Amazon Echo Dot review: A bite-sized gateway drug for smart speaker skeptics
As anticipated as the arrival of the Amazon Echo, Echo Plus and Echo Dot might be - you have to ask what they have to offer a market that seems to have embraced Google’s product in droves over the Christmas break.
Of course, one possible answer to this question comes in the form of the leanest smart speaker on the menu, the Amazon Echo Dot. Sure, at a glance, this might seem like a neatly comparable take on Google’s own smart home gateway drug, the Google Home Mini. However, there’s an added degree of flexibility here which allows the Echo Dot to double up as both the cheapest Echo available and the one that’s probably going to be best suited to those who are already pretty invested in their own home audio setup.
Drivers: 0.6-inch tweeter
Dimensions: 84 x 84 x 32 mm
Weight: 163 g
Connectivity: Bluetooth, WiFi
Voice Assistant: Amazon Alexa
Colors: Black, White
Not content with just being the cheapest Alexa speaker out there, the Amazon Echo Dot is also the most compact. It’s a small, circular plastic disc-shaped node with the usual set of physical buttons and blue Alexa ring mounted atop it like an crown. Like the other Echo units, there’s also a 3.5mm audio jack at the back, which can be used to hook the Echo Dot up to any pre-owned speakers.
We’ll loop back to this detail later.
Still, for the most part, it’s a pretty unassuming package. In fact, if anything, the biggest difference between this and the Google Home Mini is that while the Mini offers up cleaner looks, the Echo Dot feels like it has been designed not to be seen at all. By nature, It looks as ubiquitous as it does inconspicuous. At times, it feels almost invisible amidst the rest of your home inventory. Another appliance that fades into the backdrop.
As far as setup goes, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between the Echo Dot and its taller cousins. We plugged it in, connected to it using the app and had everything set up in a matter of minutes.
While it’s got the same “Discovery” function found in the other Echo speakers, it does lack the ZigBee connectivity found in the Echo Plus. Regardless, it wasn’t too tricky to get it to detect and connect to our existing smart lights and other kit.
As usual, interacting with Alexa was pleasant and intuitive. If you’ve used a Google Home before, you basically know what to expect here.
For the unfamiliar, you can use your voice to tell the Echo Dot to play music, get news and sports updates, check the weather and remotely control your smart home devices. Eventually, you’ll even be able to make online orders from Amazon themselves.
Still, there are a number of differences between the Echo Dot and the Home worth noting - not all of them good. For example, the Echo Dot feels like it lags behind the Google Home Mini when it comes to both general and cooking-related queries. When it came to asking these sorts of questions, the Home easily offered both a more reliable and informative experience. I got the standard “I’m not sure what you mean by that” response from Alexa a lot more than I expected to - even when the questions I asked felt like ones that it should have fallen within its purview.
News alerts (called Flash Bulletins) from Alexa are also somewhat inferior to their Google-powered counterparts. The library of Australia-relevant news content here isn’t quite as robust and and having Alexa read the bulletins aloud word-for-word can often come across as a little stilted and mechanical.
That said, it’s not all bad. There are a other fronts where Alexa delivered a slightly-better experience her competition. Like the regular Echo, the Dot can actively listen while playing audio - whereas the Google Home will pause whatever it is doing whenever it hears the wake word. A lot of the time, it also seemed like Alexa was just that little bit faster at responding to my requests - making dealing with her sometimes feel that little bit closer to a real conversation, even if said conversation often ended up a dead-end.
Of course, as we’ve noted in our reviews for both the Echo and Echo Plus, smart home integration does remain a strong point here. The way that Alexa is able to detect and integrate with compatible smart appliances is outright magical at times. You just tell it to “discover nearby devices” and it’ll handle the rest. Sometimes you will have to add a new Alexa skill and connect a relevant account - as was the case with a LIFX bulb we connected to our Echo. Still, most of the time, it just works - and that’s going to make it appealing to a lot of people.
In addition, Amazon have made it very easy for third-parties to develop new functions for Alexa. What’s more, even at this early stage, these skills feel much more developed and genuinely useful than their Google Home counterparts - a platform has quickly become flooded with garbage apps.
For example, Village Cinemas allow you to search their showtimes using Alexa. Dominos let you order a pizza using their Alexa skills. NAB and Westpac let you check your bank balance and Energy Australia allow you to check when your next bill is due.
When it comes to music, the absence of Google and Apple Music is a bit of a pain but otherwise everything works as you’d expect. Basically, your mileage is going to vary based on what streaming platform you use. When it comes to such services, the Echo Dot and Alexa support Amazon’s own Amazon Music Unlimited, Spotify (both free and premium accounts), TuneIn and iHeart Radio. You can tell it to play a specific song, artist or album on a your music streaming service of choice and it’ll do just that. It can even do the same for podcasts using TuneIn or stream audio straight off your phone or tablet over Bluetooth.
This smart digital-era playback is rounded out by the added flexibility of being able to connect the Echo Dot to an existing speaker. This is as simple as it sounds, you just wire the Dot up to any speaker with a 3.5mm jack and you’re good to go. Assuming you’ve got a high-quality audio cable on your side, this should allow you to get the most out of any pre-owned audio system whilst also getting the benefits of Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant. Technically, you can do this with all three Echo units. However, it you’re going to do it, it makes the most sense here - as the Dot is by far the cheapest and the biggest difference between it and the other Echo units is the quality of their built-in speakers.
The Bottom Line
All things considered, the Echo Dot offers up a strong - and arguably stronger - alternative to the Google Home Mini. It’s cheaper than Google’s offering, and the ability to connect it to an existing audio setup gives it an added dimension of flexibility that makes it appealing to both smart speaker newcomers and the pre-converted.
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