Amazon Echo Dot (4th gen) review: Alexa as the perfect desk companion
The latest Echo Dot packs a surprising amount of sound into a tiny package
Now in its fourth generation, the Echo Dot is Amazon's compact smart speaker with a $50 price tag but packing the same Alexa intelligence as all other members of the Echo family.
The low price of previous Echo Dots has put Alexa into many, many homes, and in some cases in several rooms of the same home. At $50 the Dot has always found itself in the impulse-purchase segment of the smart home market, picked up by smart home novices keen to invite Alexa in from the cold, and by automation pros who want the assistant to be at their beck and call in every room.
But given the low price and small size, previous Echo Dots have come with the baked-in compromise of mediocre sound quality. They are usually best connected to a speaker you already own to get the best out of them.
However, things are different with the fourth-generation Echo Dot. This is a speaker that promises improved sound and the ability to operate, at least in some cases, all on its own. We have been living with the new Dot for a week to see if it's up to the task.
Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen) review: Design and hardware
The compact Echo Dot makes for the perfect desk companionGearBrain
For the first time, the Echo Dot shares exactly the same design as its bigger sibling, the regular Echo. This means a spherical device slightly larger than a tennis ball, with a plastic base and textured fabric enclosure available in blue, charcoal and, as tested in this article, white.
The Echo Dot is undeniably a cute thing. This is no doubt helped by it being identical but half the size of the regular Echo, but there is something about the new Dot that makes it utterly disarming. This is a piece of tech that will be as at home on your desk or on the kitchen counter, as on a shelf in the lounge or at your bedside.
The Dot loaned by Amazon for this review found a home on my desk. As I've written about for GearBrain before, it's a small desk and free space is at a premium. But, while the regular Echo is too large, the Dot fits in perfectly, nestled between by monitor and Mac Mini. Here, just a few inches from my keyboard, it neatly blends in and its top-mounted volume buttons are just an outstretched hand away.
As with the full-size Echo, the volume plus and minus buttons are joined by a button to turn Alexa's microphone off (and turning the light ring on the Dot's base red), and a button to summon Alexa if you don't want to say the name aloud. Also borrowed from the larger Echo is a 3.5mm audio input on the rear, making it easy to connect the Dot to a larger speaker if you so wish. There is also Bluetooth to stream music to the Echo Dot, or from the Dot to another speaker.
The diminutive Dot measures 3.5 inches tall, 3.9 inches wide and weighs 12 oz. Inside, there is a single 1.6-inch speaker. Unlike the regular Echo, there is no tripod-style screw hole on the base for mounting to a speaker stand. While a pair of Echoes can be used as part of a home cinema system, this isn't the Dot's intended purpose.
Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen) review: Setup and software
If you already have an Amazon account and an Alexa smart home, setting up the Echo Dot is very easy. Simply plug the Dot into a wall outlet (there is no way to power it with USB), open the Alexa smartphone app and tap Devices, then the plus icon. Now tap Add Device and follow the instructions. It takes just a few more taps to set up the Dot, give it a name and assign it to a home and a room.
After that, you're good to go and the Echo Dot works just like any other Echo devices you already have. It's always a great feeling to set up a brand new device and realize that it's the same smart Alexa you have become used to on other products. Within a couple of minutes I had gone from listening to the radio on the regular Echo, to installing the Dot and asking for the same station on that instead. Adding an Echo to your Alexa home is truly seamless.
Being the same Alexa as on every other Echo speaker, the assistant can be used to answer questions by searching the web, play games, tell stories and jokes, manage a calendar and timers, read news headlines and weather forecasts, play music, and much more besides.
The Echo Dot's small size and low price makes it the perfect way to add Alexa to more rooms of your home. Doing so means being able to speak to Alexa in more places, but also unlocks extra features, like being able to use your Echo speakers as a household intercom system, which Amazon calls Drop In.
You can also have music play from all of your Echo devices at once, create a stereo pair in one room, or a whole-home sound system if they are in different rooms. Of course, Alexa can also be used to control all manner of smart home devices, from lights and plugs to thermostats, garage doors, locks, robotic vacuums and more.
There simply isn't the space here to address everything Alexa can do. For a detailed look at the assistant's features, head to GearBrain's complete guide.
Rear of the Echo Dot (4th Gen)GearBrain
Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen) review: Sound quality
The first two generations of Echo Dot really struggled when it came to sound quality. Unless used purely as a means of speaking to Alexa, or as a bedside alarm or kitchen timer, Dots of old simply didn't have the audio abilities to play music in a satisfying way.
The third-generation Echo Dot improved on this, and the newest model takes things even further. It is surprisingly good, given its size, gets pretty loud and can produce more bass than you might expect. Sat on my desk and turned up to around 75 percent, I can feel vibrations from the Dot as I type.
That said, the Echo Dot is most comfortable up to around 50 percent volume. Above this and the highs overtake the bass, causing a sound that is overly bright and tinny. In short, the bass can't keep up with the volume and you're best never venturing beyond 50 or 60 percent.
But that's fine. The Echo Dot still isn't a speaker capable of room-filling sound, and nor is it designed to do so. But for quietly playing the radio while you work, or a podcast or playlist while cooking, it's great.
I have the Dot playing a radio station at low volume while I work, and for that task it really is perfect. I can also ask Alexa to switch on the electric heater under my desk if I get cold, and adjust the Hue lights in my room. In this sense, the Dot turns Alexa into a handy assistant sitting on my desk, taking up very little space but ready to help whenever I ask.
Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen) in whiteGearBrain
The Echo Dot was already a thoroughly good smart speaker for the price, and for the fourth generation Amazon has made it even better. I really like the new design — and actually think the ball shape suits the smaller Dot better than the full-size Echo. It also sounds surprisingly good for its size, just as long as you don't turn the volume up too high.
For casual radio listening during the day, or perhaps for playing some ambient noise to help you concentrate while working from home, the Echo Dot is perfect.
Then there is Alexa, which is as smart and feature-packed here on the $50 Dot as it is on every other Echo device. The Dot is simple, smart, attractive and easy to use. If this is your second Echo device it will unlock a range of new features, and the soft, friendly design and choice of three colors means it will likely fit neatly into any space of any room in your home. For me, Alexa inside the 4th-gen Echo Dot is the perfect desk companion.
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