to look for it. The Echo Dot's Bluetooth radio isn't compatible with speakers that ask for a four-digit PIN during the pairing process, but you've still got plenty of options, including several of the top Bluetooth speaker picks here on CNET.

One last thing before I wrap this up: as of writing this, Amazon still advertises the Echo Dot as a Prime-only gadget that you'll also need to ask Alexa to order -- effectively making the Echo Dot an exclusive for people who already own an Echo (or who have a nice friend that owns an Echo).

Fortunately, there's a workaround -- just enable the microphone in the Amazon app on your Android or iOS device and say "Add Echo Dot to shopping cart" to place an order. Amazon apparently wants to train us all to get comfortable shopping using just our voices. I can't imagine why.

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Good thing, small package

The Amazon Echo Dot wins our Editors' Choice Award. How could it not? It's just as smart as the Echo, but it costs half as much. And, unlike the Echo, you can use it with whatever speakers you want. That's terrific news both for audiophiles and for people who don't care about sound quality, who just wanted a cheaper way to bring Alexa into their homes. Everybody wins.

If all you're looking for is a way to stream music from the internet to an otherwise dumb set of speakers, then the Echo Dot might be more than you need. In that case, something like the Chromecast Audio might make more sense. But if that's something that interests you, then I have to think that the jump to the Echo Dot is a worthwhile one.

Bottom line: the future is here -- and now it costs less than a hundred bucks. Sounds good to me.

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8.8

Amazon Echo Dot

Score Breakdown

Features 9Usability 8Design 10Performance 8