If you’ve ever used a laptop or a smartphone, a touch screen and a camera aren’t exactly groundbreaking technology. And yet, Amazon’s addition of these two features to the Echo Show, the company’s newest Alexa-enabled gadget, takes smart home voice assistants into the next generation. These added features enable a host of new abilities, including reading recipes, watching security cam footage, hosting mini-karaoke parties and engaging in video chats.
At $229, it’s the priciest Echo to date, but still inexpensive enough that you can get Alexa into your kitchen or bedroom, further extending Amazon’s reach into your home.
However, the Echo Show’s camera and Drop-In feature create a real creep factor that will definitely turn off even those who weren’t bothered by Alexa’s always-listening microphones. Fortunately, you can turn Drop-In off. Regardless, the Echo Show is one of the handiest smart home assistants yet.
Design: Functional, not flashy
The Echo Show is edgy, but not in a good way. It has an angular, wedge-shaped design, with a 7-inch screen on top and a speaker grille on the bottom of the front face. While certainly functional, this design isn’t very inspired.
On the top of the Show are three buttons: Farthest to the left is a button to activate and deactivate the Show’s microphone and camera; to the right are volume controls. This seems like an odd arrangement, as I expected the volume buttons to flank the Alexa button.
Display: Colorful but some glare
The Show’s 1024 x 600-pixel display was pleasingly crisp and colorful, at least when viewed head-on. Colors, such as the red dust in the Star Wars: The Last Jedi trailer, were vivid. Contrast, too, was great: In an establishing shot of London at nighttime in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, the city lights were well-defined against the black sky. The one knock I have is that the Show’s glossy surface kicked back a lot of reflections in brighter settings, and blacks started to wash out at wider angles.
Despite the quality of the Show’s display, I couldn’t imagine using it for anything longer than a YouTube video or a video call, unless you have a particular affinity for watching movies on the back of an airplane seat.
Audio Quality: Bringin’ the bass
Audio from the Echo Show’s dual speakers was also very good, on a par with that of the original Echo, and with a generous amount of bass. For example, the bass line really grooved in Weird Al’s “Tacky.” The Show can really crank, too, easily filling my bedroom with sound. While it’s no substitute for a soundbar, the Show is just as good as similarly priced Bluetooth speakers.
I also liked that the Show displays song lyrics, so it can act as an impromptu karaoke machine. However, it doesn’t work for every song: On one particular Belle and Sebastian tune, the Show merely displayed the album cover.
Interface: Pretty flexible
I like that the Show’s interface is designed so that you can interact with it either via the touch screen or just using your voice, which could be very helpful if you’ve got messy hands.
Saying, “Alexa, show me cat videos,” brought up a selection of videos, both free and for rent. I could either use the Show’s touch screen to scroll through the options or pick one using a voice command. A video of birds and squirrels failed to impress my cats.
Owing to its novel interface, the Show constantly displays tips about what you can ask or do with it, which I found more helpful than intrusive (you can turn this feature off, if you like). Swiping down from the top of the screen brings up a menu letting you change the brightness, turn on Do Not Disturb mode and access other settings.
Enhanced Skills: More needed
While there are thousands of third-party skills, the Echo Show is the first Alexa-enabled device with a screen (if you don’t count the Fire TV Edition), so there are not that many skills — 17, as of this writing — that can take advantage of the display. I expect that number to grow quickly.
When I asked Alexa for the weather, she not only read me the forecast, but also displayed icons on the Show depicting expected temperatures and conditions for the next few days.
Skills enhanced for the Echo Show include those for OpenTable, Fandango, Tonight Show, Food Network, Allrecipes, CNN, CNBC, Uber and Jeopardy
I asked Alexa for Italian restaurants near me, and the Echo Show displayed a list of eateries from Yelp, with ratings, distance and prices. I wish I could have delved further to see the menu, though. Selecting a restaurant then showed the address and phone number. I followed up to make a reservation, and Alexa asked to enable the OpenTable app and link my account.
Unless you interact with the information displayed on the screen, it disappears after a minute, and there’s no way to recall it. It would be great if you could either set the time that data lingers or swipe to see your history, as you can do with the Alexa app.
Video Calls: Your personal intercom
One of Alexa’s newest features is the ability to make calls between Alexa-enabled devices, as well as to the Alexa app on your smartphone or tablet. The Show adds video to the mix, which makes it great as an ad-hoc intercom for your house.
