This is the week when artificially intelligent assistants start getting serious.
On Tuesday, Google is expected to announce the final details for Home, its connected speaker with the new Google Assistant built inside.
But first Amazon, which surprised everyone last year by practically inventing the AI-in-a-can platform, will release a new version of the Echo Dot, a cheaper and smaller model of the full-sized Echo that promises to put the company’s Alexa assistant in every room in your house.
The Echo Dot has all the capabilities of the original Echo, but at a much cheaper price, and with a compact form factor that’s designed to be tucked away. Because of its size (it looks like a hockey puck from the future), its sound quality isn’t as good as the Echo, but it can hook up to an external speaker through a standard audio cable or Bluetooth.
And at $49.99, the Echo Dot makes an enticing introduction to the new digital assistant in your home category, and a way for current Echo owners to extend its capabilities throughout the house. You can also buy a six-pack (buy five, get one free) or 12-pack (buy 10, get two free) of Echo Dots if you want to go all out and have Alexa helping you out everywhere in your home.
The Dot ships on October 20, and is available for the first time to everyone, not just Amazon Prime members. You can pre-order it now.
How it works
I’ve tested the regular Echo before, but this was my first time trying the Dot since the first model launched this spring. This new version has better microphones than its predecessor, but other than that and the slashed price (down from $90), not much else has changed.
I connected the Dot to an external speaker with an auxiliary cable, but you’re still free to use the built-in speaker if you want. It’s fine for listening to responses from Alexa, but music sounds terrible. The Dot wasn’t designed as an audio device. Instead, it’s a cheap way to extend Alexa to all corners of your home.
I live in a tiny, one bedroom New York City apartment, so I didn’t really get to test a full network of Dots throughout my place. But I can imagine keeping a Dot in the bedroom and other rooms in the house and the full-sized Echo in the living room or other common area for music. The real magic is having Alexa with you no matter where you are.
Plus, if you have a nice stereo system that you still love, the Dot makes a great way to add some smarts to it without spending a fortune on new equipment.
In addition to music, Alexa can do all the things you’d expect from a digital assistant by now like checking your calendar appointments, weather, sports scores, etc. The Echo Dot also doubles as a hub for a range of smart appliances including thermostats, power outlets, and lights. So if you want to trick out your home with automated gear, you can control it all with your voice with the Dot.
The real strength though is the library of third-party services. Most digital assistants put tight restrictions on what developers can do with their systems, but Alexa is open to just about anyone. You can do everything from hailing an Uber to ordering a Domino’s pizza to checking your Capital One balance through Alexa, and the list of capabilities continue to grow each week. No other digital assistant can offer that.
Alexa is accurate and fast too. There’s almost no lag between when you make a request and you get what you want, unlike Siri. I found it can still handle most queries just as well as any competitor, although not always when it comes to basic queries. Google still has the advantage there.
It also helps that the directional microphones in the Dot are extremely accurate, even when music is playing or you’re across the room. I was able to control the Dot perfectly while standing several feet away and even down the hall and around the corner from my living room. The Dot’s ability to always hear and understand you is just as impressive as anything else it can do.
The future of AI in your home
The real story here is Amazon is far head of everyone else in the category. That doesn’t mean Amazon will ultimately win. Google still has the advantage when it comes to machine learning and AI, and Apple’s entry into the category is reportedly in the works.
But it does mean Amazon is the first company that can infiltrate every corner of your home with an always-listening digital assistant, and it’s the first opportunity to get a taste of the future today. Echo is also the only AI platform with a vibrant, third-party app selection. It’s unclear if Google Home will have anything similar at launch and Apple’s Siri limits third-party integration to certain categories like messaging and payments. (Plus Siri keeps you tied to the iPhone.)
Another advantage: Amazon is extending Alexa to other non-Amazon gadgets, a move that could make it the operating system of choice for any connected speaker. The most significant partnership is coming early next year when Sonos speakers will integrate with the Echo and Echo Dot.
It may be early days, but Amazon has built a capable and affordable way for anyone to add a bunch of smarts to their home. The Echo Dot isn’t just a great option because it was first. It’s a great option because of its nearly flawless execution of the future of AI in the home.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through hispersonal investment company Bezos Expeditions.