Befitting its stature, here is the capsule review: Amazon’s new Echo Dot smart speaker is the Echo you’ve been waiting for if you mainly want its flexible, functional voice commands and Alexa virtual assistant for everything from information lookup to smart home control – and at half the price of the full-height Echo.
But where the Dot falls short (forgive me) is that it still fails to address one desire Echo fans have had since its launch. That’s the ability to sync playback of music, or anything else, across more than one Echo in a household.
As a result, the Dot is less fraternal twin than younger sibling. At least until Amazon finds a way to leverage Alexa’s powerful cloud brain to control more than one body at a time.
Unboxing the Echo Dot
My Echo Dot arrived exactly as promised on its launch date. As an early Amazon Echo owner, I’d ordered mine – by voice through my $180 Echo – immediately after Amazon announced both the $90 Dot and the portable $130 Amazon Tap.
The first thing I noticed upon opening the tiny, almost Tiffany-blue box was how, well, diminutive it all was. The Dot’s packaging is smaller than a standard desk stapler, and so light that it has a retail hook hanger on it, as though it were designed for rack display. It’s a first impression very different than you get from the substantial original Echo and its blazing orange box. Inside the latest Echo’s package are the puck-shaped Dot (1.5” tall and about 3” in diameter), a micro-USB cable, a 3.5mm audio cable, and a 9W power adapter.
Setup is eerily straightforward. Plug in the Dot, open the Alexa smartphone app, watch the pretty lighted ring on the top turn blue and then rotate orange, and follow the instructions. I say “eerily” only because the Alexa app – when I opened it on my Android phone – already had “Frank’s Echo Dot” listed in the Settings menu next to “Frank’s Echo.” It clearly didn’t hurt to have both devices tied to the same Amazon account.
Connecting the Dot
One disconnect was in connecting. Though both Echo devices were listed in the same Alexa app and on the same account, Dot setup required me to re-enter my WiFi password for my home network, instead of just picking it up from the other Echo’s settings. That seemed an unneeded extra step.
For operation, if you know the Echo, you know the Dot. It has seven sensitive microphones, starts actively paying attention when you say “Alexa” (or “Amazon” or “Echo” as you prefer, if more than one Echo is within earshot), the same pleasing Alexa voice, and a built-in speaker to respond. Even with the Dot far smaller than a standard Echo, I was surprised at how good the audio sounded. It’s on par with a compact Bluetooth speaker, not the tinny 1970s transistor AM radio output I was expecting.
It’s in that audio output where the Dot surpasses the original Echo, and how it makes up for its smaller, less-than-full-range, speaker. The Dot allows audio to pass to other devices. The included 3.5mm auxiliary cable plugs into the Dot and then a nearby audio receiver or speaker. In addition, it supports more Bluetooth profiles than the original Echo, letting it beam audio from the Dot to a Bluetooth-enabled speaker system. The original merely can accept audio from a Bluetooth device for playback, such as a mobile phone or tablet.
In my four-story townhouse, that meant I could set up the hockey-puck sized Dot in the fourth-floor bedroom, right next to my Sonos Play 5 speaker. The Play 5 accepts an auxiliary cable input. Voila! Instant voice control for Sonos as Dot streamed my Amazon Prime Music library into the Sonos and throughout my home over Sonos’ wireless network.
Voice training from scratch
Does the Dot disappoint? Only a little. It seems to take longer to process voice commands than the Echo I already own – but I can’t tell if that’s simply because it’s still being “trained” to my voice and my original Echo won’t share its earlier training. If it’s just training, that will clear up over time.
It disappoints more in what one hopes the Dot would, but doesn’t, do in a device that Amazon promised would bring the Alexa experience into more rooms of a home: Sync with other Echo devices in a household for audio playback. That’s a major plus of my multi-room Sonos system and a gap in Echo’s otherwise great capabilities.
I experimented. With the Dot still in the fourth-floor bedroom and my original Echo in the second-floor living room, I stood in the third-floor hallway by the stairs and loudly (to my wife’s annoyance) commanded, “Alexa, Flash Briefing!” Both began playing the identical NPR + Washington Post politics + Seattle weather briefing. At slightly different times. Dot and Echo appeared oblivious to each other’s existence. The Sonos, a massive Goliath to Dot’s David, seem embarrassed for its companion.
But David may still win this battle, too. Sonos has been criticized for being slow to innovate; its otherwise-solid audio system still doesn’t support direct voice control and has a kludgy app. The Dot gives Amazon an edge in ease of audio use.
Though Amazon has stated the Dot is in limited quantities and will only be available for purchase by current Echo and Fire TV owners who are also Prime members – and though a sales associate at Seattle’s Amazon Books physical store told me the Dot would not be on display with the Amazon Echo and Amazon Tap when it was released – the subtle little retail rack hanger on the Echo Dot packaging implies a different sales future. And as to future capabilities, it helps to recall that Amazon has been no slouch in sending nearly weekly email updates to Echo owners about improved functionality (in Amazon-speak, “Skills”) for Alexa.
Dot, limitations aside, is cute yet mighty. For those wanting the flexibility and power of Alexa voice command and response, Echo Dot delivers it – plus Bluetooth and wired audio-out functionality – in a device half the price of the taller Amazon Echo. And that, I’m glad to say, is the short of it.