By Dan Moren
April 4, 2016 9:26 AM PT
The Echo Dot: Small size, same features
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
Ever seen one of those collapsible camping cups? They smush flat for packing, and then expand into a full-size cup when it’s time for a meal. That’s kind of what the Amazon Echo Dot makes me think of: it’s like someone took the full-size Echo from each end and just compressed it.
In some ways, the Dot reminds me of the iPhone SE. From the outside, it’s a smaller device, but the inside packs pretty much all of the technology of the full-size Echo, with one obvious exception: the speaker.
Speaker aficionados have never been overly kind to the full-size Echo, though I’ve found it perfectly satisfactory for listening to the radio, podcasts, and the occasional musical accompaniment to dish-washing. It will never match a really nice speaker system, but as a Bluetooth speaker, it’s not too shabby.
The Dot’s is worse than that: muddy and lacking in pretty much any bass, it’s not terribly loud in the volume department either. Think somewhere between your smartphone’s speakers and a clock radio. You’re probably not going to want to listen to much music on it, but it’s sufficient for voice, even though on some occasions you might find yourself muttering “What’s that?”
Get the sound out
To compensate for the lackluster internal speaker, Amazon has added two features not present on the original Echo, one hardware and another software. On the back of the Dot, next to the micro-USB power connector, you’ll find a standard 3.5mm audio out. Plug that into an existing set of speakers1 and all of the Dot’s output will issue through those instead. (The Dot, of course, still handles all the audio input via its own microphones, of which it has the same seven as the original Echo.)
If you’ve already got some nice speakers, hooking them up to the Dot can definitely bring it up to snuff, though the one downside is that you then have to either leave those speakers on all the time, or remember to turn them on when you want to use the Dot–if the speaker is off, the Dot won’t default back to its internal speaker.
While the Dot, like the Echo before it, can play back audio from a connected Bluetooth source like your smartphone, the Dot also adds the ability to use a Bluetooth speaker as output. Once you pair a speaker for the first time using the Alexa app, you can subsequently manage it by voice by telling the Dot to connect or disconnect your speaker.
In my brief tests, the Bluetooth speaker worked just fine. One benefit is portability: the Dot has to be plugged in, but you can move its speaker anywhere within Bluetooth range. Like the Echo, the Dot’s mic setup is pretty good at picking up your voice at a distance, though you may need to speak up.
The Dot also doesn’t include a voice remote, though you can pair one you might already have. (The Echo and Fire TV voice remotes are basically the same device.)
The more things stay the same
Other than its audio output options, the Dot is for all intents and purposes exactly what it appears to be: a smaller version of the Echo. At a fraction of the size, and half the price, you get all the software features of the Echo in a more compact package.
The hardware design is just as good as on the Echo, with the twisting, light-up volume ring and pleasant mute/action buttons. There’s a rubber base that’s slightly tacky, which is a bit more necessary given its lack of weight, otherwise it might slide around.
Best of all, since many of the Alexa features are associated with your profile, those who already own an Echo will find most of the same features work on the Dot right out of the box. For example, my IFTTT workflows for controlling my TV and smart plugs required no setup; my flash briefing was already configured for the correct news services; and all my connected audio services were available. I did have to set my home location for the Dot to get certain geographic-related information, though.
So, is adding a Dot to a house with an Echo like bringing home a new puppy to play with the more mature dog? Not quite. But the two do work together about as much as you’d expect, which is to say not very much.
With the Dot in my office and the full-size Echo in my kitchen, I could say “Alexa, what time is it?” and be serenaded from both devices at once. For the first few queries I gave, they were perfectly, eerily in sync, but then they started to drift and respond at an offset, which was distracting and not very useful.
Fortunately, there exists a solution: just change the wake word on one of the units. Disappointingly, the options are still limited, though Amazon did of late add “Echo” to the existing choices of “Alexa” and “Amazon.” So now I address the Dot by saying “Echo” and the full-size model by saying “Alexa” and oh my god personalized wake words can’t come soon enough.
It would be nice if the two Echo units could somehow work together to improve the microphone coverage in my house and then route replies to a chosen device–kind of like running multiple Wi-Fi base stations on the same network–but that’s probably a ways off. I have a pretty small apartment, which makes it feasible to have just one Echo, but for those who have a house, the Dot could be a nice ancillary device if there’s someplace outside of your existing Echo’s coverage.
On the software side, you can manage both using the Alexa app already on your iOS (or Android) devices, though you’ll probably want to give them separate names.
Tea, Earl Grey, hot
If you’ve been interested in trying the Echo but haven’t wanted to fork over the $180 for the full-size unit, the $90 Dot is a perfectly acceptable substitute–especially if you’ve got some existing speakers to connect it to. And getting more people into the Echo-system, as it were, is no doubt exactly what Amazon has in mind.
But the Dot makes me curious about the future of the Echo and Alexa. It’s certainly convinced me that voice interactions are the way things are going; we’re still not quite at the computers of Star Trek2, but we’ve definitely never been closer.
Update: An earlier version of this article mentioned that the full-size Echo comes with a voice remote, which apparently it no longer does. Thanks to Lex Friedman for the catch.
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at @firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him by email at email@example.com. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is out now.]
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