Amazon Echo Dot review: Smart home assistant shows teenage potential

    Small in price, big on features...

    Amazon Echo Dot review: Smart home assistant shows teenage potential
    Amazon Echo Dot review: Smart home assistant shows teenage potential

    Internet of Business Editor Doug Drinkwater reviews the Amazon Echo Dot – the $49 voice assistant threatening to make your home smart, and your people dumb.

    Amazon has launched a number of smart home devices of late, from the $200 Amazon Echo to the Tap and the Echo Dot. These carry many of the same features, but the full-size Echo and Tap have better speakers and subsequently bigger price-points. We look at the Echo Dot in this condensed review.

    TL;DR: The Amazon Echo Dot is an amazing product for the price, and truly a forerunner to this emerging smart home era. And yet there is clearly someway Amazon has to go before this becomes a mainstream product in every household.

    First impressions

    Amazon’s Echo Dot is so easy and fast to set-up, certainly in comparison with most other hardware in the consumer electronics market. I’ve played around with iPods, iPads, Android tablets, Windows/Android phones and much more besides, and this was the easiest of the lot.

    Out of the box, as per our recent how-to guide, you simply download the Alexa app (iOS, Android, desktop), plug in the Echo, and wait for the orange LED light to appear. At this point, you can configure Wi-Fi information and set-up a new device from inside the Alexa app.

    The app is relatively easy and intuitive to operate, if a little bland and uninspiring from a user experience point of view. Certainly, the initial video demonstrations were glitchy and slow, but that could have been down to my network connection.

    You use the app to connect to the Wi-Fi network and it’s remarkable how fast the process is from taking the device out to the box to getting it up and running. Once connected, the Echo pings into life and ‘Alexa’ wakes up. It’s an eye-opening experience, and quite staggering how fast and accurate the voice recognition software is (initially, at least).

    Away from how the Amazon Echo works, the styling of the device is also surprisingly good for such a low-end product.

    The slick, cylinder-shaped device, which doesn’t look dissimilar to an ice hockey puck, sports a glossy exterior (it is available in numerous colors and fabrics) and is small in size (235 mm x 84 mm x 84 mm — and just 32mm tall). It is light, too, at 163g and generally it fits in well with any environment — it doesn’t look out of place on the kitchen side or dining room table.

    On the top of the device, there are subtle button volume controls — it doesn’t have the larger Echo’s volume ring — as well as an LED light that runs around the top, indicating Alexa is ‘listening’. The speaker grilles are barely visible, running along the bottom of the device, and on the back there’s a microUSB port for power and an audio jack.

    Related: How to set-up your Echo or Echo Dot

    Voice recognition

    The voice recognition is the standout feature here. My Dot immediately perks up on the wake word, whether I am right next to the device or on the other side of the room. Not just that, but it’s good at picking up tricky phrases, and from different voices.

    “Alexa, play Sweat Child of Mine by Gun n’ Roses” or “Alexa, add email Jane to my to-do list please” are both picked up, no questions asked.

    Some requests don’t get fulfilled, sometimes because they’re tricky to say or I/my family leave too long to issue the command. Indeed, my son – who has fun asking Alexa about Top Gear and cars generally – will often merge “Alexa” with his request, giving the virtual assistant little chance to identify what he has requested.

    I’ve used Cortana and Siri, and already I’d say that Alexa is better than both, and which will likely improve more as it learns our habits.

    Yeah, I got skills

    ‘Skills’ are Amazon’s answer to mobile apps and there is an array of excellent skills available from inside the app.

    From The Guardian to Sky Sports, National Rail and – my favorite – Bartender – there is something here for everyone. And clearly there’s more to come not just for consumers but businesses too; Insurer Aviva was one of the first to offer a skill to demystify insurance terms, while EDF Energy is using the platform so customers can see their account details. Other B2B skills are coming in other verticals, while Alexa is now coming to connected cars.

    Some skills are more useful than others but that it probably to be expected from an ecosystem that is early in its development. And for as good as ‘TrackR’ is at finding my phone and any other gadgets (assuming you have their beacon-like devices at $50 a pop), others – like ‘Damn Girl’ (which compliments you on launch) have little point beyond their initial amusement.

    Naturally, the Skills section can leave you frustrated. For example, the absence of a native Outlook or Wunderlist skill led me to IFTTT recipes to devise a way of adding items to my calendar or tasks to my to-do inbox.

