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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 £50 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.
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.
"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.
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, 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.
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, provided you've got the right gadgets installed in your home. Here are some of the most popular options:
We'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.
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?
This was perhaps my biggest question about Dot 2.0, so I spent a lot of time testing it out side by side with the original Echo Dot in a variety of settings. Impressively, at every turn Dot 2.0 seemed to be a sharper listener than the first-gen Dot, with dramatically better performance during music playback.
Just watch the video above, where I see if the Dot can hear me over the sound of its own speakers playing a Wilco song at full blast. It's the same test that the first Dot basically flunked, even when I was just a few feet away. The new Dot heard me from 10 feet away or more almost every single time -- no shouting necessary.
But what about external speakers, ones with a lot more oomph than the Dot? What if your TV or stereo is blasting in the background? Well, take a look for yourself at how the new Dot fares compared to the old one:
Put frankly, the new Echo Dot demolished the first Echo Dot in my tests. It's a much better listener than before, and the significance of that improvement really can't be overstated. Like I've said, the Dot's primary job is to serve as an Alexa access point. Now, it's more accessible than ever.
That isn't to say that it's perfect. There were still times where it was basically unable to hear me -- usually when I sat it right next to a speaker blasting music at a loud volume. If you can put some distance between the Dot and your speakers -- even just a couple of feet -- you'll likely be fine, but if you plan on playing a lot of loud music, spending $30 on a separate Alexa Voice Remote to control your setup would probably be wise. (Those remotes don't appear to be available outside of the US yet, but the price comes out to about £25 or AU$40.)
As said earlier, Alexa's come a long way since this review initially published, with a steady rollout of new features and capabilities helping her to stay fresh. With the exception of video features intended for the touchscreen equipped Echo Show and Echo Spot, all of them apply to the Echo Dot. Here's a quick rundown of some of the more notable upgrades to help catch you up:
There are plenty of valid concerns about filling your home with always-listening devices like the Echo Dot (though Amazon would likely point out that most phones and tablets count as always-listening devices at this point, too). Amazon insists that while Alexa is always listening for the wake word, she only starts recording and uploading audio once she hears it. That's what the blue ring around the top indicates.
You should also know that those audio snippets Alexa sends to the cloud for processing are always encrypted. Amazon stores those snippets in its servers for anonymous study and to let you play them back in the Alexa app to see what Alexa thinks you said, but it also lets you delete them at any time (here's how).
As for keeping Alexa from becoming a vulnerability, an Amazon spokesperson tells CNET, "We limit the information we disclose about specific security measures we take, but what I can tell you is Amazon takes customer security seriously and we have full teams dedicated to ensuring the safety and security of our products."
Still, it's worth holding Amazon to its word here. Recently, a family in Oregon grew alarmed after Alexa mistakenly called a contact and sent them live audio of a private conversation. Amazon chalked the incident up to "an unlikely string of events" where Alexa mistakenly heard the wake word, then mistakenly heard a call command, then mistakenly confirmed the call -- all based on background chatter. That's essentially an elaborate, voice version of a butt dial if true, and we're waiting to see if Amazon enacts any specific measures to keep it from happening again.
We're also hoping to hear more from Amazon about concerns raised by security researchers at universities like Princeton and Berkeley that suggest voice assistants like Alexa could be susceptible to "ultrasonic" audio commands at a higher frequency than humans are capable of hearing, including ones that are hidden within other bits of normal audio. Amazon hasn't responded to multiple requests for more information on what these Echo devices are actually capable of hearing.
To be clear, none of these concerns have me abandoning the Echo devices in my own home, but I'd still like to see greater transparency from Amazon here (and from other data-driven tech giants like Google and Apple, too).
When Amazon designs a product, it likes to start by distilling the pitch into a single line. With the Kindle, that line was: "Any book, anywhere in the world, in a minute or less." With the Amazon Echo, the pitch was simply, "A Star Trek computer for your home."
Tack "for 50 bucks" onto that pitch, and you've got the Echo Dot. Amazon succeeded in making it more tempting than ever, perhaps irresistibly so. It's just as smart as the first version, and an even better listener -- all for less money.
So should you buy it? Yeah, I think you should, though the Home Mini is probably the better choice for anyone who's already invested in Google's ecosystem. All the same, the Echo Dot is delightful, it's cutting edge and, even going on two years into its lifespan, it's as good a value as you're likely to ever see in tech. AI will undoubtedly play a growing role in our lives and, yes, in our homes, and that makes the Echo Dot the most accessible glimpse of what's next that we've currently got. It's the future, for $50. Hard to say no to that.