On a budget or already have good speakers? You don’t have to spend up big to add a voice-controlled digital assistant.
For those looking for a decent-sounding smart speaker, there’s Amazon’s $229 Echo Plus, Apple’s $499 HomePod or the $299 Sonos One, but what if you’re on a tight budget? Or what if you already have a good set of speakers?
Amazon has the solution with its $79 Echo Dot.
Imagine, if you will, the Amazon Echo. Now saw the bottom three-quarters off and throw it away. What you’re left with is the Amazon Echo Dot.
The Dot has all the goodness of the Alexa voice assistant without the large speaker that comes with its sibling. There is a built-in speaker – although it’s basically useless for music unless you want a tinny retro transistor radio sound – or you can connect to external speakers via Bluetooth or a 3.5mm jack.
Almost all the same voice-activation features hardware are there, such as the seven microphones and the light ring. One exception is that, unlike the Echo, the light ring on Echo Dot doesn’t twist to change volume – you have dedicated volume buttons instead.
Setup is just as simple as its larger sibling, however. Connect to it via Wi-Fi using the iOS or Android app, point it at the correct Wi-Fi network and away you go.
How smart is it?
What makes both the Echo and Echo Dot more than just high-tech paperweights is their ability to recognise your voice and pipe it to Alexa, Amazon’s smart voice assistant.
Alexa on the Dot works exactly the same job as it does on the Echo, so you can do all the usual stuff, such as playing music (via Amazon Prime and Spotify) and radio (via TuneIn) and whatever else you have apps set up for. If you already have an Echo, all the same, “Skills” you have “taught” Alexa will be set up and work. In a sense, it’s “your” version of Alexa, whether you’re using Echo or Echo Dot.
The voice recognition is exceptional, more accurate in my experience than Apple’s Siri or Google’s Voice Assistant. Thanks to its aforementioned Skills, Alexa’s capabilities are also growing constantly. Skills let developers create actions for Alexa to recognise. For example, the Uber Skill allows you to call a car using Uber, while the Just Eat Skill will let you reorder your last takeaway.
Echo Dot does have a few drawbacks. There’s no battery option, which means you can’t simply move it around to whatever room you’re in at the time. Given that it’s small enough to be pocketable (if you have big pockets, at least) this seems like an oversight. As mentioned, the built-in speaker is tinny and pretty horrible for anything other than voice responses and talk radio.
These negatives are outweighed by the positives, however. First, you can attach the Dot to an existing speaker or Hi-Fi system via a standard 3.5mm analogue output, so you can boost your audio quality easily. You can hook it up via Bluetooth and stream audio to another wireless speaker as well if you don’t fancy having cables trailing all over the room.
The biggest advantage, however, is that it’s $70 cheaper than the regular Echo, and $150 cheaper than the Echo Plus. This transforms the Echo Dot from considered purchase to impulse buy and, for a technology still in its infancy relatively speaking, that’s important.
And priced at just $79, the Echo Dot is also ideal if you already have a decent speaker you can use with it.
Is it worth the money? Having used Echo for while we’ve mostly been using it as a glorified radio alarm clock. “Alexa, play my favourite radio station”. “Alexa, turn off in one hour”. “Alexa, set an alarm for 6.30am”. And, occasionally, “Alexa, add razor blades to my shopping list”.
However, with the capabilities of Amazon's voice-powered assistant growing by the day, there's a lot more you can do with it than just this. The latest and, perhaps, greatest thing you can do with the Echo Dot is to use it as an intercom to call room-to-room to other Echo devices.
To do this, you first need to give each individual Echo a room name in the Alexa app, enable “drop-in”, then you’ll be able to say “call the kitchen” to talk to your other half if you can’t be bothered getting up from the sofa in the living room.
If you're thinking of having multiple Echos and Dots around the house, though, it's worth knowing that each device is effectively its own version of Alexa. For example, if you set a timer on an Echo in the kitchen, the Echo Dot in the living room isn't smart enough to alert you when it runs out and you've gone to sit there. That makes sense, of course – Echo doesn't know where you are – but it would be a great feature to have.
This makes the $79 Echo Dot a much more viable proposition if you want to check out the leading edge of voice assistants. Voice might not yet be right for you, but Echo Dot is your chance to find out without breaking the bank.