Amazon Echo Dot is the future, for fifty bucks

Apple is rumored to be working on a Siri-powered smart home speaker with built-in cameras. The Google Home smart speaker could go on sale as soon as tomorrow.

Alexa finally has some competition.

That's almost certainly why we have a second-gen Amazon Echo Dot. With the price slashed to a near-absurd $50 (or £50 in the UK, where Alexa launched just last month), Amazon's goal is obvious -- get its virtual voice assistant into as many homes as possible now, before people have other options. That means that the Dot is designed to sell, sell, sell. And to step all over the arrival of Google Home.

Not that it needed much help. The original Echo Dot, launched just last March as a pint-sized follow-up to the surprise smash hit Amazon Echo smart speaker, was by all accounts just as successful as its predecessor. It sold out quicker than even Amazon had anticipated and won rave reviews, including an Editors' Choice distinction here on CNET.

Now, after being out of stock for months, the Dot is back, and more affordable than ever. (It isn't available in Australia, but were you to import one the price converts to about AU$65.) It's just as smart as before, too, with all of the same Alexa tricks along with plenty of new ones thanks to a rapidly growing library of third-party voice app "skills." And, despite the lower cost, it's an even better performer than the first generation, with microphones that do a better job of hearing your voice commands over music playback or background noise.

In other words, the already-great Echo Dot got a compromise-free price cut. It was an Editors' Choice-winner back in March -- now, it's close to a must-buy for just about anyone who's reading this.

Alexa in a nutshell

The Echo Dot is always listening for its wake word, "Alexa." Say it, and the Dot will light up and listen to your question or command.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

"Alexa" is Amazon's cloud-connected, voice-activated virtual assistant. She's Siri in a speaker. You wake her up by saying her name, or by saying one of your two other wake word options, "Amazon" or "Echo." The array of microphones inside of the Echo Dot is always listening, and when they hear the wake word, they'll record whatever you say next and send it off through the cloud to Amazon's servers. Those servers will figure out what you're asking for, then tell Alexa how to respond. All of it happens in about a second.

You can ask Alexa to do all sorts of things. For starters, she can stream music from Amazon Prime Music, Pandora, or Spotify. She can can play podcasts from iHeartRadio or TuneIn. She can set kitchen timers. She can look up facts. She can wake you up in the morning. She can tell your kids painfully bad jokes. She can read off the day's headlines from whatever news sources you like (including, ahem, CNET). All you have to do is ask.

On top of that, Alexa keeps getting smarter thanks to an increasingly robust market of third-party voice apps called "skills." There are over 3,000 of them at this point, and each one teaches Alexa a new trick. The Uber and Lyft skills let you tell Alexa to call you a ride. The Capital One skill lets you tell Alexa to make a credit card payment. The Domino's skill lets you tell Alexa to order a pizza. A skill called The Wayne Investigation lets you talk your way through an interactive mystery set in Gotham City. You can browse through them all in the Alexa app, then pick which ones you want to enable. You can also just ask Alexa to turn one on by saying something like, "Alexa, enable the Jeopardy skill." And, as of now, none of them cost anything.

Alexa can control a growing list of smart home gadgets, too, including connected lighting setups, smart thermostats, and popular smart home platforms. Ask her to turn the kitchen lights off or raise the temperature a few degrees, and she'll happily comply. Here are some of the most popular options:

We've been using Alexa to control gadgets like these in the CNET Smart Home for over a year now, and she's terrific at it. If you have any interest in smart home tech whatsoever, then the Echo Dot is an absolute no-brainer.

Small, but mighty

The new Echo Dot is a little smaller than the original, with two new volume buttons replacing the volume ring. It's now also available in white.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The new Echo Dot is a little shorter than the original because there's no longer a ring around the top that you turn to control the volume. Instead, you turn things up and down using two new volume buttons on the top of the device. It's also a bit lighter, with a glossy plastic casing instead of the matte black body of generation one. And, of course, it's available in white now (which looks quite good, in my opinion). Other than that, this is the same Dot as before: same plug-and-play simplicity, same voice-activated smarts.

Like every other Echo product, the Dot is really just an access point for the Amazon Alexa cloud platform. That means that you're getting the exact same Alexa features as you would with the full-size Amazon Echo or the battery-powered Amazon Tap. The Dot just has a less powerful speaker.

There's an ace up the Dot's sleeve, though, and that's the fact that you can connect it with existing speakers and audio setups over Bluetooth or via line-in cable. Do so, and you'll essentially make an Echo out of whatever speakers you like. The Echo and Tap can't do that -- with both, it's the built-in speakers or it's nothing.

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