October 15, 2018
I've been a happy owner of a 2nd generation Echo and three 2nd generation Echo Dots for a year now, and I was glad to add this to the arsenal. After using it for a few days I am generally pleased with it, but it does have limitations, especially when it comes to sound quality (no surprise there!). I will start by summarizing what's new about the 3rd Generation Dot, then I'll describe the device in more detail, and finally I'll add some thoughts about how to choose which Echo device may be best for you.
The most obvious update to the Dot is the new look: it's as if someone took a 2nd generation Dot, inflated it with an air pump, and wrapped the edge in fabric. And it's not bad!
What's different/updated in the 3rd Generation Dot:
1) It is slightly larger than the 2nd generation device, measuring 3.9" wide x 1.7" tall (2nd gen was 3.3" wide x 1.3" tall), and the top and bottom edges are more rounded. It is also substantially heavier at nearly twice the weight of the 2nd generation model.
2) The 2nd generation Dot came in two color options (black and white), each of which had a shiny plastic exterior that I personally thought looked a little cheap. The 3rd generation Dot has a fabric exterior which gives it a classier appearance, and it's available in three colors: heather grey, sandstone, and charcoal. The fabric and rounded edges give the 3rd generation Dot a much softer look than its predecessor.
4) The 3rd generation Dot has a larger speaker (1.6", versus 1.1" on the 2nd gen), which is paired with a larger driver as well. I'll talk below about the effect this has on audio quality.
5) The placement of the microphones is slightly different: while the 2nd generation had seven small far-field microphones on its top surface; the 3rd generation has four microphones.
I purchased the "sandstone" version. The cloth is a polyester woven fabric made up of lighter and darker shades which gives it more visual interest than if it were just a solid, uniform gray. The neutral color blends in with nearly any decor, and the cloth gives the unit a softer look which is great for areas of your house where you don't want something that screams "I'm a device!"
Aside from its larger size and slight convex bulge, the top of the device is nearly identical to that of the 2nd generation Dot: it has four buttons (volume up, volume down, microphone off, and an "action" button) and a multi-colored light ring around the top edge that tells you about the Echo's status. The side of the device has an input for the power cable and a 3.5-mm output jack.
One notable improvement is the shape of the power cable, which sits flatter against the wall than the 2nd generation Dot's cable (see my photo to see them side by side). This may sound like an insignificant change, but it makes a huge difference if you want to plug the cable into an outlet that is behind a piece of furniture.
Setting up the Dot couldn't be easier. You simply plug in the power cable, then use the Alexa app on your phone to connect the Dot to your WiFi network. The app leads you through everything, and the whole process takes less than a minute. Boom.
I did a side-by-side audio comparison of the 2nd and 3rd Generation Echo Dots, first with music (orchestral, a jazz combo, and some AC/DC) and then with a few newscasts. Everything does sound better on the 3rd generation Dot, but to be honest, the sound is still pretty anemic. Compared with the 2nd generation Dot, the sound is slightly fuller, not as annoyingly tinny, and has a small amount of bass presence (not much, but the 2nd generation had none). Newscasts and other spoken texts benefit from the fuller sound as well, but the difference is more pronounced with music. Just for fun, I also compared the 3rd generation Dot with my 2nd generation Echo, and THAT'S where I noticed a big difference. Yes, the new Dot sounds a bit better than its predecessor, but they both sound weak compared to the full-sized Echo. (To its credit, Amazon doesn't claim that the Dot has room-filling sound.)
I'll be blunt: I really like the Dot, but I don't use it to listen to music. At all. With so many other speaker options out there, there's just no reason to use this as your primary music device.
As I mentioned above, the number of microphones on the top surface has dropped from seven to four. I'm not sure what the rationale for this was, but after testing the Dot's ability to pick up my voice from different distances and angles, I didn't notice a substantial difference in the overall microphone sensitivity compared to the 2nd generation Dot. Like the other Echo devices, though, it seems to have more difficulty detecting voices that come from below it (which happens if I talk to it while I'm on the floor playing with my daughter).
The bottom line is that the overall functionality -- what the 3rd generation Dot "does" -- is nearly identical to that of the previous generations (and of other Echo devices, or at least the ones without screens). This is largely because the Alexa assistant software on which all Echos operate is run on Amazon's cloud, not your individual device. This means that as Amazon adds new features and updates to Alexa they automatically become available on all Echo devices. So, you can use any of them to:
- Stream music via WiFi from multiple sources
- Control smart home devices with your voice
- Make hands-free calls to other Echo devices or phone numbers in North America
- Make purchases from your Amazon Prime account
- Listen to news feeds, podcasts, etc.
- Do anything else in Alexa's ever-growing skill set, such as make shopping lists, set timers/alarms/reminders, play games, tell you your daily schedule, and any other skills Amazon dreams up for Alexa in the future.
If you don't want to use the Dot's built-in speaker, you can connect it to your own speakers via Bluetooth or by using the 3.5-mm output jack.
One new feature for the 3rd generation Dot is a little puzzling to me: You can pair two Echo Dots in a "stereo mode," giving you essentially left and right speakers. I tried this briefly and the results were pretty much what I expected: yes, it's stereo, but it's still weak sound! You can also pair an Echo Sub with the Dots, creating a little 2.1 sound system. Frankly, I'm not sure why you would do this; if I were setting up for stereo sound, I would want speakers that are designed for decent audio performance, not two Echo Dots.
