ProsAmazing functionality for the price; Bluetooth audio provides flexibility; voice commands now sync across devices
ConsVoice recognition hasn't improved and can still frustrate; syncing music across Echo devices still unsupported
To understand what makes the Amazon Echo Dot 2nd Gen so significant, a little stroll down memory lane might be helpful. The Smart Home market has been evolving at a rapid pace, but one of the factors that has held it back is its origin in smartphone-based apps. Surely, smartphones revolutionized the tech world, and not just because of how they changed the nature and availability of telephonic conversation. Once everyone had a miniature internet-connected computer in their pockets, tremendous new opportunities opened up for technological innovation. But when it came to the Smart Home, there was an inherent problem with smartphones. A mini-computer in your pocket isn't going to do much for your family or housemates when you're upstairs, outside, or at work. The Smart Home needed another control device, and it came in the unlikely form of the original Amazon Echo, which launched at and is still sold for $180.
We say unlikely because it was pretty clear from Amazon's initial marketing of the Echo that it had no idea how much of a role the new device could play in the Smart Home. It focused on reporting weather, sports scores, and telling jokes, all extremely basic tasks. This was in part because Amazon didn't (and still doesn't) manufacture any other Smart Home devices. Entering a field where there are a lot of players is always complicated, and even a big company like Amazon, which likely sold nearly every Smart Home product available, still needed to make some adjustments to get a true foothold in the market.
Amazon tried hard with its 1st-generation Amazon Echo Dot, which traded away sound quality for a more compact package and the option to connect external speakers, all at half the price of the original. Alas, that product was virtually stillborn, being cancelled in the summer of 2016, months after release. Our hunch is that despite coming in at just $90, it simply didn't do enough for non-Smart Home users to justify its huge reduction in sound quality versus the original. Indeed, the full-sized Echo was and still is a fantastic personal audio device. The Echo Dot, not so much.
And that brings us to the Echo Dot 2nd Generation. Released in October 2016, it did everything the original Echo Dot did, but cut the price nearly in half, to $50. That makes it an easy impulse buy for a lot of tech geeks, but what about everyone else? Well, Amazon's marketing isn't going to inspire any fence-sitters; it bought high-priced ads during the World Series to show off how a lazy dude could order up an Uber to go two blocks to the gym... seriously, Amazon? Well, we're going to provide a little more insight into what this cool little gizmo can and cannot do so our readers can decide if this is the right device for them.
Update: See The Tech Buyer's Guru chat about the Amazon Echo Dot on KGW-8's Portland Today show!
Description and Features
While the first Echo Dot was small, the new Echo Dot 2nd Gen is even smaller. It's the exact same 3.38" (84mm) in diameter, but it's a 1/4-inch shorter, at just over 1.25" (32mm) tall. And not that it matters all that much for a device you'll probably leave on a counter or table and never move again, but the new Echo Dot weighs 5.6 ounces, versus 8.8 ounces for the original. In the world of audio devices, a lower weight isn't necessarily good for audio reproduction, but in this case, we didn't notice any degradation in sound quality.
The 2nd Gen Echo Dot also has a shiny plastic exterior, which some people may view as a bit "jazzier" than the original. While this is often a no-no for a touch-based product, the Echo Dot being voice-based means that if you're touching it often enough to get it covered in fingerprints, you're probably doing it all wrong! Amazon has also added two additional physical buttons, despite its deep-seated desire to make this a hands-off product. The original had a button to shut off the microphone (for privacy) and an action button (to engage the Echo voice assistant without saying the wake word, Alexa or Echo). It also had a rotary dial to control volume, but while this was slick, it wasn't all that obvious. The 2nd Gen device adds volume buttons to match the other two buttons. After months of testing various Echo products, we think this was the right move; for a device that might be placed bedside, there's nothing more frustrating than asking Alexa to lower the volume at night only to be misunderstood and have Alexa loudly proclaim that she couldn't answer your question! Ultimately, sometimes using a good old-fashioned button that you can see and feel is the best approach.
On the back, you have the micro-USB input for power (the Dot must be plugged in to operate), along with a 3.5mm audio output for connecting to external speakers. While the original Echo Dot included a cable to connect to any device with a 3.5mm input, Amazon has dropped that accessory from the bundle on the 2nd Gen product, likely to help in hitting the $50 price point. But that was of limited use anyway, as it only offered 3.5mm-to-3.5mm connections. Stereo owners may want (or need) stereo RCA connections. We tested it with a $4 adapter from Tripp Lite, and it worked just fine connected to our AV receiver.
In a nod to users who might place the Echo Dot in a bedroom, Amazon has jettisoned the LED power indicator on the back of the unit, which could light up a room in the dark, whether you wanted a nightlight or not. One simple issue we really wish Amazon would still address, however, is the shape of the Echo's power adapter. The Echo Dot fits perfectly on just about any table top, dresser, or bookcase, but its adapter can often limit where you ultimately put it, as it sticks out a 3 inches from the wall socket. A low-profile adapter would be much appreciated. We've actually had to use low-profile extension cords in some locations just to get the Echo plugged in where a cabinet sat close to a wall outlet.
All right, let's move on to how the Echo Dot performs in real-world use, especially when it comes to voice recognition. Is it better that the previous gen, or just cheaper? Read on to find out!