Picture of the Amazon Alexa Dot 2nd Gen with adapter and USB cable.

Amazon Echo Dot Smart Speaker Review, Gen 2




The Amazon Echo Dot is a WiFi and Bluetooth enabled smart speaker, that acts as the front end for Amazon’s Alexa voice service.  The Echo Dot can “hear” your spoken questions and commands, and can speak the answers back to you.  The Dot is also an internet radio that can play thousands of internet radio stations from TuneIn and iHeart radio.  Echo devices like this one also give you access to your Amazon Prime Music and Amazon Music Unlimited services as well as Pandora, Spotify, et al.  You can also ask for local weather and traffic reports, and customize a list of national and local audio news sources, and then ask Alexa to play them for you in playlist fashion.  Control of popular smart home devices like the Nest thermostat and Honeywell’s Total Connect Comfort internet thermostats, and Philips Hue light bulbs is a snap with Alexa.   Program modules, called Skills, are constantly being developed that extend Alexa’s capabilities.  Alexa also supports voice-activated shopping (order more tea and coffee just by asking).  Priced under fifty dollars, the Amazon Echo Dot is a highly affordable smart assistant, radio, music player, shopping clerk, sales woman, and book reader.

Picture of the Amazon Alexa Dot 2nd Gen with adapter and USB cable.
Amazon Alexa Dot 2nd Gen with adapter and USB cable.

 

Benefits, Pros, Features, and Advantages

  • Compact size.  Small foot print and lightweight.  At less than half pound (5.7 ounces to be exact) and smaller than a modest cheeseburger (1.3 inches by 3.3 inches by 3.3 inches), the Echo Dot packs a lot of function into an ultra small form factor, and with the cloud-based infrastructure support, size these days is certainly no indication of just how capable a device might be.
  • Includes USB power adapter and high current micro USB cable.  The micro USB to USB A cable appears to be identical to the one received with our 3rd Gen Kindle Fire HDX.  So Amazon spared no expense in the powering apparatus for the Dot, which presumably, requires less power than the Fire HDX, and yet comes equipped with similar quality adapter and USB cable.
  • Bright multi-color light ring included.  This bank of LED lamps that circle the outer top edge of the Dot, light up when you ask Alexa questions, indicate status of internet connection, and processing activity.  The ring even shows you which direction it hears best your voice from, as you speak to it.  This helps in figuring out the best placement of your Dot for the widest coverage and least error-prone understanding of your speech.
  • Multiple case colors available.  Currently the Dot comes in either a black or white case.  If neither of those suits however, numerous “skins” can also be purchased, that provide transform the Dot into any color in the rainbow.
  • Top-mounted buttons actuate critical Echo Dot functions. The volume up and down, mic mute, and action functions can be activated with these four buttons. Gone is the volume control ring on the original Dot (Gen 1).
  • Mic Off feature.  Disable the built-in microphone array by pressing the Mic Off button.  Doing so mutes the mic so that Alexa stops listening.  The light ring glows red while the mic is off, to remind you that she is not available to respond to questions until you enable the mic by again pressing that Mic Off button.
  • Far field microphone system.  They packed a lot into the hockey puck sized Echo Dot, including seven (count ’em, SEVEN) microphones, that provide much improved voice intelligibility over a single mic.
  • The closest Dot is the one that responds.  With the built-in Echo Spacial Perception (ESP) technology, if you have many Dots around your house, the system determines when you speak, which Dot is closest to you, and issues the responses from that Dot.  Though not entirely perfect, ESP vastly improves the wrong-Dot-response situation.
  • Fast Alexa response.  She generally answers a question in a few seconds or less, although times may increase with heavy internet or Amazon server traffic.
  • Flexible external speaker support options.  The Dot features a 3.5mm stereo line-level output jack, that supports connection to a hi-fi audio stereo system, and also provides a Bluetooth connection for numerous external Bluetooth speakers.  Add smart speaker functionality to any set of amplified speakers, including a high end, audiophile stereo system.
  • Accessible.  Primary setup and control functions are accessed via the Amazon Alexa App, which you install on an iOS or Android tablet computer.  Also, since Alexa can read text sources aloud, she can be an invaluable companion for blind and vision impaired users.
  • Lots of online documentation available.  Amazon offers extensive help files that explain how to set up and operate this device in detail.
  • Answers lots of questions by default.  Ask Alexa for the current time, weather, news, and traffic reports as well as to sing Happy Birthday, tell you a joke, or engage in rudimentary conversations with her.  We expect this capability to improve as artificial intelligence and machine learning are further integrated into the Alexa infrastructure.
  • Alarm clock and timer.  Your Dot can act as a very smart alarm clock and kitchen timer.
  • Uber and Lyft support.  Skills to request rides from Uber and Lyft are available.
  • Getting smarter every day.  Thousands of free skills have been developed already with many more in the works.
  • Programmable wake command.  To get Alexa’s attention, you choose from three possible words (Amazon, Echo, and Alexa).
  • Cloud enabled.  This smart assistant is cloud-based, and therefore benefits from Amazon’s massive computer farms and software engineers, who constantly update, enhance, and extend Alexa functions.
  • Voice learning.  The Alexa app maintains a history list of the questions and commands you’ve recently issued to the Dot.  For many questions, you can provide detailed feedback about whether Alexa properly understood each question.  This helps the system learn the “correct” responses to various queries.  There’s also a voice training feature that enables Alexa to learn the particulars of your own voice, by having you read a series of small phrases into its memory.  Then, armed with the knowledge of how you speak those phrases, Alexa can better understand your particular speech patterns, which reduces misunderstood questions and commands.
  • Seamless integration with your Amazon account.  Alexa can link to the various subscription services in your Amazon account, such as Prime Music and Music Unlimited.  Alexa can also place orders for millions of items for you from Amazon.
  • Plays many internet radio stations.  Alexa offers access to the thousands of Internet broadcast streams from iHeart and TuneIn radio services.
  • Supports numerous content providers and aggregators.  Reads Audible books, plays podcasts, can access your Amazon music library, Audible books, and hourly news broadcasts.  You may also play short news segments put together by thousands of radio and television stations around the world.
  • Thousands of skills available.  News briefings, recipes and cooking tips, smart home device controllers, music service subscriptions, traffic monitors, banking voice apps, and fact checking skills are just a few among Alexa’s prolific library of available skills.  These voice apps come from both Amazon and third party developers.  Lots of people will be writing interesting capabilities into Alexa therefore.
  • Smart home enabled.  Through the Alexa smart assistant voice service, the Echo Dot can be configured to control popular smart home devices such as the Nest and Honeywell internet-enabled thermostats, and multi-colored WiFi-enabled light bulbs, power switches, and wall outlets.
  • Room filling sound in small package.  Though little bigger than a traditional transistor radio, the Echo Dot offers louder, higher fidelity sound.  Provides plenty of volume for bedrooms, small living rooms, and other quieter locations.
  • Can act as a WiFi hotspot.
  • Bluetooth enabled.  Pairing with more powerful Bluetooth speakers is also supported for an even fuller sound.
  • Easy to buy.  Get it on the Amazon website as well as the Home Shopping Network et al.
  • Cheapest device in the Amazon Echo line.  At just under $50 currently, the Echo Dot offers the most functionality for the least cost.  It’s the best value overall, of its siblings (Echo and Tap).
  • More wake words needed.  Currently, you can only use Alexa, Amazon, or Echo wake words with Alexa.  It would be nice if you could choose from any of thousands more words, like using another lady’s name for example.  We hope they’ll add more extensive wake phrase customizations like this in the future.
Picture of the Amazon Alexa Echo Dot Gen 2 Speaker measurements, perspective.
Amazon Alexa Echo Dot Gen 2 Speaker measurements, perspective.

