A conductor of your smart-home symphony

Amazon’s 5th generation Alexa Echo Dot smart speaker system is an improvement in the sonic and functionality departments for the popular voice-assistant enabled speaker

By Anirban Bagchi

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Published: Tue 5 Dec 2023, 3:58 PM

You’ve got to hand it to the boffins at Amazons for sheer perseverance. And their marketing mavericks for being able to milk a concept for all its worth. After having come up with the Echo line of Alexa-enabled speakers in what seems a few eons ago, they’ve again gone and brought out its latest iteration, with the claim that this is their best-sounding smart speaker device yet.

And in the ever-evolving world of smart home devices, this latest Amazon Echo Dot 5th generation emerges as a petite powerhouse, promising to be the symphony conductor of your smart home orchestra. With its trademark Echo Dot design that blends into almost any décor, and its array of features, it’s poised to be a significant player in the ever-growing market of voice-activated assistants. But does it hit all the right notes, or is it just a gimmicky gadget designed to tug at your purse strings?

To start with the looks, Amazon’s Echo range of voice-activated speaker assistants always had aesthetically pleasing designs. Amazon has been a trendsetter in this segment when it comes to marrying functionality with style, and the Echo Dot 5th generation is no exception. Its fabric-wrapped exterior comes in three colours, black, blue and white — or charcoal, deep sea blue and glacier, as Amazon calls them. With its compact and spherical design, this orb of a speaker seamlessly blends into any room, be it a minimalist living room or a cosy bedroom. The LED light ring that Echo Dots come with adds a touch of futuristic charm, indicating when Alexa is listening, speaking or has a message without being too intrusive.

And Alexa is definitely the focus in these Echo smart speakers. Being the brains behind the Echo Dot, Alexa’s expanding skill set is very much its focus, as Amazon’s voice-activated smart assistant continues to evolve, gaining new skills and functionalities.

The voice assistant can now perform a myriad of tasks, from setting reminders and answering trivia questions to controlling smart home devices and providing personalised news updates. With each software update, Alexa becomes more intuitive and efficient, making the Echo Dot an ever-improving companion in your daily life.

In the Echo Dot 5th generation, the voice-controlled speaker uses the Alexa service to not only play music but also to set timers and alarms — and make your home smarter when paired with compatible devices. And as an especially thoughtful feature for the Middle East, you can now also tell Alexa to recite the Holy Quran. Just name the Surah of your choice and Alexa will find and play it through your Echo Dot. Alexa can also set prayer time reminders based on your geographic location as well as enable you to listen to Athkar (supplications and remembrances) and Anasheed (religious compositions) when it is time to fulfil your spiritual obligations.

For more temporal tasks, you can also ask Alexa for the latest currency exchange rates or for share prices on local bourses like the Tadawul Stock Exchange of Saudi Arabia, or even the local TV listings. And around your house, you can use your voice to control compatible smart home devices, asking Alexa to turn the lights and smart plugs on or off or even adjust the air conditioning temperature. Of course, all your lights, plugs and air conditioners will first need to be of the smart and connected sort in order for this bit of futuristic home management to take effect.

Another futuristic trick possible with the Echo Dot – or other Amazon Alexa Echo devices – is for the speakers to be used as intercoms to keep your household connected. The Echo Dot 5th generation comes in two models — one with an LED clock on its facia and another, our test mule, without. Pairing the two devices – as well as other Echo devices – and placing them in separate rooms has the effect of each becoming a node for inter-room communication. Breakfast ready? Ask Alexa on the Echo Dot in the kitchen to announce it on every Echo device in all rooms, and voila – you have the entire family making a beeline for the breakfast table!

But, of course, the Echo Dot is much more than your family loudspeaker. At its heart it was made to be a music streaming device, keeping you company on your desk with the music of your choice, all played at the command of your voice. And the 5th gen Echo Dot offers much improved performance in this core function.

Amazon calls this device “our best-sounding Echo Dot yet” with which listeners can enjoy “an improved audio experience compared to any previous Echo Dot with Alexa for clearer vocals, deeper bass and vibrant sound in any room”. And listening to this Echo Dot, it is clear that one of the most significant upgrades from its predecessors is the enhanced sound quality.

The Echo Dot 5th generation boasts a 1.6-inch speaker with clear highs and surprisingly robust bass for its size. Whether you’re listening to your favourite tunes, asking Alexa for the weather forecast, or engaging in a hands-free phone call, the improved audio output ensures a more immersive experience. It might not replace a high-end speaker system, but it certainly punches above its weight.

We found it to be a welcome companion in the mornings to wake up to, especially with the alarm set to some punchy, invigorating pop and rock that you either had to get up and tap your foot to or hastily move to stifle if you wanted to snooze. And here, the tap-to-snooze/pause function really came in handy. Just roll over and touch the device’s head when the music starts playing to wake you up, and you can extend that weekend lie-in.

There are millions of songs and podcasts to choose from to wake up to or listen all day, provided by streaming services such as Anghami and Spotify, or even Virgin Radio or Dubai 92 FM. But not enough – and this brings us to the first of the gripes. With such an improved sonic experience from the speaker, it was a pity that we could not pair some high-end streaming services to the Echo Dot. For example, my subscription to Deutsche Grammophon’s Stage+ classical music streaming service just would not connect with the app, which put paid to my desire for waking up to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcraker or sleeping off to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

Also, while the buttons — one each for action, mike mute, volume up and down — are well placed on top of the Echo Dot, their execution leaves just that little bit to be desired. On one hand, it responds swiftly to your commands, but on the other, accidental taps can be common, especially while snoozing, disrupting the otherwise seamless user experience.

Also, Alexa has an eavesdropping dilemma. The always-listening nature of smart speakers has raised privacy concerns from the get-go, and the Echo Dot 5th generation is no exception. While Amazon has assured users that Alexa only starts recording after the wake word, the lingering worry of unintentional eavesdropping persists. The inclusion of a physical mute button is a welcome addition, but for some, the constant awareness of a potential digital ear in the room might be a deal-breaker.

To sum up, the Dh229 Amazon Echo Dot 5th generation manages to hit some delightful high notes while navigating around a few sour ones. Its sleek design and improved sound quality make it a contender in the competitive market of smart speakers. The evolution of Alexa’s capabilities adds a layer of sophistication to the overall experience. However, the privacy concerns, and the occasional compatibility hiccup with streaming services might make some users hesitate before welcoming this petite maestro into their homes. Ultimately, the Echo Dot 5th generation can become the conductor of your smart home symphony and is a charming addition for those seeking a blend of style and functionality.

Amazon Alexa Echo Dot 5th Generation portable smart speaker

Hits:

- Stylish design in a small package

- Alexa integration and smart features

- Sound quality is much improved

Misses:

- Trouble integrating some streaming services

- Always-listening nature of Alexa

Price:

Dh229

Rating: 4 stars


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