Hands on review: Amazon Echo Dot

Amazon's new Echo Dot (supplied)

Amazon's new Echo Dot (supplied)

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Amazon Echo Dot finally landed on our shores yesterday, giving UK users access to the online shopping giant’s voice service Alexa in your home. 

The new 3.3-inch wide disc is a much smaller version of the Amazon Echo – a standalone unit which has been available in the US for just over a year now – and slimmer than the first version of the Echo Dot which came out earlier this year across the Atlantic. 
So what? It’s smaller, but what does this smart-speaker actually do? Essentially it’s like Apple’s Siri, but without the smartphone. You can ask it questions, you can get the latest news, you can play music through it and it can sit on your bedside table, in the kitchen, in the lounge, or wherever you want in your home. 

Setting it up was relatively easily. It was a case of simply plugging it in, downloading the Amazon Alexa app on your phone to configure it, and you’re away. Once it’s going, all you then have to do is ask it to do something, such as “Alexa, what’s my flash briefing?” and you’ll be getting the latest from Sky News. I was surprised how quick it was to translate my request and respond compared to other voice assistants like Siri and OK Google. Within a fraction of a second, it lights up and responds to your request. With its seven built in microphones, it can also cut through background noise to pick up your command, even if you’re in the next room.

Just like a smartphone, you can add an array of apps to it called ‘skills’. With the Echo Dot’s launch in the UK, Amazon has clearly worked hard to get local companies on board including The Guardian, Sky News and the Daily Mail for news and sport, and getting updates on the tube in London as well as planning journeys on National Rail. You can even order a pick up of your laundry with Laundrapp or order some takeaways with Just Eat. And (most importantly), you can ask it to play your favourite radio station (*ahem* talkRADIO*) with Radioplayer and it will stream it instantly. I’m sure as more people buy this device, more local ‘skills’ will become available.

Being a speaker, of course you also want it to play your own music. The device links up with Spotify if you have a premium account and integrates well. But of course being an Amazon product, they’re trying to push you on to their own product Prime Music for an extra monthly fee. To play, simply say “Alexa, play Bruno Mars” and you’ll be listening to his new hit instantly.

The speaker on its own is ok. It’s not the greatest sound considering the size of the device, but it does link up to any other speaker via Bluetooth or a 3.5mm audio cable. Good news if you’ve just forked out for a very nice Bose SoundLink speaker, or if you want to hook it up to your existing sound system.

One of the key features I like is the ability to get a quick news, sport and weather update, called a “flash briefing”. Through the Alexa app, you have many sources of news including Sky News, BBC, Daily Mail, The Guardian, CNet, NPR, among many more. It’s a nice way to get news on demand while you’re getting ready in the morning.

Of course it wouldn’t be an Amazon product if you weren’t able to purchase something through it. You can order physical products through it, purchase home supplies when you run out, get audio books through Audible, and much more. Don’t worry – there is a way to put a PIN code on it so your friends don’t shop up a storm on your account when they come over.

Amazon is also pushing to try and get users to buy multiple Echo Dots for around the home. While this is a good idea in principle, the Echo Dots don’t exactly work together. This can be a good and a bad thing. You don’t want your morning alarm going off on every Dot in the house, but it would be nice if I change rooms to simply ask it to continue playing music in the other room.

I also hoped there would be a bit more functionality. It would be nice to ask it to let me know when I have new emails or if I have to leave for an appointment at a particular time. As it’s a product that doesn’t require a link to a smartphone nor can it link up to your email accounts, this is an area it is lacking. However, it does link up with Google Calendar so you can get an agenda for the day if you use that for your appointments.

Of course this speaker is one of many new Internet of Things (IoT) products, where everyday appliances and fittings can be connected to the cloud. This is where I see this product has a big part to play if you’ve got all the home automation toys. Being able to ask it to turn the temperature down, dim the lights, start the washing machine or even lock the doors has its advantages if you’ve got those connected devices and the money for it.

It’s a welcome addition to the IoT family and is a pretty nifty little device. For just under £50, it’s not bad and it has some great features. However it could be better and will face more competition when Google Home launches in the US next month, and will probably be here soon after. At that price, the Echo Dot is worth a go if you’re looking for a smart speaker now.