(Pocket-lint) - The Echo Dot has been one of Amazon's most successful devices. Thanks to a combination of low price and high practicality, many people have Echo Dots scattered around their home, providing a link to Alexa voice control and a whole lot more.

There's a change in 2020, however, that sees the Echo Dot take on a new form. Is this fourth-generation version the Echo Dot we know and love, or is this now a whole other thing?

Design

  • Finishes: Charcoal, Glacier White, Twilight Blue
  • Dimensions: 100 x 100 x 89mm / Weight: 328g
  • Spherical design

The big change for the Echo Dot is a shift to a spherical design, so it's like a little ball. It's mostly covered in fabric - like previous Echo devices - but now there's no hard plastic top - just raised buttons for those familiar controls of volume, privacy and the action button.

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The whole surface isn't covered in fabric though. There's a distinct back and front to this device, with the power and 3.5mm connections in the rear, with a plastic base sloping diagonally and encapsulating this rear plugged area.

Those controls aren't exactly on the top either, they are positioned slightly towards the rear, so they are visible when you look down on the Dot, but if you're looking at it across the room on a shelf, they're out of your eyeline, which is a tidy bit of design.

The Echo Dot has been growing in both size and stature over its lifetime. From the original,which was a hard plastic puck, to the expanded fabric wrapped puck, to this new sphere. Although it's now taller, the footprint essentially stays the same - well, ok, so the older Echo Dot is a millimetre less in diameter, but you'd never know.

But there's a big perceptual difference. Older Echo Dots have all been discreet, the sort of thing you could slip onto a shelf for convenience. That was certainly the original premise, because the first-gen Echo Dot wasn't great as a speaker, but was great for adding Alexa to a room or to an existing set of speakers.

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The revised third-gen version - which remains on sale from Amazon - boosted the sound quality considerably. It was better as a speaker in its own right, which leads up to the latest generation of Echo Dot. It now feels like a mini speaker, rather than an extension of the Alexa ecosystem in your home.

That's likely driven by that fact that many people didn't buy the Echo and just opted for the Dot instead. Fortunately, the new Echo Dot will better fulfil that need, but we can't help feeling that the change is mostly driven by design fatigue, so that it looks new and exciting, to invigorate the Dot market again.

There's also been a change in the location of Alexa's light ring. This will show you that Alexa is listening, or light up to tell you there's a notification, or to show that the Dot is in privacy mode, i.e. not listening.

The light ring is now on the bottom - and we actually like the change, as it illuminates the surface it's sitting on. That obviously works best on lighter surfaces where that blue pops a little more.

Sound and performance

  • 1.6-inch speaker
  • 3.5mm output

With a new design, the Echo Dot is different acoustically too. The previous generation, with a flat design, essentially had a single speaker that fired downwards. The new Echo Dot has the same single 1.6-inch speaker, but now it fires diagonally upwards.

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Having a larger enclosure means the speaker has more space and the design is better optimised for sound than it was before. There's noticeably less vibration at higher volumes, for example. Side-by-side the old Echo Dot sends more vibration through its base than the new model does and that's evident through to higher volumes, where the new Echo Dot is much clearer and less distorted.

The sound difference isn't huge; the third-gen Echo Dot was a great performer for its size and at lower volumes, there's little really difference between the two - not enough to warrant replacing third-gen Dots with the new fourth-gen.

But that changes as the volume increases, as the fourth-gen Echo Dot performs better once it's louder. You might be able to get away with using a single Echo Dot as a kitchen speaker, for example, but we'd still rather take a full-sized Echo, which is a step above in terms of sound performance - especially if it's going to be a regular for music playback.

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The Echo Dot retains the ability to stereo pair or group, which is a great option, so if you have two Echo Dots on your desk, for example, it's a great solution for a bedroom or office where big volume isn't always going to be necessary.

You can change the sound to your preference via the Alexa app, with sliders for bass, mids and treble.

Alexa and voice controls

  • Alexa app setup
  • Full voice control
  • Smart home controls

The Echo Dot connects to Wi-Fi and is setup via the Alexa app on your phone. It's a simple process as all you have to do is open the app, enter the devices tab and hit the '+' button. Your Echo Dot will be found and then you'll be asked a couple of questions, such as being able to allocate it to a room in a particular location.

These location elements are designed to ensure that the Echo Dot knows what else is around it. For example, if you put it in your office where you also have some Alexa-compatible smart lights, you'll be able to say "Alexa, turn on the lights" and it'll know that you're talking about the lights in that specific room.

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There's 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi support and we found the connection to be good with no problems hooking up to our home network and solid performance thereafter.

The voice response from the fourth-gen Echo Dot also appears to be slightly better than the older Echo Dot third-gen, which sometimes would be a little unresponsive at higher volumes.

Otherwise, the feature set of the new Echo Dot is very much the same as the previous generation and of all other Echo devices. Once you're signed into your device via the Alexa app, it will know who you are and be able to use any Skills you have enabled via the Alexa app.

This will give you voice control over a huge range of smart home devices, which is how many people use their Echo devices. That might be enabling cameras, turning on lighting, changing the heating, or switching on plugs.

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Alexa continues to provide information on command, basically able to answer any question you throw at it, although we'd say that Google Assistant is occasionally a little smarter, able to give a slightly better response. Once thing we would caveat that with it that Alexa sounds better - Google Assistant's audio often comes with a hiss (something you can hear on devices like the Nest Audio), but Alexa seems clearer to us.

When it comes to music, Alexa supports a wide range of music services, from Amazon's own offering, through Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, TuneIn, BBC Sounds, and much more.

Verdict

The fourth-gen Amazon Echo Dot, freshly redesigned for 2020, boosts the performance of the range by a small degree, while offering a change - something slightly different for those who haven't been tempted by the Echo Dot in the past. But the feature set is so close that there's little need to move to this newer device if you already have a third-gen Dot.

Where the 2020 Echo Dot is likely to find favour is with those who want a compact speaker for a small space. Acoustically, it's now better suited than previous Echo Dot devices, so functions better as a standalone speaker for music. It's not so much the Echo Dot any more - it's more of an 'Echo Mini'.

The Echo Dot with Clock is ultimately a little more interesting - as a bedside option - but the new Echo Dot retains that appeal as a compact speaker offering access to one of the best smart assistant ecosystems on the market.

Alternatives to consider

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Echo Dot third-gen

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The third-gen Echo Dot is a classic. It looks good, it's compact - and just as smart as the fourth-gen model, even if it's not as ambitious when it comes to sound quality. You're also likely to find it for less money.

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Google Nest Mini

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A different system with Google Assistant instead, the Nest Mini is compact, has reasonable sound quality, and is just as smart as the Echo Dot - but in some cases, Google Assistant gives better responses.

Writing by Chris Hall. Editing by Mike Lowe.