If you use a Fire TV to stream your content, then you’re already familiar with Amazon’s virtual assistant, “Alexa.” Alexa is the one who answers when you push the microphone button on your remote and instruct your device to search for a movie or launch an app. But Alexa lives on more than just the Fire TV platform. Amazon’s digital assistant is available on a bunch of devices, including her own line of standalone speakers.
The Echo Dot is a small device that’s about the size and shape of a hockey puck. It needs to be plugged in to work, and it’s powered by a USB-to-micro-USB cable.
Why the size difference between the Echo Dot and the full-sized Echo? It’s because the Echo Dot is missing that nice big speaker. That means that music doesn’t sound nearly as good coming out of the Echo Dot – but the good news is that the Echo Dot can connect to external speakers via Bluetooth or 3.5 mm cable.
Setting up the Echo Dot is pretty easy. You’ll plug it in, download the Alexa app on a mobile device, and then connect your Dot to Wi-Fi. Your app runs you through the process, which involves switching your phone to a new network generated by your Dot and then entering your real network’s Wi-Fi password on the app. As long as you know how to adjust your own phone’s Wi-Fi settings, you’ll have no problems here.
Once connected, the Echo Dot is ready to use.
How to Use Alexa
Using the Dot is easy: you just speak to it starting with its “wake word,” then ask a question. The wake word insures that the Dot only responds when you are directing addressing it. The default wake word is Alexa, as in “Alexa, what’s the weather like?” It can be changed to other options, like “Amazon.”
Questions and “Skills”
Alexa has grown pretty powerful, and there’s a lot that you can ask her to do these days. Ask her if it’s raining or how many people live in New York, and she’ll tell you.
There were times when I wished the Dot could show me on a screen what Alexa was doing. Some types of answers are better seen or read than recited – after hearing Alexa recite the first paragraph of a few Wikipedia articles, you start to turn to your smartphone for those types of questions again.
Alexa can also do things – play music, manage your calendar, order pizza, and play a game of Jeopardy! With you, for instance. The “do” tasks that require help from another app – like the pizza ordering, which uses the Domino’s app – are branded as “skills.” Alexa’s list of skills is growing, which makes sense: Pizza Hut probably isn’t thrilled that Alexa users are only ordering Domino’s pizzas at the moment, for instance.
Skills have to be set up, which is done on the app (more on that in a second). But Alexa can do a ton on her own. She can process transactions for you because you have to log into your Amazon account when you set her up – you won’t have to read out all your credit card information when you order that pizza.
Music is a weak point for the Dot because of the poor speaker. But connect it to a separate speaker, and you’ll instantly have the full-sized Echo experience.
Overall, I thought that Alexa lagged a bit behind my Google app in terms of informational requests. She seemed a little less able to handle different types of phrasing or certain more general questions. There are holes – the app brags that you can ask about your favorite sports teams, but while Alexa knows who your team is playing right now and what the score is, she won’t know a team’s win-loss record. But Alexa was still pretty impressive, and in terms of tasks and “skills,” she blew me away.
One of the more intriguing growing skill sets Alexa has is smart home integration. If you have a thermostat or lights that can be controlled from your phone, then there’s a good chance Alexa can control them, too. Amazon wants the Dot to be a smart home staple. In fact, they want a small army of Dots to be the norm – more on that in a moment.
Not everything with the Dot is set up verbally. Some of the nitty-gritty stuff is done on your mobile device. The app offers some feature discovery: there’s a tab showing off various skills (you’ll have to enable each skill before you use it) and another tab called “things to try,” which is full of suggestions of ways to use Alexa. The app is also where you’ll do things like change Alexa’s wake word or your alarm tone.
The app is a decent solution to the only real problem with Alexa: there’s no screen, and some things are just tough to do with only your voice.
Amazon doesn’t just want you to buy one Echo Dot. They’re hoping that people fill their homes with these devices, and they set up the Dot so that it can work as a team. If you place a Dot (or two) in each room and then ask a question, they’ll figure out which one is closest to you and Alexa will answer only through that one.
I didn’t use the Dot this way, because I’m not rich and/or a super-villain, but it’s a pretty awesome idea. With enough Dots, you can walk around your home speaking freely to Alexa, controlling everything from your personal calendar to your thermostat with your voice no matter where you are at that moment.
Here’s the great thing about the Dot: it’s cheap.
The Echo Dot costs $49.99, far less than the $179.99 that the Amazon Echo goes for. Google Home retails for $129.99, and the Amazon Tap – which requires you to manually push a button to ask Alexa anything – is also $129.99.
In other words, there’s nothing remotely close to the Echo Dot in terms of price point. You’re not getting the nice high-quality speaker, but considering that you’re still getting 100% of the functionality, it’s really pretty amazing that the Dot costs so little. If you have a decent speaker in your home already, just connect the Dot to it and laugh at the suckers paying 180 bucks.
When the full-sized Echo debuted, it struck me as being strictly for tech buffs and early adopters – or at least for people to whom $180 is pocket change. The Echo Dot, on the other hand, is a product that’s worth its price. I was very impressed with it.
Is Alexa an all-powerful digital assistant? Not quite. There are things she can’t do, and the fact that there’s no way to visually display her answers bothered me more than I expected it to. But that’s not to say that Alexa isn’t very impressive. She can accomplish a huge range of things, and if you’re willing to add apps and learn to use her, you can really get a ton out of the Dot.
To me, the key is that the Dot can do just about everything that its far more expensive big brothers can do. Sure, the speaker is smaller, but it’s hard not to be excited about getting full Alexa functionality at this price point. I recommend this product.
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