Amazon's second-generation Echo Dot voice-controlled home assistant is now available. At $50, it's an inexpensive way to get acquainted with Alexa, the company's virtual assistant that surprised and delighted many people upon its debut in late 2014. The updated device also lets you easily add voice controls to a stereo system.
(Disclosure: The author currently consults for a company that has Amazon as a client.)
Echo Dot is basically an Amazon Echo assistant ($180), minus the high-quality, stereo speaker. As with Echo, you say "Alexa," the default wake word, followed by a request, to ask it to play music, tell you the weather, bring you up to date on the latest news, or hail an Uber ride.
The beauty of Echo Dot is its compact, hockey-puck size. It's just 1.3 inches by 3.3 inches by 3.3 inches, and it weighs 5.7 ounces, compared to Echo's 9.3 inches by 3.3 inches by 3.3 inches and weight of 2.34 pounds. (Echo Dot is available in white and black, as well; Echo only comes in black.)
Despite its relatively small footprint, Echo Dot isn't designed to be portable, because it, like Echo, lacks a battery. If you want an Alexa-enabled speaker to travel with, Amazon Tap ($130) is a better option.
Is Echo Dot right for you?
Who exactly is the target user of Echo Dot, considering it's not truly portable, à la Tap, and doesn't have a rich stereo speaker, like Echo? Here are four reasons why you might want one.
1. Make dumb speakers smart
You can connect Echo Dot to a stereo system via Bluetooth or a 3.5mm audio input jack. (Echo Dot doesn't come with a 3.5mm cable, but Amazon sells them for about $5.) For $50, you could tell your otherwise "dumb" stereo system to play specific songs, albums, playlists or artists, from Spotify, Amazon's music service, or another streaming source.
I connected Echo Dot to a UE Megaboom speaker ($240 on Amazon), using a 3.5mm cable and then Bluetooth, and had no problems. I also played music on Echo Dot's built-in speaker. It's not meant to be a party animal, but Echo Dot's audio quality is a bit better than I expected.
2. Echo Dot as an alarm clock
Echo Dot can also be used as an alarm clock, and it could be particularly useful for people with sleep issues. Some sleep experts say looking at a clock at night can stress you out and make it harder to fall asleep. Echo Dot has no screen, so that wouldn't be an issue.
3. Echo Dot as a kitchen helper
You could use Echo Dot in the kitchen, as well, to get recipes or answers to questions as you cook.
4. Echo Dot as a smart home hub
Echo Dot also works well with some smart home devices.
Do you really need another virtual assistant?
Will Siri, Google Assistant, or Cortana, which you may already have on your smartphone, tablet or computer, handle the questions or requests you might ask Alexa or Echo Dot?
Some overlap definitely exists between what Amazon's assistant and its competitors can do. However, Alexa already has thousands of different "skills," and it gets new ones every week, most of which integrate with other services. For example, I like to ask Alexa for "flash news" briefings, in which the virtual assistant reads me the latest news updates from my chosen media sources. Alexa is the only virtual assitant I've used that excels in that regard.
Alexa's about to get some competition from Google
The virtual assistant space is quickly growing more competitive. Google Home ($130), an Echo-esque virtual assistant (below), is expected to ship soon. It remains to be seen how viable Alexa will be after a Google brain housed in a stereo speaker hits the market.
If you're curious about Alexa but don't want to invest a lot of money, or if you simply want to add voice control to your stereo, Echo Dot is worth a try. If Siri, Google Assistant or Cortana already serve your needs, skip it.