Tuesday, October 18, 2016
Review: The new Amazon Echo Dot is small, powerful, and perfect for any household
Earlier this year, Amazon released the first Amazon Echo Dot, a smaller version of the company’s full-size wireless speaker with a voice-controlled assistant. The Dot lacked the room-filling sound of the larger Echo, but it still had all of the same smarts: you could use it to set timers, perform unit conversions, order a pizza, call an Uber, or answer random trivia, all hands-free. I found it best for controlling smart home appliances — it’s far easier to use your voice to turn smart lights on than to dig out your phone and load up an app, for example. I called it the future of the smart home interface.
But based on how Amazon announced and sold the Echo Dot, it was hard to tell that the company felt the same way. When it was introduced in March of this year, the only way to purchase a Dot was through an existing Amazon Echo. And when it quietly went out of stock in July, it appeared that Amazon was done with the Echo Dot, making it an odd experiment that had run its course.
That changed last month, however, when Amazon introduced a new version of the Dot. The new Dot features a revised and simplified design, but maintains all of the capabilities of the model released earlier this year. It’s available for anyone to purchase, right from Amazon’s website as you’d expect, and it costs significantly less than the original: $49.99 versus $89.99. And to give credence to the idea that Amazon wants you to put one of these little pucks in every room of your house, the company is selling multi-packs of the Dot, which let you buy six or 12 of the devices at once and get a discount for doing so.
It offers the exact same experience as the first Dot and is just as easy to recommend for controlling a smart home or using as a voice-controlled personal assistant. It can still be connected to a larger speaker via Bluetooth or a 3.5mm cable for better quality audio, and it still has seven far-field microphones to pick up your voice. It even has the illuminated ring that glows blue to let you know when it’s listening for a command or processing a request.
Amazon did make a handful of changes to the second-generation Dot’s design, likely to hit its lower price point. Side by side, the new Dot is slightly shorter than the original, and has a simpler design for the microphone grille. The rotatable volume control has been replaced by plus and minus buttons on the top of the unit, and the matte finish has been swapped for a glossy patina. The change in the volume controls is largely inconsequential: it’s easier to just use your voice to change volume on the Dot anyway. (This is done by saying "Alexa, volume" and then a value between 1 and 10.)
I’m less of a fan of the glossy finish — it makes the new Dot look cheap and attracts dust like a magnet. But since the Dot is so small, it’s easy to put in a place where you won’t look at it often. You can also choose between black or white finishes to better match your home decor. The second-generation Echo Dot is slightly shorter and simpler than the first version.
Otherwise, the new Dot is same thing as the old Dot. The internal speaker is suitable to hear Alexa’s responses to my queries, but sounds terrible for music. (This is where you’d want to connect the Dot to a more powerful speaker.) The Dot often hears my commands well, but I’ve noticed it’s not as reliable as the full-size Echo, which could be due to its smaller size. It’s a lot easier to hide the Dot out of sight because of its smaller stature, but that can result in poor response to voice commands. (Amazon recommends placing Echo units away from walls and corners, so they can better hear voice commands.)
In order to better support homes with multiple Echo units, Amazon is introducing a new feature called ESP or Echo Spatial Perception. It is supposed to make the Echo that’s physically closest to you respond to your commands, so multiple units don’t activate at once. I was unable to test this feature as it was not yet available (and I only had one unit of the new Dot to test), but Amazon says it will be coming to all Echo devices via a software update in the near future.
With the revised Dot, and its upcoming multi-unit support, it’s clear that Amazon does see the potential for the device to turn any dumb home into a smart one. It’s even easier (and cheaper!) now to put voice controls throughout your whole home, creating a Star Trek-like voice-controlled experience in the real world.
Amazon is far from alone in this endeavor: Google is going to be launching its answer to the Echo before the year is over, and Apple has been rumored to be working on a similar product that uses Siri as a voice-controlled assistant. But Amazon’s option is here now, and it’s priced in such a way that almost anyone that’s interested can experiment with it.