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Amazon Echo Dot (2018) review: Alexa goes on defense with best Echo Dot yet

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It's been two years since the arrival of the second-gen Echo Dot, which slashed the price of Amazon's pint-sized smart speaker nearly in half and quickly became a best seller. These days, the $50 Dot is still hugely popular as a means of accessing an ambient internet that requires no device and no screen -- just your voice.

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The Good

The new Echo Dot looks and sounds better than ever, and now you can pair two together for stereo audio. The ongoing space race between Alexa and Google Assistant means it'll keep getting a steady stream of new features. Best of all: It's still just $50.

The Bad

It doesn't come in any fun colors like the Home Mini does, and it doesn't feature any new hardware tricks, either. Aside from the new look and the stronger sound, it's just the same Dot as before.

The Bottom Line

This is the best Dot yet at the same irresistible price -- but it will do little to slow Google's growing momentum.

But the Dot also has competition now, namely from Google, which last year launched its own $50 smart speaker, the Google Home Mini. With a fabric body and slightly stronger hardware, the Home Mini looked and sounded better than the Dot. Those were easy differences for shoppers to understand, and Google quickly saw its share of this new market start to rise.

All of which brings us to the new Echo Dot 3.0, one of about a dozen new Alexa devices introduced at a whirlwind event in Seattle last month. With better sound and a fabric design of its own, the new third-generation Dot is a clear play at defending against Google, and it's hard not to say that Amazon nailed it. It looks better, it sounds better and it still costs $50 (£50, AU$79) -- simple as that. Even if you already have three of them, you can probably find a spot in your home where you wouldn't mind having a fourth. Oh shoot, the Dot's on sale again? Might as well get one for the guest bathroom...

But take note: This is the first time the Dot has really needed to play defense at all. Available in gray, gray or gray, it's a safe, obvious upgrade for the Echo lineup, but there's really not much that's inherently new or exciting about it. It's unquestionably the best Dot yet -- but if you were expecting Alexa's next game changer, you'll be disappointed.

Alexa 101: What you should know about Amazon's AI assistant

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Alexa in a nutshell

The Amazon Echo Dot is a puck-shaped, voice-activated smart speaker. Once you've plugged it in and synced it up with your Wi-Fi network using the Alexa app, it will begin listening for its wake word -- the default is "Alexa," but you can also go with "Amazon," "Echo" or "Computer." Say the wake word, then say a question or command, and Alexa will use her cloud-connected smarts to respond accordingly. 

You can click here for a deeper rundown of what Alexa can do, but the core use cases include:

  • News headlines, weather forecasts and traffic updates
  • Music, radio and podcast playback from Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn, iHeartRadio and more
  • Controlling smart home devices, including lights, locks and thermostats
  • Free voice calls and intercom functionality
  • Voice-activated timers and alarms
  • Shopping and to-do list management

The new Dot does nothing to change any of that, and it works just as well as before. What's new this time is the design -- it looks a lot nicer, and it sounds a lot nicer, too.

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The new Echo Dot (center) is bigger and heavier than the two Dots that came before it.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

A Dot redesigned

Let's start with the looks. Amazon began by replacing the plastic finish of before with a new, fabric-rimmed build. The result is a softer, homier-looking Dot that feels more like a premium device than last time around. The fact that it no longer has a big Amazon logo stamped on its side helps a lot, too.

I just wish Amazon hadn't played it so conservative with the color choices. All of them -- charcoal, heather gray and sandstone -- look fine, but they're also inoffensive to the point of being bland. At least one nongray option with a pop of personality would have been welcome.

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The new Echo Dot, available in your choice of gray.

Ry Crist/CNET

Up on top, you still get four buttons: two to bump the volume up and down, another to activate Alexa without saying the wake word, and a fourth that mutes the mic and keeps her from piping up at all. You get the same ring of light around the edge, too, and it's still easier to see at a distance than the lights on the Google Home Mini, which is somewhat important given that those lights let you know that your assistant heard you -- and that it's recording what you're saying.

Speaking of the microphones, the arrangement up top is slightly different than before, but they heard me just as well as the previous-gen Dot when I tested them out. I still needed to raise my voice to be heard during music playback, which is pretty much par for the course across the entire smart speaker category.

At about 4 inches (99 mm) wide and weighing in at over half a pound (300 grams), the new Dot is also noticeably bigger and heavier than before, and that's because Amazon beefed up the speaker hardware inside for better-sounding audio. How much better, you ask?

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Watch this: The new Amazon Echo Dot: Does it sound better than before?

Pump up the jam

For an easy Echo Dot ad campaign, Amazon should have just blindfolded techies a few months ago and let them listen to music on a prototype of the new model. The shocked looks when Amazon revealed that they'd, in fact, been listening to a Dot would have made for marketing gold.

