The Echo Dot is Amazon's small and affordable route into Alexa, its voice-controlled personal assistant for your home, which can playback music, add to your Amazon shopping list, control third-party apps and much more.

Available for £50, it's essentially a cut-down version of the larger speaker-focused Amazon Echo. The Echo Dot has a small speaker, but also allows you to wirelessly connect your own speakers for superior overall quality if music playback is your primary focus.

To get the most out of the Echo Dot you'll want an Amazon Prime account (£79/year) to access Amazon Music and services. But even without a subscription, the Echo Dot can do plenty. Is it at the forefront of the smart home and worth the money?

  • 83.5mm diameter, 32mm height
  • Mains powered, no battery
  • Voice-controlled via Alexa assistant

The Echo Dot is an intelligent personal assistant for your home.

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Much like Siri for iOS devices and Google Now for Android devices, the Echo Dot works by using a wake word - Alexa is the default - and is then ready to respond to various commands or queries.

Basic functionality includes settings alarms and timers, answering questions with information sourced via Wikipedia, adding items to your Amazon shopping list, setting reminders and keeping you updated on your calendar.

More advanced functionality depends on separate app integration. Like bigger brother Echo, the Dot is capable of music playback via various services - Amazon Music by default; Spotify, TuneIn Radio are also available; there's Pandora and iHeartRadio in the US - reading your Audible audiobooks, playing a "flash briefing" of the latest news from a range of news services such as the BBC, and more.

The Echo Dot is capable of much more when you delve into the various "skills". You can set it up to re-order your latest purchase from Just Eat, request a ride from Uber, or inspire your cooking with a recipe from Jamie Oliver. The possibilities are seemingly endless and will continue to be updated over time, so more functionality will come in future - with Logitech announcing its Harmony remote controls will work with Alexa, so you'll be able to control your TV and other media devices that way.

Amazon also recently added the ability to shop directly using the Echo or Echo Dot via your Prime account, a rather cool but potentially dangerous feature.

If you're fortunate enough to have other smart devices in your home, such as Philips Hue lights or a smart thermostat like Hive, then you can control those too. There's plenty of functionality and the Echo Dot gives you the power to control those devices with your voice rather than your fingertips, so it offers a bit of extra freedom and flexibility.

  • Dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi
  • 802.11 a/b/g/n not faster 802.11ac
  • No hard-wired Ethernet connection

Once out of the box and plugged in the Echo Dot is easy to setup via your home Wi-Fi network. Download the Alexa app - which is available for both Android and iPhone - and it'll guide you through step by step. Alternatively you can connect using the desktop interface.

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If you're thinking about buying a Dot then do consider how far away from your router it will be placed. We did find the signal could be a bit weak when placed at a distance, so if you have Wi-Fi dead spots this is something to bear in mind.

  • Four button control, no control wheel
  • Available in black or white
  • Optional cases also available

The Amazon Echo Dot is small; it's about the diameter of a coaster. Just don't rest your cuppa on top as this is where the four control buttons - mic mute, volume up/down and action - are housed. Not that you'll need to touch them often.

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Whereas the Amazon Echo has a rotational control wheel for adjusting the volume, the Echo Dot opts for buttons. Both devices have a light-up ring, though, which illuminates in different colours to visually convey what's going on.

When adjusting the volume, for example, the light ring changes to white and moves clockwise to indicate the level. Blue and green light shows Alexa is listening; orange is used during setup; red is for when there's a problem.

Alexa's microphone pickup is great - she can understand commands from across the room, even if the Dot is tucked away into a corner. And Alexa is always poised, ready to listen. That's why the Echo Dot is a mains-powered product rather than one that has a built-in battery.

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Available in white or black options, you can choose an Echo Dot to suit your preference. There are a range of colour cases in fabric of leather to complement any room if you so wish.

  • Built-in speaker for playback
  • 3.5mm and Bluetooth for external speakers

They say all good things come in small packages. The Echo Dot is a personal assistant first and foremost, so if you're looking for a good quality sound system for streaming Spotify or Amazon Music then you might want to look elsewhere or consider its larger brother instead.

That's not to say that the sound quality from the Echo Dot is unacceptable. It can play surprisingly loud for its size, but given the scale it's a bit tinny on the ears. You'll certainly not be holding any house parties using just the Echo Dot.