A Drop-in feature lets you literally drop in on contacts who have granted you permission; you will immediately begin receiving an audio and video feed from that Echo Show if it detects someone in the room that the device is in. This was one of the first features I disabled. (Amazon recommends using Drop In only with very close family and friends.) Annoyingly, you can’t disable this on the Show itself; you have to go through the Alexa app on your phone.
Video looked pretty good from the Show’s 5-megapixel camera. I could clearly see and hear my wife, though having her turn on a nearby lamp definitely improved the quality of the visuals. She thought I looked pretty good, too.
Shopping: Of course you can buy stuff
With the Echo Show, Amazon has revived the Firefly feature from its much-panned Fire phone, to better effect. Say, “Alexa, scan,” and hold up a bar code to the Show’s camera, and the device will identify the product and give you the option to purchase it.
I can see this being helpful in the kitchen, if, say, you’re running out of milk or cat food. On my first attempt, I scanned a tin of cocoa powder, but the Show brought up the album “Hope and a Future.” A second attempt was successful, giving me the option to purchase the product and see additional details.
You can also search for and order things by voice; it’s just as easy as using the Echo or Dot, and I liked that the item appears on screen. But you need to first enable voice purchasing and one-click ordering in the Alexa app before you can actually buy something.
Cooking with the Show
The Show’s visual- and audio-based interface, as well as its third-party recipe skills, make it a good fit for the kitchen, but some of the features still feel half-baked. I asked the Show for a recipe for pesto; Alexa told me that she found a recipe, but I needed to enable the Allrecipes skill first, which I could do by voice alone.
I was then presented with several options, from a basic pesto recipe to a pesto pizza. After I selected an option, Alexa first read the ingredients (and displayed them on the Show), and then, after I gave my assent, it read off the directions. While the directions were clear, there’s no way to pause Alexa mid-directions, and asking her to repeat them causes her to go all the way back to the beginning, and go through the ingredients.
You can pause YouTube videos via voice control (or by tapping the screen), but after 30 seconds of the video being paused, the Echo Show reverts back to its Home screen, and there’s no way to recall the video from where you left off.
Smart Home Integration: Tailor-made for security cams
As with other Alexa-enabled speakers, on the Show, you can control connected smart home devices. It was a simple affair to dim and brighten my Philips Hue lights via voice, just as I’ve done with my Echo Dot. However, there’s no visual confirmation on the screen; that’s something Philips et al. will have to build into their skills.
Where the Echo Show really shines is in its ability to display video feeds from smart home security cameras. Already, Netgear’s Arlo, Logitech’s Circle 2, the August Doorbell Cam — and even the Petzi Treat Cam — have been integrated with the Echo Show.
Privacy: I have some concerns
While I have a couple of Echo Dots and don’t mind that they’re constantly listening, I was more unnerved by the Echo Show’s camera.
A Do Not Disturb feature dims the screen, changes the background to black and sets the screen to display only the time. You can activate this manually and set it to turn on and off at set times. However, even then, this 7-inch screen is still a bit too bright. If you go into the Display settings, you can turn off Ambient Clock to make the screen go completely dark.
When I went to sleep, I deactivated the Show’s microphone and camera by pressing the button on top of the Show. However, this had the effect of causing the Show to override the Ambient Clock setting, so that the screen remained on. Even at its dimmest setting, it was too bright on my nightstand, so I just turned the Show off for the night. I found that disabling the mic and camera, and then activating Do Not Disturb, was the proper order for turning off the screen without having to turn the Show off completely.
Limited Parental Controls
As anyone with a child and an Echo knows, getting Alexa to do your bidding is a real treat for a kid, and a real annoyance for parents who have to put up with hearing their tot screaming, “Alexa! This will only get worse with the Show, which can now pull up videos.
Within the Show’s Settings, you can restrict access to Prime photos, Movie Trailers and YouTube, which is a good start, but more needs to be done so that Alexa will respond only to certain voices. Kids can order things via voice, too, which is why it’s a good thing to keep voice purchases disabled, or to enable a PIN code, until Amazon beefs up its security.
The Amazon Echo Show is a logical extension of the company’s Alexa-enabled devices, and keeps the Echo a step ahead of Google Home and other smart home speakers in providing a visual interface to complement the voice assistant. While what you can do with the Show’s screen is limited for now, I have no doubt that the options will quickly increase.
I do have real concerns about Amazon’s intrusive Drop-In feature, and I suggest anyone who uses Alexa immediately disable this feature. However, the Echo Show will prove to be a useful device in your kitchen or bedroom.
Credit: Tom’s Guide