Alexa's skill set is enormous and always growing. In fact, part of the fun of owning an Echo device is seeing what new skills Amazon comes up with (even if many new skills are just silly or entertaining). I'll mention two of my favorite skills here: the Flash Briefing and the drop-in feature. The flash briefing is fully customizable daily digest of news and other information which you can hear any time by asking "What's my flash briefing?" There is a huge list of content you can add to your briefing including news updates, weather forecasts, sports and traffic updates, and educational snippets along with many that are just humorous or entertaining. Using the Alexa phone app or your Echo account page you can select exactly what content you want in your briefing and in what order you want to hear it. For example, I configured mine with news feeds from NPR, BBC, and Reuters. I love having an on-demand synopsis of the latest news from my favorite sources.
My other favorite feature, "drop in," essentially opens a two-way communication channel between any two Echo devices, sort of like an intercom. Simply ask Alexa to "drop in on [the living room, the kitchen...]" and you are instantly connected. My wife and I use this feature to communicate from opposite ends of the house. You can turn drop-in capability on or off for each of your Echo devices individually, and you can also choose whether each device can drop in with ANY Echo device or only those in your own home.
[Note that the drop-in feature is NOT the same thing as Alexa's hands-free calling feature. Hands-free calling allows you to call most phone numbers and Echo devices in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada from your Echo by saying your contact's name or number. Just like with a phone call, the other person must choose to answer your call before you can communicate. By contrast, with the drop-in feature communication is instantly established. For this reason you will probably want to use drop-in only with your closest family and friends, and probably only for certain rooms in your home!]
A few (minor) complaints
Unfortunately this 3rd Generation Dot shares an annoying trait of its predecessors: widely varying volume levels within the daily Flash Briefing. As you listen to the briefing, some components (such as BBC News) come through quietly while others (like Reuters) are much louder. Not a deal-breaker, but slightly annoying.
Also, occasionally when Alexa misunderstands a command, you have to "start over," which can be really irritating. For example, if Alexa thinks you asked to turn on a light but you really asked something else, she will repeatedly say "In which room?" until you say "Alexa, stop" and then start over. I'm guessing this type of thing will improve over time as voice recognition software becomes more advanced. This is really more of an Alexa issue than a Dot issue, but it drives me nuts at times.
Finally, I wish the Alexa phone app was easier to use. It works, but its organization is not intuitive and it feels rather clunky to navigate. Again, this is more of an "Alexa" issue than a "Dot" issue, but still... Hopefully Amazon will continue to make improvements to it!
A few tips
1) The Dot seems to pick up voices best when placed at or below eye level (i.e., roughly the level from which your voice emits). Mine has trouble detecting voices coming from below it, so I don't recommend placing this on a high shelf.
2) When you select news feeds for your Flash briefing I recommend picking one U.S. source and one international source (I use NPR and BBC - both are excellent). If you add too many feeds you'll get a lot of overlap and hear the same story several times.
3) If you have multiple Echo devices in your home, sometimes speaking to one will cause others to respond as well, especially if they are in close proximity (like in adjacent rooms). One way to prevent this is to change the wake word of one of the devices to "Echo" or "Amazon." The only downside is that you then have to remember which wake word you assigned to each device!
Echo Dot vs. Echo vs. Echo Plus: Which one to buy?
(Please note that I am only comparing Echo devices that do NOT have screens.)
When choosing between the Echo Dot and one of the larger Echo devices, perhaps the most important question to ask is "How much do you plan to LISTEN to the device?" This question is important because one of the biggest differences between the Echo Dot and the larger Echo devices is sound quality: the 1.6" speaker of the Dot simply cannot match the fullness and heft of the Echo or Echo Plus. (Remember, they all run on the same Alexa software, which means they all have nearly identical skill sets!)
So, if you don't currently own an Echo device, start by thinking carefully about how you plan to use it. Many Alexa skills fall into one of two broad categories: those that rely heavily on the speaker and those that don't. For example, features that benefit from good sound quality include playing music/newscasts/podcasts, the drop-in feature, and hands-free calling. (This is why I chose an Echo Plus for my kitchen - I use it every morning to listen to the news.) If you plan to use your device largely for these type of features, you would probably appreciate the better sound of the Echo or Echo Plus.
On the other hand, if plan to use the Echo mainly for "non-listening" purposes such as voice-controlling your smart home devices, then the sound quality isn't as important and a Dot is probably all you need. In fact, you could even save some money by purchasing a 2nd generation Dot instead -- especially if it's not going to be in a highly visible location or you don't mind its shiny plastic look. I have several "single-purpose" Dots in my house in rooms where I want to voice-control one thing, such as a lamp in the room, and 2nd generations Dots are just fine for this -- and now that their price has gone down they are a great value!
The Echo Dot is an extraordinarily useful and versatile device -- one that becomes more useful all the time as Alexa's skill set expands. The 3rd Generation model has a great new look, but despite marginal improvements in the speaker, it's still pretty unsatisfying as a playback device for music or newscasts. As long as you are willing to accept its acoustic limitations, the Dot can be a wonderful device to have in your home. And if you DO want better sound quality for the features you use most often, you can always connect the Dot to your own sound system via Bluetooth or the 3.5-mm audio jack. Hope this was helpful!