 

Problems, Cons, Limitations, and Disadvantages

  • Useable but not great sound.  Not that we expected ultra high definition sound quality from the Dot.  But still, significant sound improvement would be a welcome product update.
  • Available skills need further development.  Some skills currently offer sketchy documentation on how to utilize all of their capabilities.  However, we predict that this will shrink as a mainstay issue as the technology matures.
  • Alexa app can be slow and sometimes buggy.  As with all tablet apps, program crashes are not unheard of in the Alexa app.  And since this app relies on the speed and quality of the supporting internet connection, the app can at times run slowly and take a long time to respond to menu and button taps.
  • Bluetooth pairing can be awkward.  The first time we paired the Dot with our iPad, the Dot pairing scan did not see our Dot.  So, we had to initiate the pairing from the iPad, rather than from the Dot via the Alexa app.  However, once paired for the first time, the Alexa app remembers that device (in this case, our iPad), and from then on, pairing can be successfully initiated either by voice command to the Dot, or from within the Bluetooth section of the Alexa app.
  • No battery power.  Unlike the Echo Tap, with no internal battery, the Dot must be plugged into a USB power source to function.
  • False triggering.  Sometimes, Alexa will think that you’re addressing her when you’re playing a radio or talking to someone on the phone.  Usually of little consequence though.   But be careful that she does not inadvertently buy something on your behalf because she mistakenly thought that you wanted to buy it when she heard voices that sounded like a command to buy.
  • Multiple Echo Dots may still respond.  Even with ESP technology, it sometimes happens that two or more Dots in earshot of your voice, will respond to a question.  Ongoing improvement will further address this issue however.  In the meantime, careful placement of your Dots around the home will alleviate this problem.  The addition of a mic sensitivity control could help minimize this effect by tailoring the mic responsiveness to the particular rooms in which you place your Dots.
  • Does not function without working internet connection. The Dot must be able to access Amazon Web Services in order to work correctly.
  • No whole-house audio support yet.  Multiple Dots cannot function as a group.  Currently, no syncing of two or more Dots so that they play the same thing together.  Though multiple dots might share the same Internet connection and Amazon account, they function essentially as independent devices.
  • More internet radio options needed.  Currently, Alexa only offers direct access to TuneIn and iHeart Radio stations.  We’d like to see them add services like OOTunes, StreamTheWorld, CBS, and other large scale streaming services.
Picture of the Amazon Alexa Echo Dot Gen 2, showing underside and the speaker openings.
Amazon Alexa Echo Dot Gen 2, showing underside and the speaker openings.

 

Our Rating

We find the Amazon Echo Dot virtual voice assistant, particularly this second generation version, to be an excellent value.  It’s a highly advanced yet still growing product; one that evolves and improves over time without any action required by its owner.  As new content sources come online, Alexa will likely offer them.  Though the cheapest of all the current Alexa Echo devices, the 2nd generation Dot offers practically all of the same functionality as its more expensive siblings, and some features that its relatives do not.  Over all, we highly appreciate the workmanship and thoughtful engineering that went into this product, and so, rate it at 99 out of 100.  With an Alexa portal like this product around, it’s much harder to justify paying roughly $130 more for the larger Amazon Echo.  For that purchase, the only better trait you get is a fuller sounding, louder Echo device.  We’re not convinced however, that that incremental sound improvement is worth paying over three times as much however.  The Echo Dot is the best buy of the entire Echo line currently.

 

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References

Revision History

  • 2016-12-04: Originally published.