I have a new friend. Its name is Amazon Echo Show. Its always staring back and me, waiting for me to say something. Most of the time, this is fine. Sometimes, though, I realize Ive crossed a divide, the line between life with a faceless digital assistant that I can ignore or put in my pocket and one inside a listening, talking box with an unblinking eye.
Amazons first smart-home product, the cylindrical and relatively nondescript Amazon Echo has been in my home for more than two years. We often quiz its built-in digital assistant, Alexa, at the dinner table, marveling at its enervating mix of smarts of obtuseness. Alexa knows what it knows and thats about it. Amazon is constantly updating the cloud-based systems intelligence, and partners are always adding skills to the open platform, but many are only useful if you have that partner’s app or device.
Besides the shape, the most obvious difference between the original Echo cylinder and the new Amazon Echo Show ($229.99) is the addition of a 7-inch touchscreen. The display, however, has, fundamentally altered my relationship with Alexa.
Dont confuse the Echo Show screen with a tablet.
This, Im guessing, is by design. Amazon Echo is arguably the most successful digital home device on the market, but, even with a voice, it lacks personality and there are limits to the insight a voice can offer.
Amazon Echo Show is always on, and by on, I mean engaging you with information. The home screen displays the time and a rotating carousel of news and offers to help you discover more about Alexas deep well of capabilities.
Dont confuse the Echo Show screen with a tablet. Amazon didnt cram one of its Fire tablets inside a box. There are no apps here, and touch is a convenience youll use mostly as a last resort.
The design of the roughly 7 inches tall by 7 inches wide by 3 inches deep, mostly plastic device is not what youd call inspiring. The Echo Show has a flat, rectangular face, with a large speaker grill right below the screen and a 5-megapixel camera right above it. The top, which features mute and volume buttons and a microphone array, slopes down toward the back, and the left and right sides squeeze in so the back panel is considerably smaller than the front. Theres a single port on the back, near the bottom, for power. On the bottom is a rubber base, likely there to dampen vibration from the audio. Overall, the Echo Show reminds me of a big, black block of cheese: chunky and not totally unappealing.
To be fair, the design is there in service of the screen. Everything else is intended to fade into the background while you focus on that display, just waiting for you to ask something.
Amazon should have called the device Show and Tell because its good marriage of visual and spoken information.
Setup is unremarkable and easy, and its also when youll touch the screen the most: You need to enter your Wi-Fi information as well as your Amazon account ID and password. With that done, the Echo Show visually walks you through some of the devices capability highlights.
May I call you ‘Alexa?’
As with most digital assistants, your relationship with Amazon Echo Show is a formal one; every interaction begins with you addressing the assistant by name: Alexa. Like other Echo devices, the Shows microphone array (there are eight individual mics in all) is always listening for that magic wake word (which you can change), which means it must hear everything you say before it. While that might give you pause, its worth acknowledging that Echo Show and all other Echo devices never send anything you say before Alexa to Amazon servers.
The only alternative to an always-listening device is to use a button to physically activate Alexa, much like the way Apples Siri used to rely on the iPhone home button in older models. Of course, you can also set Siri to work in hands-free mode so it constantly listens for Hey, Siri. If you want the Echo Show to stop listening, you just hit the mute button. The button turns red and the on-screen light bar, which is blue when Alexa is listening, turns red, too.
Once you say (or whisper the hearing is that good) Alexa, though, a world of opportunity, information, and connection opens to you. The most notable of which is video calling.
Obviously, Amazon didnt invent the concept and is instead just piggybacking on consumer awareness built like by Microsofts Skype, Google Hangouts (Now Duo) and Apple FaceTime.
Echo Show extends the idea by pulling video chat off the desktop, tablet, or smartphone and putting it on your countertop, in your bedroom or on the credenza. While there are myriad things to try with Echo show, video calling was my very first stop.
Like so many other things Amazon Echo Show can do, making calls starts with the Alexa app on your smartphone. Its there you identify yourself and give Alexa and the Echo Show access to your contacts. Once thats done, you can say, Alexa, call Ray Wong.
Mashable Senior Tech Correspondent Ray Wong has our second test Echo Show, and hes in my contacts.
Because Alexa uses my existing contact database, itll try to reach my contacts wherever they are. This is a big deal and may be the primary appeal of Echo Show for many people. Imagine buying this for your tech-phobic uncle, aunt or grandparents. They dont have to know how to use it. If someone calls from the Alexa app on their phone (a feature not yet enabled on our test units), the Echo Show owner will see on screen the callers name in a large font and a large green button to pick up and a red one to ignore.
The first time I called Ray, he was waiting in front of his Echo Show and picked up immediately.
In the first few seconds, the image quality was blocky, but it soon resolved itself and the video looked fine. I could see what my video looked like in a small picture-in-picture video in the upper right-hand corner. Sadly, I could not drag and drop this window to a preferred location on screen. I could, though, choose to hide my video.
The audio quality was just okay. Everyone sounded a little flat and hollow. Ive heard crisper video call connections.
The second time I called Ray, he was at the movies and had to ignore his ringing phone. I was pleased to see that making and receiving calls on the platform doesnt mean that everyone needs to own an Echo Show.
Its also easy to send voice messages through the Echo show. As with video calls, you just tell Alexa who you want to message, record your voice (there was no option to record a video message), and send it.
