Update: Now that the Amazon Echo Show is available in the UK, we’ve had the chance to update our review with some updated impressions. You can find our thoughts on its video calling and video and music playing abilities below.
Original review continues below…
Technology, as you might’ve noticed, moves fast. It seems like the second you fully understand a product – all of its strengths and weaknesses – the company that makes it goes and releases a sequel.
Such is the case with the Amazon Echo, a first-of-its-kind smart speaker that released back in June 2015, and the new Amazon Echo Show, which just released in June of this year.
The Amazon Echo Show is a completely new take on the smart speaker; one that has its own set of challenges, obstacles and benefits.
That new challenge, in case you missed the memo, is the additional 7-inch touchscreen and 5 megapixel camera that will allow you to interact with Alexa, the Amazon Echo Show’s built-in assistant, in wholly novel and unique ways.
Some of those ways will markedly improve your quality of life – you can summon visually rich recipes with just a few words or see lyrics for your favorite songs, for example – while others will undoubtedly frustrate you.
This is a repeat of the huge problem we had with the original Echo: Alexa is smart, but it’s still so limited. Commands that should be relatively simple to parse befuddle the ‘smart’ speaker. Even now, months after launch, things still aren’t where they could be.
Alexa isn’t the perfect assistant but it’s still evolving, and before you judge a book by its first few pages we invite you to take a ride with us as we uncover what it’s like to use the Amazon Echo Show every day for three months.
Design and set-up
- Subtle, svelte design
- 7-inch touchscreen and 5MP camera
- Speaker has been improved, but still not great
- But microphone array is amazing through and through
Unlike the uniquely obelisk-esque Amazon Echo, the Echo Show is made to fit any environment – its subtle black frame can blend into corners of your kitchen, living room or bedroom without attracting any attention to itself.
What gives the Echo Show away is the glowing screen that lights up when you enter the room. The screen usually offers small tips on how to better use Alexa or prompts you to ask it about a trending news story. Ask Alexa to show you the story and not only will the smart speaker read it to you, but it will also display the text so you can follow along.
Should you decide to eschew privacy concerns entirely and keep your Amazon Echo Show in your bedroom, the Show does have a Do Not Disturb function that darkens the screen and allows you to sleep without the Show’s bright light keeping you up.
Speaking of ‘just enough’, this is as good a time as any to talk about the front-facing speaker.
One huge problem we had with the original Amazon Echo was that its speaker – you know, the thing that comprised 50% of the product – sounded really subpar compared to the other Bluetooth speakers on the market at the time. For whatever else hasn’t been fixed with Alexa as an artificial intelligence, at least the speaker has been significantly improved: It’s still shallow, harsh and can be underwhelming when challenged face-to-face with another speaker in its weight class but all things considered the speaker here gets the job done.
The magic of the Amazon Echo Show happens with its far-field microphone array that’s located at the top of the speaker, encircling the volume up/down and microphone on/off buttons. It can hear you over the sound of a conversation or your blaring music. Words can be misheard or misinterpreted from time-to-time, but rarely do I feel like it’s the microphone array’s fault. It is, for the time being, Amazon’s real secret sauce.
So, where does the Amazon Echo Show go? The living room? Does it belong in the kitchen? Should it sit on your nightstand and watch you while you sleep?
This is a matter of preference honestly, and while we can’t see everyone rushing to put a camera-equipped smart speaker in their bedrooms, the Echo Show is versatile enough to be in any room and remain relatively helpful.
For us, the Show’s place was in the kitchen, as that’s where it truly shined.
- Alexa’s a great kitchen assistant
- …But maybe not a bunkmate
- Great smart home product compatibility
- Skills are numerous, but not all are wonderful
But why choose the kitchen? What exactly makes Alexa a better kitchen aid than a living room companion? It’s a combination of the Echo Show’s skill set and personal preference.
Walking into the kitchen in the morning to make ourselves a cup of tea, it was nice seeing a fresh news story loaded onto the screen. We could get news briefings from NPR and ESPN while pouring the milk into a bowl of cereal, and ask what the commute would be like before running out the door. We’d come home, look up a recipe using some ingredients we’d have on hand, set the cooking mood with some old school R&B and ask Alexa to mind the timers.
Now sure, Alexa could’ve worked just as well on the nightstand as it did out in the kitchen, and our iPhone SE is just as capable of setting timers and the mood for cooking, but there was something undeniably attractive about having it all rolled into one device.
