Amazon’s second-generation of the Amazon Echo Dot has been receiving raving reviews all over the Internet lately. As soon as you set your Echo Dot up and start chatting with Alexa, it’s pretty clear what all the hype is about: this little device is freaking cool!
There’s a lot of competition facing the Echo Dot right now, most notably from the likes of Google and Apple. But, even if the Echo Dot is your first experience with a virtual voice assistant, it sets the bar pretty high.
Out of the (tiny) box
It doesn’t seem like much when you get the small square box and unpack a tiny, round speaker. But, the Echo Dot does a lot of big things. The Echo Dot is tightly packed with only the essentials: the speaker, a power adapter and a USB charging cable.
Unsurprisingly, the Echo Dot was super easy to set-up. The manual included in the box refers you to download the Amazon Alexa app, which is mainly used for configuration, set up and adding new Alexa abilities. Within a few short clicks, I was ready to put my personal assistant to work.
The manual provides questions to ask Alexa so you can get used to talking with her. Honestly, I was a little nervous at first, mainly because I live in a small building with thin walls and knew my neighbors would be able to hear me chatting with a robot.
Plus, you have to say Alexa’s name to wake her up and it makes you feel like you’re talking to a dog or a small child. Once the light turns on (which is pretty instantaneous when you say ‘Alexa,’) you ask a question and she responds.
I couldn’t think of what to ask—it was like I was having cold feet on a first date and wasn’t sure how to break the ice. I pulled out the little manual from the box and read through the sample dialogue. It seems cheesy at first, but it is actually quite helpful for getting used to talking to an inanimate object.
“Alexa, what’s the weather like?”
Without hesitation, I get a response.
“In Seattle, it’s 51-degrees with partly cloudy skies.”
Okay, that’s pretty cool. But my phone can tell me that. So then I ask Alexa to tell me a joke and she gives me one about elevators. I ask for a better one and she tells me one about a chilidog. Alexa tells bad dad jokes, but I’m not here to grade her on her comedy.
“Alexa play some music,” I ask and she shuffles my Amazon music library (not to be confused with your smartphone’s music library) to a random song.
I don’t recognize what’s playing, so I ask, “What song is this?”
There’s no response, so I realize I need to say “Alexa” first before asking a question.
“Alexa, what song is this?”
“This is Safe and Sound by Capital Cities.”
Now I’m hooked and suddenly I find myself sitting in my room asking Alexa all kinds of questions. I’m not necessarily trying to stump her; rather, I’m curious as to how well the technology understands context and how vast its search tool is.
I ask for an update on the World Series and Alexa gives me the score. Then, I ask for an update on the North Dakota pipeline protest. Alexa doesn’t seem to fully understand me, but plays a “news flash” from NPR. Though the first update isn’t about what I asked, eventually, there’s a segment with the latest updates from Standing Rock.
Whenever you talk to Alexa, the app records your conversation. That way you have a history of your communication, which is a nice reference point for later. Moreover, the app shows your question as Alexa heard it and if Alexa didn’t understand it, (or you mumbled) you’re given the option to search Bing for the answer. It will also ask if Alexa did what you wanted it to do, so if you click “No,” it will help Alexa better understand you.
Alexa can do a lot, but she can’t do everything
Don’t get be wrong, Alexa is awesome and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how useful she’s been. Though much of the stuff I ask could also be easily done on my phone, I guess that comes with getting used to a “hands-free” experience. I’m an avid baker, so I can see how I’ll find Alexa useful when I’m in the kitchen.
But, there are a few things Alexa can’t seem to do for me, which I find a little surprising. For example, I’m able to ask Alexa to set an alarm for the morning, but I can’t ask her to play a particular song when I wake up.
Moreover, I was able to seamlessly connect Alexa with my Google calendar, which I actually find really useful. It’s convenient to lay in bed and just say, ‘Alexa, what do I have to do tomorrow?” and hear a playback of everything scheduled on my calendar. However, I heavily use Google calendar reminders and Alexa was not able to read those off to me. Instead, I would need to fill out the “to-do” list in the Alexa app.
