Every morning, as I survey the landscape of jeans and blue gingham shirts in my dresser, I ask Alexa about the weather. One day last week, as my virtual assistant chirped out of Amazon’s new Echo Show smart speaker, I noticed the voice sounded muffled. I walked into the kitchen and found the Show’s 7-inch screen facing the wall. Weird. I asked Anna, my fiancée, if she’d moved it. “Yeah,” she said, between yoga poses on our living room floor. “It has a camera, it’s creepy. I didn’t want it watching me.”
Amazon Echo Show
Solid screen, microphone, and speakers. Alexa’s way more useful when it can show you stuff. This is the kitchen TV you’ve been missing.
For an object in your home, Amazon sure built an ugly gadget. A lot of the screen’s true usefulness is up to developers. Alexa is great, but nowhere near perfect yet.
Amazon didn’t build the $230 Echo Show, which augments the voice-powered Echo speaker with a camera and a touchscreen, for the privacy-conscious. It wants you embrace a gadget that can not only hear, but see. In exchange, you get a far more useful version of Alexa that can play movies, host video chats, and keep watch over your front door. It can offer more information, sometimes before you even ask. Creepy? Definitely. But also one of the best examples of the always listening, endlessly personalized world quickly coming for everyone. For better and for worse.
For a device meant to be prominently displayed in your home, the Show offers zero personality or flair. The screen and speaker wrapped in a chunky trapezoid of plastic have more in common with the cathode-ray TVs your parents grew up with than any gadget from this decade. It’s as if Amazon’s design team channeled words like “inoffensive” or “invisible” or “don’t make it look like anything and maybe people won’t even see it.”
Nothing about the design feels considered. Not even the shape, which is too wide to nestle in a corner and too deep to press flat against a wall. Or the angle of the screen, which makes it awkward to see and touch from above. Or the huge, unsightly power brick for charging. But looks matter. The entire point of the Show has the screen. You’re supposed to look at it. Often.
Luckily, Amazon did well by the technology inside the Show. The responsive, bright touchscreen does everything it should, and the microphone array picks up my voice from two rooms away. Where the original Echo sounds muddy and quiet, the Show’s speaker easily fills a room. It’s no Sonos, but it’s much closer. I wish the Show offered a line-out like the Echo Dot, but at least this one’s good enough to stand on its own. Doubling as a standard Bluetooth speaker makes the Show worth the space in your living room.
Show and Tell
If you want, you can use the Show just like you use an Echo: Ask questions, hear answers, the end. But the Show’s screen changes a few things. For one, it lets Alexa answer questions with more than a few words or sentences. Rather than read the entire week’s forecast, Alexa can deliver today’s weather and throw the next five days on the screen. No need to keep asking about a recipe; just glance at the Show to preview the next step. I really like having song lyrics scroll by as I listen to music, watching videos in my news briefings, and seeing a picture of the person I just asked Alexa about. I also like the voice-enabled YouTube search, which lets me watch movie trailers and music videos without lifting a finger. And best of all, the Show connects to Amazon’s Prime Video service, so I can watch shows while I wait for the oven to pre-heat. Netflix, Hulu, and others aren’t available yet, but I expect that to change fast.
Sure, Alexa screws up sometimes. When I asked for the most popular Beatles song ever, I got “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby. “Alexa, play podcasts” never resulted in podcasts. But those hiccups follow Alexa across all devices, and Alexa’s software remains far from finished. Once you learn the differences between “show me” and “find” and “search for,” Alexa handles most things well.
An Alexa-controlled camera could be the most powerful thing about the Echo Show. The most frightening, too—this is a whole level beyond the always-listening aspect that (rightly) worries people. Amazon built an entire chat service around this gadget, which lets you call, text, or video chat with anyone who owns an Echo or uses the Alexa app. (Think of it less like a WhatsApp competitor and more like a replacement for the family group chat.) I haven’t been able to use the feature in more than a tightly controlled demo, but it seems to work well. Not that I imagine using it very often. I like Google’s implementation better, because it allows you to make actual phone calls from what amounts to the best long-range speakerphone ever. And I’ll definitely never use Amazon’s Drop In feature, which lets you appear unannounced on someone’s Echo Show, “Here’s Johnny!” style. I can’t imagine that ever being anything but weird.
Still, I find the Show’s potential fascinating. The Alexa ecosystem has grown big enough that I suspect Netflix and Hulu will soon make video skills, most smart-home manufacturers will support the new device, and games and apps will pop up all over the place. Alexa’s voice recognition works well enough to make all of this work, and developers can access the camera, the screen, the microphone, and the speaker. The Echo Show is basically an always-on, plugged-in smartphone, which could become hugely powerful.
Right now, it’s simply an Echo with a screen, giving Alexa more to do and more ways to be useful. The Show does have one distinct advantage, though: At the very least, it’s just an Echo. With the full benefit of two years of developer input and Amazon improvement. And a much, much better speaker. Not a bad place to start.
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