- Video calling functionality is well implemented
- Video and audio quality are both good
- But functionality is limited compared to existing apps and services
One of the headline features of the Amazon Echo Show is its ability to make video calls to other Show owners, or any contacts you have with the Alexa app installed on their phone.
There are two kinds of video call offered by the Echo Show. The standard version is a normal video call, whereby you can choose to video call anyone in your contacts list. You can either speak their name directly, or ask to see a list of everyone you can video call which you can then scroll through using the touch screen.
Starting the video call then causes the recipients Echo Show to light up, and they’ll also get a notification through the Alexa app on their phone. They then have the option of either accepting the call through the Show or the app itself.
The second kind of video call is activated by asking Alexa to ‘drop in’ on one of your contacts. This is meant for use with family and close friends, because it starts the call without them having to answer their Echo. You’ll have to specifically allow any contacts you want to grant this permission to.
Suffice to say, that this functionality should be enabled sparingly, if at all. Although we can see the benefits if you are a family and you quickly want to drop in on the kids to get them down to dinner. We think a big shout always works best, but the Echo’s functionality could definitely work in that way.
Once you get into a video call, both the quality of the video and the audio is solid on Echo Show to Echo Show calls. It’s not in the same league as a decent PC webcam, but it appeared similar in quality to the front-facing camera on your average smartphone.
Audio came through with a nice amount of clarity, making the most of the microphone array included in each Echo device.
Based on voice and video quality, we’d say the Echo Show is a good competitor for existing video calling solutions like FaceTime and Skype, however functionality is a lot more limited. For one thing you’re making a video call using a device that’s plugged into the mains and can’t be moved around the home, and nor can you have a call with more than one other person.
You’ll also have problems if none of your friends own Echo Shows, which at this point we’d say is quite likely.
Amazon does allow you to make a call through the Echo app on a smartphone or tablet but we couldn’t find an option to switch between the two seamlessly. It’s a case of turning one off and adding another.
The functionality is well implemented, but it’s limited in comparison to the competition. And when you are on a call, Alexa functionality is limited. You can end the call by saying “Alexa, stop” but you can’t ask Alexa anything else when the video call is in progress.
- Unlimited voice calling to any number in North America
- But voice quality is subpar
Of course, if video isn’t all that important to you, you can use regular voice calling in the US, Canada and Mexico free of charge.
This will not only work from Alexa-to-Alexa devices, but also to any landline or mobile number as well. There’s no charge for using the feature and your friends will still see your name and contact info when you call.
From our testing, there seems to be an odd difference in quality between the quality of voice and video calls.
During voice calls, we found that words are regularly cut off by the Amazon Echo, and the sound quality isn’t fantastic for either party. It’s not the kind of thing you’d want to use as a substitute for a house phone, for example, and probably the last thing you’d ever want to make important business calls with.
Sometime down the road it’s possible that better services will come to the Echo – Skype, perhaps, or Google Hangouts. But for now, voice calling still leaves a lot to be desired.
Amazon Prime Music and Amazon Video integration
- Music playback is good, and lyrics are a nice touch when they’re available
- Video playback through Amazon Prime Video is OK…
- …but browsing it is a pain
- The device also badly needs more video services
This is where things start getting fun. Amazon has been busy ramped up its paid-for Prime Music service so that it competes (in song number at least) to the might of Spotify and Apple Music. It also offers some lovely flourishes that work brilliantly with the Amazon Echo Show.
One of these is the ability to have song lyrics appear on the screen. And it’s great. Instead of just showing the artwork of the album or song you are listening too, the addition of lyrics draws you to the Echo Show and makes nice use of the screen. Granted, the lyrics aren’t available for every song but it’s nice that they are included at all.
Amazon hasn’t gone all the way with a bouncing ball over the lyrics yet but it’s definitely this type of functionality that will add to using the Amazon Show and the screen more.
Given that the main USP of the Amazon Echo is the screen, it’s a shame that Amazon has kept falling out with YouTube and hasn’t struck deals with many more services to provide video on the device. Its screen and build should make the Amazon Show an iPad competitor that can (literally) stand on its own, but for some reason that just isn’t the case.
But there is Amazon Video integration and it’s half decent. The half that’s decent is how easy it is to load up. Say “Alexa, play Red Oaks” on Amazon Video and it will get the series up no problem. In our case we were on episode 5 and it had no trouble picking up where we left off.