She can’t do everything, but Alexa truly can do a lot. I’m sure Amazon will only add more abilities (right now, there’s a little over 3,000) as the product continues to develop, but it’s at a great starting point. From streaming music through Spotify, Pandora or Prime music, to tuning in to iHeart Radio or NPR; to ordering a pizza through the Domino’s app, to asking Alexa to call you an Uber or read you a bed time story via Audible or Kindle, the Echo Dot is packed with possibilities.
You can easily add skills, or just use it for whatever you want-it truly feels like having a personal assistant.
Echo Dot vs. Echo vs. Echo Tap
After playing around with the Echo Dot and telling some friends about it, the main question I’ve been asked is this: should you get the Echo Dot or the Echo? And what’s an Echo Tap?
I haven’t tested an Echo or Echo Tap (which is basically the same thing as the Echo, just portable), so while I cannot speak to whether either truly outperforms the Dot (though I’m sure the speaker quality is better) I can say that the Echo Dot is totally worth the price point of $49.99.
While the Echo, Echo Tap and Echo Dot pretty much do the same things and have access to all the same Alexa skills, it seems it really comes down to two things: sound quality and how much of a smart home you have to control.
My impression is that the Echo and Echo Tap are a better speaker that does everything the Echo Dot can do, but the Echo Dot is more affordable and just as useful. The Echo Tap does have the benefit of being portable though, as it should be noted that neither the Echo nor the Echo Dot are wireless. If the Echo Dot was wireless, it would be just about perfect.
Here’s what I think: if you’re just looking for a nice quality speaker that will stream Spotify and not break your bank account, then you should get the Echo Dot.
If you’re still on the fence, keep in mind these two major benefits of the Echo Dot that the Echo doesn’t offer: a 3.5mm output jack and Bluetooth connectivity.
With both the Echo and the portable Echo Tap, you have to commit to the built-in speaker. But with the Echo Dot, you can use an in line cable or Bluetooth to connect to an existing set of speakers. You would need to purchase an in line cable (which is likely why the Echo Dot is at a lower price point) but if you’re wiling to do so (you’d probably have to shell out like $4 or $6) you can connect it to your own sound system and suddenly that little Dot won’t seem so little. So if you have a music set up you already love, you could get an Echo Dot to control it with your voice and make the Echo Dot all the more powerful.
Moreover, if you’re the type who owns a bunch of different Smart Home devices, an Echo Dot could be a relatively cheap universal controller for regulating your home.
Despite Alexa getting confused by some questions and a few delays I’ve experienced when trying to get her attention, I have to say, this product truly lives up to the hype. It’s super simple to use and there really isn’t much that you need to think about from the point of setup to first use. It takes some getting used to if it’s your first experience with Alexa, but the more you interact with the voice control, the more it grows on you.
While at first I was a bit hesitant, almost writing it off because I knew I could just look things up on my phone or set an alarm myself, it really comes down to realizing that you don’t need to have your hands on your smartphone every moment of the day.
Instead of reading the news on your phone, you can listen to it. Instead of reading a book, lay in bed and ask Alexa to read it to you. In the few days that I’ve been testing out the Echo Dot in my home, I’ve found it particularly useful for when I’m multitasking. When I’m cleaning, I can ask Alexa to change the music. When I’m working or cooking, I can ask Alexa to look something up (though she doesn’t always understand the question so sometimes I do end up having to figure it out myself). And when I’m getting ready, I can ask Alexa to set an alarm to remind me to leave in ten minutes.
If you’ve never interacted with a virtual assistant beyond Siri, then Alexa is sure to impress. If you don’t own many Amazon products, I think the Echo Dot is the perfect starting point, especially if you really just want a speaker that will play your music.
You’ll probably end up using the Echo Dot differently than other people (especially those with a whole bunch of smart home devices), but that’s what I think is unique about it. You don’t need to be a super tech nerd to figure out how to use the Echo Dot and find Alexa useful. It might seem weird or impractical at first, but once you get it set up and see how using it works best for you, I bet you’ll become as obsessed with it as everyone else.