Apple is rumored to be working on a Siri-powered smart home speaker with built-in cameras. The Google Home smart speaker could go on sale as soon as tomorrow, October 4.
Alexa finally has some competition.
That's almost certainly why we have a second-gen Amazon Echo Dot. With the price slashed to a near-absurd $50 (or £50 in the UK, where Alexa launched just last month), Amazon's goal is obvious -- get its virtual voice assistant into as many homes as possible now, before people have other options. That means that the Dot is designed to sell, sell, sell. And to step all over the arrival of Google Home.
Not that it needed much help. The original Echo Dot, launched just last March as a pint-sized follow-up to the surprise smash-hit Amazon Echo smart speaker, was by all accounts just as successful as its predecessor.
Now, after being out of stock for months, the Dot is back, and more affordable than ever. (It isn't available in Australia, but were you to import one the price converts to about AU$65.) It's just as smart as before, too, with all of the same Alexa tricks along with plenty of new ones thanks to a rapidly growing library of third-party voice app "skills." And, despite the lower cost, it's an even better performer than the first generation, with microphones that do a better job of hearing your voice commands over music playback or background noise.
In other words, the already-great Echo Dot got a compromise-free price cut. It was an Editors' Choice-winner back in March -- now, it's close to a must-buy for just about anyone who's reading this.
Alexa in a nutshell
"Alexa" is Amazon's cloud-connected, voice-activated virtual assistant. She's Siri in a speaker. You wake her up by saying her name, or by saying one of your two other wake word options, "Amazon" or "Echo." The array of microphones inside of the Echo Dot is always listening, and when they hear the wake word, they'll record whatever you say next and send it off through the cloud to Amazon's servers. Those servers will figure out what you're asking for, then tell Alexa how to respond. All of this happens in about a second.
You can ask Alexa to do all sorts of things. For starters, she can stream music from Amazon Prime Music, Pandora, or Spotify. She can can play podcasts from iHeartRadio or TuneIn. She can set kitchen timers. She can look up facts. She can wake you up in the morning. She can tell your kids painfully bad jokes. She can read off the day's headlines from whatever news sources you like (including, ahem, CNET). All you have to do is ask.
On top of that, Alexa keeps getting smarter thanks to an increasingly robust market of third-party voice apps called "skills." There are over 3,000 of them at this point, and each one teaches Alexa a new trick. The Uber and Lyft skills let you tell Alexa to call you a ride. The Capital One skill lets you tell Alexa to make a credit card payment. The Domino's skill lets you tell Alexa to order a pizza. A skill called The Wayne Investigation lets you talk your way through an interactive mystery set in Gotham City. You can browse through them all in the Alexa app, then pick which ones you want to enable. You can also just ask Alexa to turn one on by saying something like, "Alexa, enable the Jeopardy skill." And, as of now, none of them cost anything.
Alexa can control a growing list of smart home gadgets, too, including connected lighting setups, smart thermostats, and popular smart home platforms. Ask her to turn the kitchen lights off or raise the temperature a few degrees, and she'll happily comply. Here are some of the most popular options:
- Philips Hue connected LEDs
- LIFX connected LEDs
- Ledvance Lightify connected LEDs
- Lutron connected lighting setups
- Haiku smart lights and ceiling fans
- Belkin WeMo Switches
- August Smart Lock
- Scout Home Security system
- Ecobee3 Smart Thermostat
- Nest Learning Thermostat
- SmartThings connected home platform
- Wink connected home platform
- Insteon connected home platform
- GE smart appliances
- Garageio garage door opener
- Logitech Harmony Hub entertainment controller
- Control4 smart home setups
- Nexia smart home setups
- Crestron smart home setups
Small, but mighty
The new Echo Dot is a little shorter than the original because there's no longer a ring around the top that you turn to control the volume. Instead, you turn things up and down using two new volume buttons on the top of the device. It's also a bit lighter, with a glossy plastic casing instead of the matte black body of generation one. And, of course, it's available in white now (which looks quite good, in my opinion). Other than that, this is the same Dot as before: same plug-and-play simplicity, same voice-activated smarts.
Like every other Echo product, the Dot is really just an access point for the Amazon Alexa cloud platform. That means that you're getting the exact same Alexa features as you would with the full-size Amazon Echo or the battery-powered Amazon Tap. The Dot just has a less powerful speaker.
There's an ace up the Dot's sleeve, though, and that's the fact that you can connect it with existing speakers and audio setups over Bluetooth or via line-in cable. Do so, and you'll essentially make an Echo out of whatever speakers you like. The Echo and Tap can't do that -- with both, it's the built-in speakers or it's nothing.
That makes Dot the most flexible of the three, and the most intriguing, too. After all, music is a big part of the Alexa experience, and most music lovers already have an audio setup they're happy with. The Dot lets them give that audio setup a brand new brain.
Just one, small quibble: Amazon doesn't include a line-in cable with the new Echo Dot like it did with the first one. You'll need to spend five or six bucks on your own (or dig one out of your junk drawer). It's a clear sign that Amazon was trying to get the entry cost as low as possible, and a forgivable omission given that you can still connect with external speakers right out of the box using Bluetooth. Still, I'd like it better if the cable came included.