Amazon's Echo Dot, the Perfect Holiday Gift Idea

December 2016/January 2017

I'm not going to wait on Santa: today I'm going to order my Amazon Echo Dot. It's my Christmas present to myself. As I write this, a new version of the Echo Dot has just been released — at the amazing price of $49.

The Echo Dot is a smaller, cheaper version of the surprise hit Amazon Echo that came out in 2014 for $179.

These are so-called living room assistants: an intelligent device that listens for your every command, plays music on request, sets timers and alarms, reads you the news, tells you the weather forecast, reserves a table at a restaurant, controls your smarthome gadgets, tells jokes, plays games, orders a Uber taxi — and so much more.

Of course, Siri on my iPad can do much of this, but Amazon's Echo devices have two advantages. One is that the Echo and Echo Dot have seven "far-field" microphones built in so they can hear you across the room, even if there's noise or music playing. And the second is that if you own an Echo device, you can access Amazon's music catalog for $4 per month.

It's that last feature that tipped it for me. Other on-demand, ad-free music services such as Apple Music or Spotify cost $10/month. Amazon now has a similar catalog of tens of millions of songs, but at a much lower price. The only hitch is that the $4 rate only gives you access to their music via your Echo device. You won't have access via your smartphone or computer.

Note that you can also use the Echo to access free music services such as Pandora.

The Echo Dot is about the size of a hockey puck and has built-in speaker. You can also connect to external speakers wirelessly via Bluetooth or via a 3.5mm audio cable. When you want something, you simply begin your request with "Alexa," and it wakes up and immediately responds.

"Alexa, find me a Chinese restaurant." "Alexa, play Jeopardy." "Alexa, play Beethoven's Seventh Symphony." "Alexa, set a timer for 30 minutes." "Alexa, did the Vikings win?" "Alexa, read my book." "Alexa, turn on the living room light." "Alexa, ask Capitol One my account balance."

You have three Amazon Echo devices to choose from. The Echo Dot is cheapest, at $49, and the only difference between that and the taller $179 Echo is the speaker. The Dot, although it has a built-in speaker, is meant to connect to a more powerful speaker system. The Echo, on the other hand, has an array of quality speakers built in (and no capability for connecting to an external sound system).

The third device is the $129 Echo Tap. Both the Echo and the Echo Dot need to be plugged into an outlet, whereas the Echo Tap comes with a rechargeable battery built in. And it has dual stereo speakers by Dolby that offer omni-directional audio.

The Echo Tap is a nice device if you want to take Alexa with you as you head out the door. But for it to work, you'll need to be in range of a WiFi hotspot. Also, the Echo Tap lacks the far-field microphones of the other Echo devices. You need to tap it to get its attention.

Given the success of the Echo, the other big players are jumping into the fray. In October Google announced their living room assistant called Home ($129). The features are similar to the Echo, and you get its attention by saying, "Ok, Google."

Like the $179 Amazon Echo, Home has a robust speaker system built in. And it uses Google Assistant to answer your questions or follow your commands. However, it's more stylish, and gives you a range of color options.

My choice is the Dot. And I'm going for their $4/month music service.

Having a catalog of millions of songs available is wonderful. In the past I've taken advantage of the free trials available from Spotify and Apple Music, and really enjoyed having access to all my favorite music, such as Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture, Khachaturian's violin concerto, Beethoven's Egmont Overture, Dvorak's New World Symphony, and, of course, all the popular songs that I grew up with.

But I wasn't ready to spend $10 a month, and when the free trials ended, I cancelled. But for $4, I'm gonna do it.

Amazon also sells a six-pack of the Amazon Dot for $250. I'm also tempted to go for that: all my Christmas shopping done in one fell swoop.

This month's hot tips

An amazing video shows a self-driving truck travel 120 miles from Fort Collins, Colorado to Colorado Springs with no driver in the front seat. Google is now selling a virtual reality headset, the Daydream View ($79).

© 2016 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen