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

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.

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.

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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