Which is where one of the Dot's key features comes into play: tucked around the back is a 3.5mm jack to connect it to another audio system or speaker, or you can do so via Bluetooth connection. The Dot and separate speaker system needn't be placed next to one another if opting for Bluetooth wireless. We found it really easy to pair the Echo Dot with a home audio receiver.

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When you're not blaring out the beats we think Alexa's voice sounds great. She sounds approaching human and if far less robotic than others out there. So much so that we're calling Alexa "her" rather than "it".

  • Cloud-based for improved learning
  • Some third-party apps limit requests
  • Will expand compatibility over time

The Echo Dot is a powerful little tool in theory, but does Alexa always understand your requests?

The answer is yes and no. We found Alexa to be simultaneously very clever and pretty stupid at times.

A perfect example is when working with Philips Hue light bulbs. You can turn lights on or off, or their intensity up and down pretty easily, but anything more than that and Alexa either couldn't find the device or didn't understand. By default, the Philips Hue colour bulbs are set with various "scenes" that are essentially different colour palettes - including things like "Savannah Sunset", "Tropical Twilight" and "Arctic Aurora" - but we found it wasn't possible to set the lights to these scenes. And herein lies part of Amazon ecosystem's weakness, in that third-party apps might not be as evolved as they could be.

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For the simpler baked-in tasks, however, Alexa is fairly sophisticated. Adjusting playback volume, for example, can be worked in a number of ways: "Alexa, turn it up," "Alexa, set volume to four," "Alexa, lower the volume," "Alexa, crank it up," being just four options out of multiple variations.

Alexa is cloud-based and Amazon claim it is continually learning, not only by adding new skills and functionality but by also adapting to the way you speak, the things you say and your preferences. In our time using the Echo Dot it appears to have improved in terms of understanding our requests and that of family members too. Though whether that was down to Alexa learning to work with us or the other way around remains to be seen.

Answering pressing questions

Alexa is capable of answering a good range of questions that you might have bubbling around in your head; whether that's working out how long a commute will take, doing basic sums or answering some trivia questions.

However, we found that the Alexa is not always as good at this as we'd like. Asking Google Now or Siri the same questions can produce better results. Take a look at our conversation with Alexa video below.

After a while you'll get fairly bored of hearing "hmmm, I can't find the answer to the question I heard" to the point where you just give up asking.

We have a feeling that Google Home will be better at answering knowledge-based searches more consistently, so if you want a really intelligent virtual assistant you might want to wait for that. Although it does sound like a 1980s robotic droid.

Failing to understand

Despite being a smart device and constantly learning, we find that the Echo Dot often won't understand or hear us properly, even with commands we have said plenty of times before.

This frustration extends to simple things like playing songs on Spotify. We found we were having to repeat a song or playlist name because the first time resulted in a random and unrelated song. One of the team had to change the name of a playlist four times before Alexa understood what he was trying to play.

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You'll end up trying to argue with the Dot. And then you'll feel daft because you know it's just an inanimate object.

Fire TV connectivity

We have a first-generation Amazon Fire TV stick in the same room as the Echo Dot, so it seemed logical that the two would be able to talk to each other.

"Alexa, play Mr Robot on my Fire TV stick." But, nope, it doesn't work.

However, if you have the newer Fire TV Stick with voice control then it will work via that device's remote. But only the remote - you can't get the Echo or Echo Dot to communicate directly with the Fire TV Stick or other Amazon TV products. Not yet, anyway. Seems like a missed opportunity.

Lack of conversational understanding

To wake the Echo Dot you'll need to use the word "Alexa" (or another pre-designated wake word). Which is a great idea in theory to stop everything ever said being a query. But it makes conversational queries tricky - repeating "Alexa" each time as if you're telling off a naughty child.

Verdict

The Amazon Echo Dot is a brilliant, small and affordable smart home device. The Alexa personal assistant is currently as good as it gets, despite some foibles in her conversational understanding.

The small scale does mean small sound, but the ability to add a separate speaker or system to the Dot via 3.5mm jack or Bluetooth gives it one-up over its Echo bigger brother.

With all the functionality Alexa provides - especially with the addition of installable skills via an expanding array of third-party apps - the Echo Dot feels more like part of the family than just a throwaway virtual assistant.

Indeed, we're already planning on which other rooms around the house need an Echo Dot.

From £49.99, Amazon