Think of smart speakers, and there’s perhaps no device that’s more synonymous with the category as the Alexa-powered entry-level Amazon Echo Dot. Since it first launched, the Echo Dot remains the most accessible way to buy your way into the smart home ecosystem, and the fifth generation (Rs. 5,499) iterates on the previous generations in subtle, meaningful ways. We took the orb-shaped smart speaker for a spin, and here’s what we liked and what we didn’t.
It may look familiar, identical even, to someone who’s seen the fourth-generation model, but if you’re new to the Echo range, there’s a lot to like in the spherical design of the Echo Dot – not only does it inherit the look of the bigger Echo speaker, but it’s good looking enough (with that signature light right at its base) to sit on a bookshelf and not look ‘like a gadget’. The globe shape of the Dot is flattened at the bottom to sit steadily on a flat surface, and it's wrapped in recycled fabric in one of three colors – white, black and a new blue, which is the color to go for in my opinion. You get a 15W power adapter to power the Echo Dot, so while it is handy to carry from room to room, it doesn’t have a battery and will need a power (and network) connection at all times to work. Four physical buttons are provided on the top for volume up/down, mute and invoking Alexa, and there’s a new accelerometer-based tap control on the top for playing/pausing music or snoozing your alarm in the morning. In use, it needs you to purposefully tap it to work, and it does get accidentally triggered the odd time when you reach out for the other buttons.
Like its predecessors, the 5th-generation Echo Dot is super easy to set up with the Alexa app, and if you have an existing Echo setup at home, it’s even faster. What’s new this time in terms of features is a built-in temperature sensor. You can use this to ask Alexa what the indoor temperature for the room is, which is handy given how often we’re likely to be complaining about the summer heat in the coming months, but its true utility is revealed when you pair it with Alexa routines to trigger other smart home appliances like an air conditioner say when the temperature goes past a particular threshold. The thermometer did show some occasional variance from an indoor thermometer we had on hand, so you’ll likely need to incorporate that into your Alexa routines.
The onboard ultrasound motion sensor, which was present on the 4th gen Echo Dot as well, is useful to trigger lights or smart plugs when it detects motion in the room, say when you walk into the room. While I didn’t have an air-conditioner connected to the setup, the Echo Dot did reliably switch on the lights based on the temperature- and motion-based routines.
The most notable upgrade with the fifth-gen Echo Dot is audio quality, and a new, slightly larger 1.73-inch speaker driver is packed into a device no bigger than the previous generation Dot. Not only does it get a fair bit louder, but it’s also a marked improvement over the previous Dot, with a fuller bass, better vocals and better separation between the highs and the mid-frequencies. You can even tweak the equalizer in the Alexa app, and doing so to suit your room or listening preferences boosts the audio quality some more. Yet, let’s be clear about what you should expect from the Echo Dot – this is a speaker that’s best suited for casual listening, and while it is very good for its size and price point, it’s easily surpassed by the likes of the Apple HomePod mini or the larger Echo (both are pricier, of course).
While the latest Echo Dot has bumped up the feature set, it no longer has a 3.5mm port to output to a better pair of speakers. This could be a function of both the boosted sound and the fact that most folks use this on a bedside or kitchen countertop, and not enough folks plug it into a bigger sound setup, but either way, it would have been nice to have that option.
As the entry level speaker in the Echo lineup, it lacks the built-in Zigbee controller that could independently detect smart home products on the network, but with Alexa Skills becoming as pervasive as they are, the Echo Dot doesn’t really fall that much behind the bigger Echo speakers. Alexa on the Echo Dot is super functional – the most skilled digital assistant, by far – and if you’re new to the ecosystem, spending some time looking up skills you can use can be incredibly rewarding.
For its size and price point, the Echo Dot is hands-down the best smart speaker for a bedroom or smaller living space, with upgraded sound and new sensors that improve its utility without a bump-up in price. Alexa continues to improve via its Skills over time, so this is a device that will most certainly get even more useful over time.
Tushar Kanwar, a tech columnist and commentator, tweets @2shar.