All good so far, but the half that isn’t so decent is the ability to just browse Amazon Video. Say, “Show me Amazon Video” and you get a limited selection of things from Amazon Video that you can scroll through. Some are paid for and some are included with Prime. It doesn’t really allow you to delve in deeper, and that’s a shame.
For it to work, you need to know what you want to watch and leave the browsing for the phone or tablet version.
When we tackled the original Amazon review, it was obvious that we treated Alexa like a second-class citizen. We might’ve referred to it as a cheap parlour trick, and not the kind of thing that would spawn a family of devices and then take over the entire industry with clones and duplicates, all of which are looking for just a small piece of the pie Amazon has carved for itself with its nascent voice platform.
In short, we might’ve been a bit too hasty passing judgment on Alexa.
This time around, we’ve tried to really slow down and weigh the good and the bad – a job that becomes more challenging by the day as Amazon adds and removes functionality at seemingly random intervals. To start, the device had access to YouTube … only to have its access revoked by Google some two months after launch. More recently, the device added the ability to make phone calls to anywhere – similar to the Google Home, which made its announcement a full six months ahead of the Amazon Echo Show.
Features will come and go as time goes on so consider the following a current evaluation of the speaker’s functionality and not an end-all, be-all judgment for how Alexa will perform six-plus months from today – though, we’ll try to continue to add thoughts on new features as they crop up.
Alexa, at this junction, still isn’t what it could be – or even as good as the Google Assistant, its main contender in the smart home space. On good days, Alexa can answer your basic inquiries – things like “what’s the weather like outside” and “what does this word mean” – and it does an admirable job understanding variations of the question. But throw something a bit harder at it, like “Who invented champagne” or “When does Super Mario Odyssey come out”, and Alexa will reply that it doesn’t know the answer or reply with irrelevant info.
It wouldn’t be so frustrating if these were unanswerable questions. If we knew that there was no other AI on the planet that could answer these types of inquiries, we could just sweep this under the rug and forget about it. But we can’t. Because Google Assistant, knows the answer to questions like these and hundreds more that Alexa simply doesn’t. And knowing that there are smarter AIs out there in a similar form factor is frustrating.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll it again: Alexa will keep improving. It’s not impossible for Amazon to add information about champagne or video games tomorrow if it wanted, and that would make some of our complaints moot. But right now, Alexa still isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed – and it likely won’t be for the next six months to a year.
It’s not easy being first. You’re the one who has to explore uncharted territory. You’re the one who has to figure out the complex problems. And, at the end of the day, you’re the one that people are going to criticize when something goes wrong. So, in an effort to be more supportive of the pioneers in technology, the Amazon Echo Show is a smart trendsetter. The original Echo launched a legion of smart speakers and it’s likely that the Show will do the same for touchscreen-equipped hardware.
But the Show doesn’t win points on innovation alone – at its best, it is a helpful assistant for the kitchen. Alexa is a fantastic help when looking up recipes or calling up films to pass the time while slaving over the stove, and has basic answers to the most common questions.
It’s a great music streaming device that can now rival Sonos systems thanks to multi-room audio support and groups, and it does have unlimited calling … even if it’s not the best sound quality.
In so many ways, the Amazon Echo Show is ahead of its time.
It has a neat video calling feature, but so far limited ways to use it. It has a whole new way to display information and yet, most of the time, it uses it in mundane ways like showing the lyrics for a song. It’s still one of the most well-connected smart speakers on the market – but using third-party apps isn’t a consistent experience, only adding to the frustration.
While some things have definitely improved since the original Amazon Echo – namely the speaker quality and addition of the touchscreen – it’s still within arm’s length of where we started. And that in and of itself is frustrating.
At $229/£199 (Australian price TBA), the Amazon Echo Show is a competent home helper. The addition of the screen is unique, and helps separate the Show from the crowd. Like the 5MP camera, the Show hasn’t quite made the most of the touchscreen, but that can – and likely will – change down the road.
The Echo Show, like the Echo before it, is more of a fun ancillary device more than it is a true necessity. It adds value by combining devices you already have and ones you could buy at a lower price elsewhere – just look at the Amazon Echo Dot, for example. But all-together the Show is a marked improvement on the original Echo, and one that deserves a spot on the kitchen counter, if for no other reason as a gateway to the long-promised smart home.
The Amazon Echo Show launched in the US in June 2017, and will come to the UK starting on November 16.