    One would expect this situation to improve in time as developers jump aboard the Amazon Echo bandwagon.

    Mobile app, audio and other features

    The problem with smart home tech right now, as VC Benedict Evans says below, is that it still resolves around the smartphone. It still plays a huge role in how you use devices like Echo Dot.

    In future, you would hope this connection to disappear, or at least for the smart home product to act more independently (for example, can Echo learn your behaviors and act on your behalf – for example, maybe playing that morning playlist every Sunday morning without being prompted?)

    The app is adequate. You’ll probably predominantly be using Skills, but you can also set timers and alarms, look at and add to your to-do list.

    You can connect to other smart home devices, add Amazon devices (like Kindles, Fire tablets etc) and get smart home skills. You can also easily add your Spotify Premium and other non-Amazon accounts.

    The audio is surprisingly good given the price-point. Music is crisp and clear, even when you raise it to maximum volume. If you’re looking for a premium audio quality, you should opt for the $200 Echo, but this more than does the job for casual listeners. You can connect your Dot to your speakers through Bluetooth or a 3.5mm stereo cable (not included).

    Suckered into Amazon services

    One thing to note, and this shouldn’t surprise those familiar with Amazon products, is that the Echo is an advertising product of sorts.

    Even during the set-up process, it’s recommending you to launch a trial for Amazon Prime and Amazon Music Unlimited – as well as connecting to pre-existing Amazon products. And of course, by using your Amazon account to log-in, you’re ready to buy from the ecommerce store at any given time – as one unfortunate family recently found out (but you can turn off purchasing in the app).

    You can’t blame Jeff Bezos and co for this – it is the Amazon business model, but I do wonder if this will deter your Joe Average who simply wants to take the first step to making his house smart, and doesn’t want to sign-up for multiple new, paid-for services along the way. Will Google’s Home offer a more open-ecosystem approach?

    Related: How to set-up your Echo or Echo Dot

    Interconnection with other smart home devices

    My house isn’t that smart yet so the opportunity to connect to third-party smart devices was pretty limited.

    Nonetheless, it’s clear that you get the most of Echo if you do have Nest, Hive etc. According to reviewers, the set-up is pretty easy to connect to Belkin’s WemO switch systems, Hue lights, SmartThings hub and applies, Wink hub and much more.

    Personally, I am not convinced yet about these smart home connections. Sure, it’s smart in a sense that these devices are talking to each other machine-to-machine, but how smart is it really to turn up heating or lighting? And do you even need Alexa to do this when Nest, for example, can already do that for you via an intuitive mobile interface? This is clearly a debate for another day.

    Related: Why voice is the future of the smart home

    Limitations?

    As with any new product or market niche, the Amazon Echo is not perfect. There are imperfections that will need to be ironed out if it is to truly change the way we live and interact in the home.

    Some of these are technical; Alexa’s voice recognition naturally isn’t always 100 percent correct, there are times when it doesn’t recognize what you say (indeed, even if you said anything at all). Furthermore, it always needs a connection to the mains, while a critic may suggest that the sound could be better.

    There is a limited choice of music streaming services (you can connect to radio stations through TuneIn), and if you were being very picky here you could say it has limited use unless you are an Amazon fanboy or a major smart home advocate.

    Then there are other issues that may seem less obvious: socially.

    It feels strange to speak to ‘Alexa’ when you’re halfway through a conversation, or when it’s late at night and people are asleep. Privacy is an issue here too, and my wife will often say ‘can we turn Alexa off now’ if it’s late and the device starting speaking without us having issued a command. Indeed, it sometimes responds to random words said on television, and logs these requests on the mobile app.

    Amazon Echo Dot conclusion: Fantastic for the price, but more to come

    The Amazon Echo and Echo Dot are standout devices in a crowded smart home market. The Echo is slick, easy to use and affordable, and connects with an increasing array of other smart devices. There is no-one else, save for maybe Google with Home, even close for the simplicity and at that price-point.

    It is early days though and I hope that the Amazon Echo eventually moves on from its teenage promise to become much more vital around the home. At the moment, it’s largely confined to music, news flashes, my to-do list, and turning out lights.

    Can it become essential in the home? Can it start anticipating my requests to give me the information I need now?

    Those are the big questions going forward. And given how often Amazon has innovated over the last decade, one they are no doubt well placed to answer going forward.

    Related: Echo murder case marks the death of privacy as we know it