It really is striking how much better it sounds. It isn't flat or tinny like it was before. You can actually hear the bass (or crank it, thanks to Alexa's equalizer controls). It can't compete with the full-size Echo or with any other full-size speaker for that matter, but still, I'm hard-pressed to think of many other speakers of this size -- and at this price -- that sound as good as the new Dot does. My only nitpick: The sound can get slightly distorted at max volume.

All in all, the stronger sound is a definite improvement, but it might be a moot point if you're just going to connect with external speakers, anyway. Like the last Dots, the new one supports audio output via Bluetooth or via 3.5mm cable, which makes it a simple thing to connect it with all sorts of larger audio setups. Then again, if that's all you're going to do, then you might consider the new Echo Input -- it's built for that exact use case, and it only costs $35 since it doesn't have a speaker of its own at all.

The other point worth mentioning here in the sound quality section is that the new Dot supports Amazon's new stereo-pairing feature. That means you can group two Dots together and split the left and right channels between them during audio playback, or even pair them with the new Echo Sub for the boosted bass of a 2.1-style setup. It seems like a useful feature (and notably, one that won't work with the first- or second-gen Dots), but I'm going to withhold judgment until our audio experts in New York weigh in on whether or not it's even worth it with speakers as small as the Dot.

The 15 coolest things you can do with your Amazon Echo

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Alexa, you've been busy

The ambient internet I described at the top of this review is still under construction, and Amazon and Google are racing to build it in a way that casts their respective assistants as chief gatekeeper. Call it a space race if you like, but it's basically just the browser wars bleeding out into your living room.

That's a good thing, because the competition means that you'll continue to get a steady stream of new tricks, features and integrations to try out. "Alexa is always getting smarter," Amazon loves to say. 

The full list of gimmicks and enhancements is too long to list here in full, but recent and notable improvements include Hunches that let Alexa take actions you've forgotten about like locking the door or turning the lights off before bed; multistep requests that do multiple things at once ("Alexa, add black beans, chicken broth and cumin to my shopping list"); a Whisper Mode that lets you whisper to Alexa and get a whispered reply (a godsend for new parents with sleeping kiddos); new security-minded features like the upcoming Alexa Guard mode that'll let you set your Echo speakers to listen for trouble while you're away from home; and a new alliance with Microsoft that lets Alexa make Skype calls, control Xboxes or even hand the wheel over to Cortana for tasks that she's better equipped to handle.

All of it helps keep Alexa fresh and interesting, and it makes owning an Echo device fun and dynamic. Just the other day, my roommate was flabbergasted when he realized that we could use Alexa to turn the TV on and off. You'll have a hard time finding anything else in tech that offers that sort of experience for just $50.

Still, there's always work to be done. Alexa's ability to identify individual voices could still be a bit sharper, and I'd like to see Amazon do more with it to personalize the Alexa experience for each user. Alexa Routines, a terrific feature that lets you craft your own custom voice commands that can trigger multiple things at once, still doesn't support devices like thermostats or helpful automation tricks like light fades.

Still, I expect that Alexa's smart home capabilities are about to take a couple of key steps forward. The new Echo Plus, which already housed a Zigbee radio for connecting with things like smart bulbs and smart locks, now comes with a built-in temperature sensor, too. Better support for motion triggers is another recent addition, and the arrival of Echo Auto later this year will bring new features with it, too, including location-based triggers that turn your gadgets on whenever you arrive home.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Buckle up

The new Echo Dot is a safe, sensible release for Amazon. There's nothing groundbreaking about it, but the new, fabric-rimmed aesthetic is a clear upgrade over the toy-like plasticity of the second gen, and the bigger speaker is strikingly better at filling a room with sound. Both improvements are nods to Google meant to neutralize the Home Mini's advantage with casual comparison shoppers. The message: Nobody out-Dots Amazon.

And hey, maybe no one will. The new Dot, unquestionably the best Dot yet, is still just $50, and from a hardware perspective, it's difficult to imagine a much better smart speaker for the price. But you could say the same of the Home Mini if it only had an aux-out jack -- and it's telling that that's what Amazon's two-year honeymoon of a head start comes down to here. An aux-out jack. Amazon isn't as far ahead as it would probably like to be, and Google has a lot of momentum.

Meanwhile, smart displays feel like the next corner of the category with room for growth -- and the shiny, new, second-gen Echo Show doesn't feel nearly as polished as the multiple Google Assistant displays already on the market. Oh, and here comes the Google Home Hub, which seems to come with much of the same charm and appeal that we saw from the very first Echo Dot back in 2016.

All of that makes this a pretty critical moment for Amazon's ubiquity offensive, and I have no doubt that Google's growing presence in the rear-view mirror will only lead the online mega retailer to step on the gas. The new Echo Dot won't do much on its own to change that dynamic, but with the improved design, it remains an excellent vehicle for anyone interested in joining Amazon for the ride.

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8.6

Amazon Echo Dot (2018)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 8Sound quality 8.5