Amazon recently released their Echo and Echo Dot in the UK. Their ‘Smart Speaker’ is kitted out with Alexa, a virtual assistant. I have an Echo Dot on loan to review.
Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot were released in the States last year. They finally landed here in the UK in September.
As well as looking in to how the Dot performs, I thought it would be interesting to see what ‘skills’ Alexa has on this fair isle.
Amazon Echo Dot design
The Dot is essentially the Echo but without the speaker. For those of us with decent speakers, wired or Bluetooth, the Dot might make more sense.
With the speaker duties handed to something else, you’re left with a smaller piece of hardware compared with the Echo. The Dot has its own speaker, so that Alexa can talk to you, but for music it’s just about OK.
Its size means that it’s much easier to tuck away in your room of choice. All you have to do is make sure that it’ll still able to hear you speak.
On top of the Dot there are buttons for volume up/down, microphone on/of, and then an ‘Action’ button.
The Dot also has the same light ring found on the Echo. The blue light indicates that Alexa is listening to you through her seven microphone array. The blue ring lights up and a section goes green indicating her ‘ears’ are pointing.
Naturally, the mics can also be muted. This is handy if playing music or watching telly so that Alexa doesn’t mistakenly hear her name.
Around the rear of the device is a micro USB port to provide power to the unit. Next to that is the aforementioned 3.5mm port to allow the Dot to connect to an external speaker.
Amazon Echo Dot performance
The voice recognition of the Echo Dot is extremely impressive. Even when there’s music being played it can still discern questions and instructions. Naturally, sitting it next to a speaker blasting out Testament isn’t going to give you excellent results.
I had the Dot sat next to my Hi-Fi rig, close-ish to speakers (roughly 1.5 meters away) and with music at reasonable volume, Alexa could still hear me.
This is a straightforward enough affair. Hook-up the Dot to power using the USB cable and plug and then the lights will start in orange.
Alexa then instructs you to download the Amazon Alexa app on to your phone or tablet. In the app you hand over your Wi-Fi details and it’ll get itself connected.
There’s the option to use the device’s internal speaker or one of your other Bluetooth or wired speakers. You’ll have to provide your own 3.5mm jack lead though if you’re going cabled. You can update this later, of course.
The app is also where you can add skills. The Dot is able to answer some general questions but adding these skills increases Alexa’s usefulness. I, of course, added Just Eat, the Wine Assistant, and Tube Status, as well as hooking up my Spotify and Amazon Prime accounts.
There’s a whole range of skills that Alexa can gain. Some are more useful than others. On one scale (pun intended) there’s the musician’s Interval Trainer and Acoustic Chord guide whilst, at the other end, there’s the virtual cat Meow. I bet President Trump has grabbed that one already 😉
Amazon Alexa store
You can also nab skills from the Alexa section of Amazon. The Skills are listed in categories such as Business & Finance, Connected Car, Productivity, Smart Home, etc.
I was really impressed by the Dot’s voice recognition. As someone brought up in South Yorkshire, my accent confuses people, let alone software. Add to the mix that my girlfriend was raised in Birmingham, this had its work cut out in our home.
The only time Alexa got confused was due to the question (“Alexa, should I eat a yogurt now?” being an example), rather than her ability to understand our words.
Playing songs or playlists from Spotify (you need a Premium account) was the only time the Dot shows its Achilles Heel. That weak spot is the in-built speaker. It’s pretty much as good as the ones in a smartphone or tablet. Not dreadful but you wouldn’t want to listen to music you cared about through it.
Thankfully there is the option to hook it up to another speaker. In the kitchen the wonderful Dali Katch comes in to its own.
Once you have Alexa paired with a Bluetooth speaker all you have to say is “Alexa, connect” and she obliges. I now have Spotify as the default library. All I have to say is “Alexa, play some relaxing music.” To this request she replies “Playing the Chilled playlist.”
Using an external speaker is all very well but that does mean getting up to switch the speaker on. Either that, leaving a speaker plugged in and on all the time just in case you want to play music. At least with using the Bluetooth Katch I can use the Dot’s speaker and just tell Alexa to “Connect” when I want to hear the music played through the external speaker. Using a cabled speaker means that the Dot is always hooked up to the external output. This in turn means that you always have to have your speakers on.
If music playback or listening to podcasts are your main reasons for buying a Dot then I’d suggest stump up the extra £100 for the Echo. It’s either that or a little bit of effort switching your speakers on/plugging the Dot in them when required.
It’s a shame that you are not able to select an output mode for cabled speakers. Just as you say “Alexa, connect”, it would be neat if you could say “Alexa, output to speakers”, when you need to.
After just a couple of days living with the Dot it became natural just to ask questions to the room. Getting the headlines (Flash Briefing), travel updates and diary checks as I iron my things in the morning has become normal.
When cooking I can ask it to set timers. I can get the ingredients required for cocktails, or re-order my last Chinese meal from Just Eat.
Developers have made around 3,000 ‘Skills’ for Alexa already. There is bound to be more and, as Alexa gets smarter, they can only get better.
For example, after adding the Jamie Oliver Skill I was expecting Alexa to talk me through a recipe. Nope, she sends me an email of it. It would’ve been much cooler to get step-by-steps as to when to add ingredients.
Amazon Echo Dot review conclusion
The Echo Dot is a truly impressive little bit of kit. The voice-recognition is excellent.
The internal speaker isn’t great for music but hooking it up to an external speaker isn’t a huge chore. Bluetooth worked better for me rather than having a speaker switched on all the time.
On the subject of speakers, I was also impressed by how quick Alexa can find playlists and tracks. Brilliant for those bleary mornings.
Its compact nature also means you can hide it out of the way but still within ear shot.
If you’re looking to try out Amazon Echo then I can safely say the Dot is the way to go. If you find it as impressive as I did, then you can always add an Echo to your kitchen or bedroom and leave the Dot in the living-room plugged in to your Hi-Fi.
You never know, in a year or two it might be up to Stark’s Jarvis levels of cleverness. As with most things, it’s all in the hands of the developers now.
Amazon Echo Dot price and availability
The Echo Dot is available now for £49.99 from Amazon.co.uk and comes in Black or White.
Cases are also available for the Dot so that it can match your decor better. Why not go for a six-pack and get one for free? Just enter DOT6PACK at checkout where you will see the discount applied for a six-pack. Or, get 12 for the price of 10, enter the promo code DOT12PACK
The Echo is also available and will cost you £149.99.