AI assistants are the future, and every home ought to have one right now. They are capable of making your life so much easier, and al you need is to speak out commands and ask for basic information. No longer do you need to take out your smartphone just to perform basic tasks.
Right now in the UK, the Amazon Echo is the closest we get to this without stepping into Terminator territory. The only problem with the Echo is that it will prove a little too big and expensive for some. Enter the Amazon Echo Dot – a smaller and more affordable alternative.
The Echo Dot offers almost everything the larger Echo does, but for a third of the price. It also adds some crucial features such as Bluetooth and 3.5mm output, which weren't available before.
The Echo would make a fantastic addition to any home, but now that its key features are available in a smaller and more affordable format, Amazon has crossed the line into must-buy territory. Every home could be improved by the addition of an Echo Dot.
Video: Amazon Echo review
Imagine a hockey puck and you're half way there to imagining the Echo Dot's size. If you're not a hockey fan, imagine a short stack of chocolate digestives, or a small tin of beans. Either way, the Amazon Echo Dot is short and round, and therefore easy to accommodate in almost any room.
At an inch and a half in height, the Dot is a lot shorter than the regular Amazon Echo tower. The bulk of the big Echo is a speaker, and not everybody will need that. Maybe you already have your own speakers. Maybe you have no interest in music at all, and you just want the machine for its web-based smarts. That's the point of this fun-size Echo.
There is a very small speaker built into the Dot but this is purely so that the voice assistant, Alexa, can talk to you. For proper listening, you have Bluetooth and 3.5mm outputs, which mean you can bring Alexa to almost any sound system.
You can use portable speakers and desktop micro-systems. I went the whole hog and plugged the Dot into my hi-fi system with a stereo amplifier and some big speakers. I like the idea of a disembodied voice booming through my home just like Iron Man's AI butler JARVIS.
Related: Best Bluetooth speaker 2016
The reduction in size and the addition of audio outputs are the most notable differences between the Dot and the original Echo, but there have been a few other tweaks too. The paint job is now glossy instead of matte – matte is better at hiding dust – but the device is so small that the change is barely noticeable.
Another addition is a set of volume buttons to the top of the device. The big Echo had a twisty top that served as the volume knob. Given the Dot's compact dimensions, however, it makes sense that such functionality hasn't made the cut. Lastly, the power supply is now via micro-USB, as opposed to a bespoke plug. There's still no built-in battery, but this is in keeping with a device that's aimed at home use.
The micro-USB port technically means you can run the Dot in a portable setup with a battery pack and a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, but I'm not sure why anyone would want to do that.
Besides its space-saving and external music capabilities, the Dot’s feature list is identical to that of its bigger sibling, so check out our in our Amazon Echo review. But in short, here’s the deal: the Echo Dot lets you control the device by talking to it.
It’s always listening, unless you press the mute button. Utter your chosen prompt word (“Amazon”, “Echo” or “Alexa”) to kick the device into action and get Alexa to do your bidding.
You can ask Alexa any number of basic questions, and most of the time she’ll be able to find the right answer on Bing:
"Alexa, what’s the weather like?"
"Right now, in London, it’s 10 degrees with clear skies and sun. Today you can expect showers, with a high of 13 degrees and a low of 7 degrees."
Other than being a search engine shorthand for the lazy, the Echo Dot is also designed to control various smart elements in your life. Amazon calls this "Skills" and there are thousands of them. The more useful ones include Spotify, Just Eat, Hive and Philips Hue. You’ll be able to control your music, order a takeaway, or dim the lights simply by talking to Alexa.
The far-field voice recognition is as impressive as it was on the big Echo; the Dot was able to hear and understand me even though I was in the next room.
Related: Google Home vs Amazon Echo
A new feature that launched alongside the Echo Dot is what Amazon calls ESP – Echo Spatial Perception. In case you have multiple Echo units, this feature allows the devices to work out where you are, so that only the one closest to you will respond.
ESP works. I have two devices set up in the same room. As I utter “Alexa”, both devices flash blue to show that they’re listening, but only the one nearest to me responds. It means you won’t ever have two devices answering your questions at the same time.
Another feature launched with the Echo Dot is the ability to shop by voice, as long as you have a Prime account. I don’t have one, but tried ordering paper towels anyway. Alexa told me that she couldn’t, and that I need a Prime account – but in the mean time she had added paper towels to my shopping list. Clever girl.
As you’d expect as a result of the Echo Dot’s compact dimensions, the built-in speaker isn’t particularly good. It’s loud enough that you can have a quick chat with Alexa. It’s also clear and smooth enough that you can hear her without her giving you a headache.
I wouldn’t use it to play music, though: the sound is too thin and weedy; in fact, you might as well use that tinny speaker on your phone. For music, you’d want to plug in with 3.5mm or connect to Bluetooth. I would recommend the latter.
My 3.5mm cable is connected to a stereo amplifier, which is then connected to some hi-fi speakers. Every portable device I’ve used with this system has sounded fine, but with the Echo Dot, there's an audible whine in the background.
I’d put this down to the high sensitivity of my hi-fi setup, which doesn’t take too kindly to being plugged into a Wi-Fi device. The Dot didn’t have this problem when I plugged it into a simple portable speaker or my Denon micro-system. My solution: turn up the volume on the Echo, which allows you to keep the hi-fi on low and in turn minimise the noise.
Alternatively, connect by Bluetooth. I paired my Echo Dot with a Yamaha AV receiver and didn’t hear any hiss. The audio performance is what I'd typically expect when I play Spotify through this system: clear and hard-hitting, more than good enough for parties.
Whether you use the 3.5mm connection or Bluetooth, what you get is much better than the speaker built into the big Echo.
Video: Amazon Echo vs Google Home
The original Amazon Echo impressed, and I wasn’t expecting it to be beaten in a matter of weeks by a smaller version. But that’s exactly what’s happened here.
The Echo Dot is simply a better device than the original Echo. It does everything its big brother does, but offers greater versatility and it costs a third of the price. If you’re after a voice assistant to take control of your home, or even if you’re just curious to take a peek at the future of home automation, this is a no-brainer.
That lower price also means you might consider buying several Echo Dots and, um, dot them around your home. Having Alexa in every room dramatically increases her usefulness, which just isn't possible with only a single, more expensive unit in one room.
Currently, Amazon is offering a package deal where you can get six Echo Dot units for the price of five; I’d recommend taking up that offer. Fill your house with them and give the spares to your friends and family. They will thank you for it.
A potent smart home assistant, now better and cheaper too.