The Echo speaker has been around a few years now, and despite the best efforts of Google and Apple, Amazon’s Alexa has been welcomed into more homes than any other smart assistant. The most popular of all smart speakers is the Echo Dot. Other bigger and better sounding speakers are available, but the Echo Dot has always hit a nice sweet spot of performance and affordability. The first couple of generations of Echo Dots were clearly toes in the water to see if we were ready for smart assistants. They gave us a glimpse of what could be achievable, but they didn’t sound particularly good. We’ve still got two Generation 2 Echo Dots that live in the garage and shed, and they really do sound tinny and weak. That changed with the Generation 3 Echo Dot, of which we have five around the house, as they sounded so much better. The sound was deeper and the volume could go much higher before losing fidelity. The microphone was also improved, and the entire experience with using Alexa made a big step forward.
And now, today, the Echo Dot Generation 4 has been released. Literally today. The posty delivered it today, 22nd of October 2020, release day, and I’ve been putting it through its paces alongside an Echo Dot Gen 2, a Gen 3, a Bang & Olufsen A1 portable speaker with Alexa, a Sonos One, my iPhone 11 Pro attached by Bluetooth to an Anker Soundcore and finally a Denon AVR2500 with Alexa (via Echo Dot) feeding a Wharfedale DX-2 7.1 speaker system. Speakers across the size, quality and price range, but all capable of using Alexa voice control.
So, what’s different between the Gen 3 and 4? Well, visually, Amazon have dropped the familiar hockey puck design of all of the previous Echo Dots, and gone for a new ball shape. Beauty is a subjective thing, and it’s up to you to decide if it looks better than the round, squat thing we’ve all grown used to. Personally, I quite liked the simplicity of the Gen 3. It was a nice, compact form with easy to find buttons. It blended discreetly into the home and you forgot about it until Alexa piped up. The new Gen 4 isn’t so discreet. While it is about the same size on plan, its bulbous design stands out much more than before, but you assume that the extra space has been utilised to improve the sound offered, and project it further. The buttons for volume, action and turning off the microphone are on top of the globe and instead of being circular, as before, are now raised characters resembling a games controller. That needs to grow on me a little, I think. The status light is now around the base of the speaker rather than the top as before, which again will take a little getting used to. Overall, it has a similar middle of the road build quality about it that carries over from the Gen 3.
Setting up the Echo is, as usual, very simple. If you see my video, mine took me by surprise as it connected straight to my existing network with no setup at all. If it’s your first Echo device and assuming you have the Alexa app you go to Devices, Add, Amazon Echo, and wait for it to connect. The work of moments, and then it’s ready to go. Like the Gen 3 it uses its own power cable rather than a USB cable as the Gen 1 & 2 used. There’s also the usual 3.5mm audio line out should you need it.
Regarding the sound, it’s really quite good. The Dot is effectively the bottom of the range Echo speaker, with the larger Echo, Echo Plus (I think now discontinued, or soon to be) and Echo Studio offering superior sound for a greater investment. But, despite that, it holds its own very well. If you want the absolute best sound, you’re likely to want to spend much more on a dedicated sound system, but for general, every day use, the Echo Dot is perfectly acceptable. Sound remained stable even at maximum volume, and just as good I found Alexa was able to hear my commands despite being at full-pelt Brian Johnson.
In my tests, it’s clearly better than the Gen 2, and a very marginal improvement on the Gen 3. I found the Dot a match for the Bang & Olufsen A1 portable speaker up to all but the loudest volumes, which is four times the RRP, and much more user friendly. My Sonos Ones obviously sound better, as you’d hope given the price and size of them, but I’ve had them since they were released a few years ago and I simply don’t use them. Sonos speakers work wonderfully well in a Sonos ecosystem, but I’ve found them clunky with Alexa. Playlists stop for no reason, and they don’t integrate into an Echo multi-speaker set-up. You can’t get them to play at the same time as several other Echo speakers. They’re undoubtedly high quality, but despite that I’ve just sold them both to my brother-in-law. I’d rather re-invest the money into an Echo Dot and a larger Echo and have a house-wide speaker system that is not far off the Sonos in terms of sound quality but is easier to operate and at a fraction of the cost. As for the Denon amp with Wharfedale speakers, yes, they’re next level again. But to come out of stand-by and start playing the music my Echo Dot’s are halfway though Dark Side of the Moon before I’ve heard a peep from the big boom box.
So, the verdict? The RRP, and reviewed price, is £49.99 and I think you get a lot of functionality, sound quality and style for your money. There is an elephant in the room though. A hockey puck-shaped elephant in fact. The Gen 3 Echo Dot is still available at the time of writing. It’s almost as good to listen to, and I think looks nicer. It’s also £10 cheaper, and often a lot cheaper than that as it’s regularly on offer. Is the Gen 4 that much better than the Gen 3? I’m not so sure.
