How does Amazon’s Echo Dot work?

You may be familiar with the Echo, Amazon’s cylindrical voice-controlled smart speaker. To use the Echo, you first summon Amazon’s digital assistant, Alexa. The Echo isn’t the only Alexa-enabled device Amazon offers, though. Among its growing suite of offerings, it also offers a pint-sized alternative: the Echo Dot.

If you’re on the fence about whether an Echo Dot is right for your home, here’s what you need to know.

What is the Echo Dot?

The Amazon Echo Dot is a small connected home speaker—that is, it connects to your home Wi-Fi network and also to your phone via the Amazon Alexa app. Available in black and white, it looks a bit like an oversized hockey puck but with a blue LED rim around the top. Also on its top are four buttons: a power button, mute button, and volume controls.

What does the Echo Dot do?

Amazon Echo Dot in black and white on blue background Amazon

You can use an Echo Dot for anything you’d use a normal Echo for—anything you can ask or command of Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa. You can use it to play music from sources such as Amazon Music or Spotify; you can ask her about the weather, get updates on the news, or a heads-up on your schedule; you can also use her to set timers or alarms. And with the addition of third-party apps called “skills,” you can broaden her capabilities further, so you can order Domino’s pizza or an Uber, or play a trivia game.

Because of its small size and cheap price point—full price, it’s $50, but it’s often on sale for less—the device is often used in homes that already have one or more larger Alexa-enabled devices so that you can access Alexa anywhere in your home. You can also use the device as an intercom.

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How does Echo Dot work?

1) Set-up

To get started with an Echo Dot, first make sure you have the Alexa app downloaded. Then, decide where you want your Echo Dot to reside and plug it in. The ring around the top of the device will glow blue, then orange. Now, you’ll need to connect the device to your home’s Wi-Fi network. Once connected, the setup process should automatically begin in the app. If not, head to Alexa Devices, then select Add Alexa Device within the app. When that’s done, you’re ready to start talking to your Echo Dot.

2) Daily use

Once your Echo Dot is all set up, you can summon its smarts by saying “Alexa,” followed by a query. There are a huge number of things you can ask or command of Alexa (and if you don’t like “Alexa” as the device’s wake word, you can switch that to “Amazon,” “Echo,” or “Computer” in the app—especially useful if someone in your house is named something similar to “Alexa”). You can start off your day by asking Alexa what the weather is, or for your daily news briefing. You can also ask her to play music from a number of different sources. She can do a number of smartphone-type tasks, things such as setting an alarm or timer, acting as a reference when you have a question, or letting you make calls or send messages to contacts.

If you have more than one Echo device in your home, you can also use your Echo Dot as part of an intercom system. This is useful if you live in a larger, multi-bedroom home: It gives you the ability to “call” a specific Alexa unit in the house (say “The kitchen” to “Lisa’s bedroom”) to let a family member know that it’s time for dinner or that a neighbor has stopped by. It’s a bit more civilized than yelling across the house but costs significantly less than installing an actual intercom system in a home.

For more on how to use and customize Alexa, head here.

Are there any downsides to the Echo Dot?

Amazon maintains that Alexa devices are only designed to listen for their wake word (typically “Alexa,” unless you set it otherwise). Once they pick up that wake word, they’ll listen to what you say, analyze it to figure out what you’re asking, and then will execute on that command. However, there have been some creepy anomalies over the years.

In March, numerous Alexa device owners reported that their smart speakers were randomly laughing for no apparent reason. (The reason for this appears to have been the devices’ mistakenly hearing the command “Alexa, laugh.” Amazon changed that command to “Alexa, can you laugh?” so that there are fewer false positives.)

There was also a bizarre incident in May where a family realized their Echo unit had somehow recorded a private conversation and sent the recording to a random contact. After analyzing the data from this incident, it appears that the Echo unit heard what it thought was “Alexa” in the conversation, heard another string of words that sounds like “send message,” recorded audio, and then again misheard audio cues after asking “To whom?” and confirming the recipient’s name.

This very unlikely, but evidently possible, incident highlights the fact that Alexa technology isn’t always perfect at identifying its wake word and human commands. And while Echo units such as the Echo Dot feature an LED ring that illuminates when Alexa hears its wake word, if you’re not paying attention—and its volume is turned down low—you might not realize she’s been activated.

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Should you buy an Echo Dot?

If you’re looking to get a virtual assistant-imbued smart speaker but you’re on a budget, the Echo Dot is a good option. It can also be helpful if you already have one or more Alexa-enabled devices in your abode but you’re looking to expand their reach to additional rooms. If you’re short on space, it’s also a smart option as it’s one of the smallest smart speakers available (the Google Home mini is another choice if that’s a key purchasing factor for you).

However, if you intend to use the speaker to frequently play music and audio, you may be better served by purchasing a larger Echo or Echo Plus, staying within Amazon’s ecosystem, or a Google Home, Google Home Max, or Apple HomePod, for a competing smart speaker. Because these devices are larger, they typically feature better audio internals and can thus playback music with higher quality and louder volumes. Some of these devices, such as Apple’s HomePod, were specifically engineered with music playback in mind.

Because the Echo Dot is based on the same Alexa software platform as its larger cousins, opting for this smaller device doesn’t mean you’ll miss out on any important features or updates. Whenever Amazon gives Alexa some new capabilities, you’ll get them just the same as an Echo owner.

If you’re planning to purchase an Echo Dot for someone else, it may be a good idea to put out some feelers first. While these devices technically do not “listen” to user conversations all the time, some people may not be comfortable with such an always-on audio device in their home.

And if you’re not sure whether you’d like or use a smart speaker, an Echo Dot can be a good entry point. If it turns out you don’t like the experience after all, at least you haven’t dropped several hundred dollars on it.

Looking for more help? Here’s what you need to know about Amazon Alexa and how to use Amazon Alexa as an intercom system, Amazon Prime Pantry, Amazon Lockers, Amazon Prime Wardrobe, how to sell on Amazon, Amazon Prime membership and if it’s really worth it.

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Christina Bonnington

Christina Bonnington

Christina Bonnington is a tech reporter who specializes in consumer gadgets, apps, and the trends shaping the technology industry. Her work has also appeared in Gizmodo, Wired, Refinery29, Slate, Bicycling, and Outside Magazine. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and has a background in electrical engineering.