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Amazon Echo Dot (3rd gen) review: Still an excellent budget smart speaker

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
50
inc VAT

The new Echo Dot looks and sounds better for the same price. What’s not to like?

Pros 
Same competitive price
Smart new design
Huge improvement to audio quality
Cons 
Alexa is still not as smart as Google Assistant
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The Amazon Echo Dot (3rd gen) achieves the seemingly impossible. Just as its predecessor did it when it was launched back in 2016 it squeezes all the voice-driven smarts of a full-blown Echo into a device that fits in your palm but, unlike that device, its sound quality is good enough that you can listen to it without wincing. 

The Echo Dot (3rd gen) is a masterclass in making everything better, without hiking the price in the process. It's the best budget smart speaker you can buy.

READ NEXT: These are our favourite smart speakers

Amazon Echo Dot (3rd gen) review: What you need to know

Smart speakers, for those that don’t know, are speakers that can be operated by the voice. A virtual assistant – in this case Alexa – listens for the wake word, and will follow the instructions that follow, be that playing an album, telling you the weather or giving you a news update.  

The Echo Dot (3rd gen) is confusingly both Amazon’s entry-level device in this space and the pick for audiophiles everywhere. The reason for this seemingly contradictory statement is that although the original Echo Dot didn’t have much of a speaker at all, it had a 3.5mm audio jack in the back, letting owners connect it to any other sound system, whether it cost £10 or £10,000.

The Echo Dot maintains that raison d'etre but improves things along the way for people who don’t want to connect it to another sound system. Not only does it look more stylish, but on a technical level, it now boasts a 1.6in speaker inside, compared to the original’s 0.6in tweeter.

Amazon Echo Dot (3rd gen) review: Price and competition

The Echo Dot (3rd gen) costs £50 – the same as its predecessor – and that means that in terms of competition, there’s only one game in town: the Google Nest Mini. Google’s dinky device also costs £50 but runs Google Assistant, which is undeniably smarter and better at understanding voice prompts than Alexa. On the negative side, Google has made the bone-headed design decision not to include an audio-out jack, so you’re stuck with the built-in speaker, which isn't a patch on the Echo Dot (3rd gen).

The other obvious competitor is the original Echo Dot, but on a practical level that’s no longer an option: out with the old and in with the new on Amazon. Still, the preowned market is likely to be swamped with old Dots soon, and if you’re connecting to an expensive sound system anyway they’ll do just as solid a job as the shiny new model.

Amazon Echo Dot (3rd gen) review: Design

The original Echo Dot looked like someone had sawed off the very top bit of the original Echo. Given current Echoes look nothing like the first-generation model, the only real surprise is that it’s taken Amazon a year to catch up.

So, it’s still a puck, but it’s a bigger puck: both taller and wider, with dimensions of 99 x 99 x 43mm, compared to the previous generation’s 84 x 84 x 32mm. It’s also nearly twice as heavy, coming in at a chunky 300g to the original’s 163g.

But added heft isn’t the only change: gone is the cheap-looking plastic casing of the original, replaced with curved fabric around the outside. The top is still plastic, but it’s curved, and feels almost rubbery to the touch. It’s also lost the ostentatious Amazon logo, which is good news for those of us that don’t want a reminder that we’re funding Jeff Bezos’ lavish lifestyle every time we glance up.

It maintains the four buttons on top – volume up, volume down, a button to trigger Alexa, and a button to mute the mic for privacy – as well as the blue ring that lights up when it hears the wake word. Flip it around, and you’ll still find an area cut out for an audio connector and the power source – only it’s no longer micro USB, but the same kind of power connector you get with the larger Echo devices.

It’s a classy new look, in other words, although given the first one was small, compact and easy to stow away behind sound systems, most people shouldn’t care too much either way.

Amazon Echo Dot (3rd gen) review: Sound quality

You could use the original Echo Dot as a standalone speaker, but only a masochist would. The 0.6in tweeter inside was only really good for voice only, with a reedy output just about sufficient for audiobooks and podcasts. That was fine: it was designed to be connected to other speakers, either via Bluetooth or audio cable.

The good news is that the 2018 Echo Dot makes a solid little speaker in its own right, thanks to the 1.6in speaker now packed within. The reedy, prone-to-distortion audio of the original is gone, and the overall sound feels more bassy, warm and generally richer. It also goes a hell of a lot louder, though you don’t want to push this: it’s still just a 1.6in speaker, not a club-grade sound system.

I don’t want to overstate the quality, because it’s likely that any dedicated sound system you own will be better than the 2018 Echo Dot’s output, and you should make pairing it with another system a priority if you have one. But the point is that the original Echo Dot was an assault on the ears when used as a standalone speaker, with a sound more akin to a radio alarm clock than a proper HiFi setup.

The 2018 Dot provides a sound that’s definitely listenable, and on a par with your average £30 - £40 Bluetooth speaker. It’s more than adequate for a small room where you just want to have Alexa on tap without needing to splash out.

Amazon Echo Dot (3rd gen) review: How is Alexa?

In the great league table of digital voice assistants, Alexa is near the top, but it's definitely not the smartest. That honour still belongs to Google Assistant, which is undeniably better at not only understanding unusual phrasing but providing a usable answer as well.

It's a silly example, but it's illustrative all the same: if you ask a Google Home "how many hairs on a cat," it will reply: "on average, there are 60,000 hairs per square inch on the back and 120,000 hairs per square inch on the underside. 44 sq in/ft x approximately 3 square feet of surface area = 40 million hairs.” If you ask an Echo Dot the same thing, you'll get a shorter but incorrect answer: "a cat has 60,000 hairs." It's clear that Alexa hasn't got a handle on context, and stopped reading the answer after the first line of an internet search when it's actually the first line of a more in-depth explanation.

Elsewhere, you can expect similar results. Very often you'll get a response of "hmm, I don't know that one." In fact, guessing the kind of thing Alexa will be able to respond to is a challenge in itself, and having owned a first-generation Echo since day one, I've got into a routine where I just ask it the basics: light switching, news updates, music and jokes. For these core functions, the new Echo Dot works just fine, but know if you want a little more it's worth looking at Google's offerings.

Amazon Echo Dot (3rd gen) review: Verdict

Like the Kindle before it, Amazon has taken a great product that didn’t really need improving and somehow made it better in every way. It looks classier and it sounds significantly better, with all the same perks that made the original Dot such a compelling product.

That said, if you already own a Dot or two, there’s not much reason to upgrade, as long as they’re connected to an external speaker. And if they’re not, you’re still probably better off spending your money on a £50 speaker to boost the sound, rather than starting afresh with the 2018 Dot.

If you haven’t already tried a smart speaker, and aren’t creeped out by the whole listening device thing, then this is the entry-level product to buy. It was already the best way of dipping a toe in the world of smart speakers, thanks to Google cheaping out on an audio port on the Nest Mini, but now it’s even better.

And at the same attractive price, too. Amazon’s done it again.

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