Taken in isolation, the Gen 4 Amazon Echo Dot is an excellent smart speaker. I gave the Gen 3 a five-star review, and the Gen 4 is every bit as worthy. It will undoubtedly go on to be the best-selling product of its type, and deservedly so. But, while the Gen 3 is still available at a much cheaper price, it makes it that little bit harder to justify.
How to set up you Echo device:
If you’re new to the world of Alexa then you may be wondering how easy it is to set up an Echo device. If you’ve ordered from Amazon, they’ll helpfully email you a guide to setting it up. You’ll need the Amazon Alexa app, available from both the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. Download and wait for it to install, and then open it up. The app gives help on various subjects if you tap the question mark in the top right corner of the home screen. The guide on setting up your new Echo Dot is found in this area by selecting Alexa Devices, then Echo Dot, and Set Up Your Echo Dot.
As a quick overview though, plug in your Echo Dot (after a short period the status light will turn orange to show it is in Setup mode) and then open the Alexa app. On the bottom menus select “Devices”. On the Devices screen, tap the “+” button in the top right and choose “Add Device”. Select “Amazon Echo” and then “Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Plus and more”. Assuming your Echo is plugged in and the status light is orange, select “Yes”. The app will then search for your new Echo Dot and complete the setup. The whole process takes only a few moments, and then you’re ready to get creative with Skills and Routines.
What can you do with Alexa?
A smart speaker is actually quite dumb to start with. It’s when you start adding things that it becomes truly smart in my view. On its own, you’ll be able to ask Alexa questions, play a few games, set up alarms and reminders and get a weather forecast; the general things you’d expect from a home assistant. Remember to always begin every command with the wake word, “Alexa…”, which can be altered to “Amazon”, “Echo” or “Computer” if you wish. To do certain things and play games you need to enable “Skills & Games”, which is found in the “More” menu at the bottom of the app. In there, you’ll find hundreds of things you can do with Alexa. For example, I regularly play the BBC quiz shows Pointless and Tenable. “Alexa, what is the weather forecast” or “Alexa, give me a ten-minute countdown” are examples of simple commands.
As I say though, the Echo is just the gateway to a vast array of smart applications. How smart it goes depends on how far you want to go and how much to spend. What starts out as a single Echo device can quickly expand to a device in every room, attached to smart devices such as light bulbs, sockets, central heating and cameras. The first thing you may wish to use your speaker for is playing music. Echo is compatible with most of the main music streaming services such as Apple and Spotify, and of course Amazon Music. With your Echo you get access to Amazon Music’s free service, which is actually pretty good. It is limited, and you won’t find all of your favourite artists, but I recommend you try it out for a week or two as it might be good enough for your requirements. If not, I do highly recommend upgrading to Amazon Music Unlimited, or better still Amazon Music Unlimited Family which can be shared with multiple family members (not necessarily in the same household). I’ve not encountered many songs that aren’t on there. I used to have my iPhone full of mp3 music, but now I stream everything. “Alexa, play some 80’s rock” and I’m good for hours. If you have multiple speakers you can have the music played to one, many or all of them for house-wide coverage.
Philips Hue lightbulbs are fantastic devices. They’re very expensive compared to a standard LED bulb, but once you buy one and use it in conjunction with Alexa voice control you soon become hooked. We’re up to 30 Hue bulbs now, and I don’t regret a single purchase.
Smart sockets, such as Amazon’s own models or the TP-Link Kasa models, that I recommend, are great for controlling things like Christmas lights and lamps.
Your central heating can be controlled by Alexa if you have a suitable smart thermostat. I can ask “Alexa, what’s the temperature in the house?”, and having determined that it’s too cold, if my wife not wrapped head to toe in fleece blankets wasn’t enough, I can then say “Alexa, set the house to 20 degrees”.
Some door bells and cameras, such as Ring products, work with Alexa voice control also. “Alexa, show me the front door” and she’ll bring up live video on a suitable device like a Fire tablet or an Echo Show.
Many televisions also have Alexa integration too. Our LG OLED can be controlled by its built in Alexa, but you can add it to almost any home entertainment device with the addition of something like the Logitech Harmony remote controls
A comprehensive smart home/automation is expensive, I’m not going to sugar that pill, but if it’s something that interests you then look out for these extra products on Black Friday deals would be my tip.
I’ll leave it there though as I’ve waffled long enough. I hope you consider giving the Echo Dot a try. I’m of the opinion that the worth of a gadget is in how much you use it, and we use our Echoes and Alexa frequently every day. Do we need them? No. Is life that little bit nicer with them? Yeah. And we all need some of that right now.