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

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.

8.6 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8
  • Sound quality 8.5

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.

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 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.

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.

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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