So much to do and see
Amazon Echo Show is so much more than just a video calling device. Alexa is a passport to a dizzying array of information, skills and, with the 7-inch screen, visual entertainment.
If youre an Amazon Prime member and I dont see much reason to own an Echo device if youre not virtually every feature available to you through that service is also accessible through the Echo Show.
With the 7-inch screen, Alexa becomes a passport to visual entertainment.
The device is also a good digital photo frame if you store your images with Amazon (unlimited with a Prime account). You can ask Alexa to “show a slideshow” of your photos and the display will just keep flipping through them. You can also choose any image to save as your Echo Show home screen background.
You can also say, Alexa, Play Music and it will suggest a playlist and access either the music available through your purchased library and the Amazon Prime membership or, if your pay for an Amazon Music subscription, let you stream from the millions of songs stored there.
Im a Prime member but do not pay extra for Amazon Music. I do, however, have a Sirius XM Satellite Radio account. In the Alexa App, I connected my Sirius XM account to the Alexa app and now I can ask the Show to play music from one of the many Sirius channels, provided I know the exact name otherwise, Alexa cant help me.
While audiophiles will no doubt find much to criticize in the audio, I was generally pleased with the quality and volume, which should have no trouble filling a small room.
Songs played from Amazon Prime, by the way, are accompanied by scrolling lyrics, which are readable from across the room. If youre planning a night of karaoke, you may have your answer right here.
I can also ask the Echo Show to play movies from my Amazon Prime Library. I watched bits of Iron Man and even The Wizard of Oz. If I wasnt specific enough in my request, the Echo Show appeared to make a random video choice.
When I asked for a list of YouTube cat videos, Alexa queued up a bunch of popular ones. Each one had a number. On the Echo Show, Alexa often presents a list of choices by number. Once I told Alexa which one I wanted to watch, the show proceeded to play one after another until I said, Alexa, stop. I could skip to the next cat video by saying, Alexa, play next one. If youre concerned about the kids playing objectionable videos, Alexa defaults to showing only a restricted list of YouTube videos. You can remove that filter in the Alexa app. At any time, I can say “Alexa, Home,” and the Echo Show returns to the home screen.
Some features of Fire TV, Amazon’s video streaming hardware, are on the Echo Show, including the ability to rewind video in 20-second bursts. But Echo Show doesnt currently offer IMDb X-Ray details (name actors in a scene and present their bios) on the movies.
As for the quality of all this video, its generally excellent and the audio is much better than I get on video calls. If I have a criticism, its that the somewhat too-reflective a screen can be seriously over-matched by a brightly lit room, especially if the video is dark.
Getting sh… stuff done
Just like the original Echo, the Echo Show and Alexa know the local weather forecast and can deliver a news flash (you can choose your news source in the Alexa app.) It has general knowledge backed up by Wikipedia and now you have a screen that can illustrate Alexas response.
For every spot-on answer, there are still many questions that illicit the I dont know that response.
A centrally located, always-on and visual device can be transformative in the smart home especially if you have a lot of smart devices and can connect them to the Echo Show via an Alexa skill. I could ask the Echo Show to adjust my Nest thermostat and turn on my Rachio sprinkler system to water Zone 1 or 2.
Neither of these actions get much of a visual boost from the Echo Show, but I suspect thats because Nest and Rachio have yet to update their skills to support an Echo display.
In general, the Show can do everything the Echo can do, like check your calendar, set reminders, and ask general interest questions. When a reminder goes off, for example, theres an alarm and the screen displays the contents of the reminder.
Amazons hardware strategy is closely aligned with its efforts to dominate the retail market. A persistent presence in all parts of your home means you always have access to Amazon.com. While the original Echo lets you make Amazon shopping lists, the Echo Show lets you see what youre shopping for. Thinking about buying shoes? Say, Alexa, I want to buy shoes. The Echo Show will display a list of options you can swipe through or, to see more, say, Alexa, show me number three, to see a specific option.
Alexa can be a little over-eager to buy stuff. I mispronounced shoes, and Alexa asked me if I wanted her to buy me a shirt. I quickly said no.
There are limits to what you can do with your voice. After selecting a pair of shoes, I couldn’t use my voice to choose the size. When I said, Alexa, choose a size,” she took me to Pampers diapers shopping options.
Choosing buying options will, generally, require you to touch the screen.
Echo show can also entertain with jokes, Easter eggs, and even a song. Thats right, Alexa sings on the Echo Show. She doesnt sing well, but she sings. Theres another, more persistent Easter Egg-like feature that you might not notice. The blue light bar that pulses when you speak to Alexa is directional. It will pulse in the general direction of your voice.
Theres also a built-in Jeopardy! game, which does include the Jeopardy! theme and Alex Trebeks voice for the intro, but uses only Alexas voice for the questions. Its fun, but also a little disappointing. The questions are presented as simple, if large, text. There’s no Jeopardy! same board in sight. Whats the point of having a screen if youre not going to really leverage it?
There was the usual Alexa weirdness, like Alexa randomly starting to play a video or thinking she heard her name (usually from the TV), and too much I dont know that.
At the end of a long day with the Echo Show, I said, Alexa, turn off your screen. She said, Okay, and the screen went almost entirely blank, except for the time, which shone just bright enough for me to read it at night.
Tomorrow, our conversation would continue.
Amazon Echo Show
Gives Alexa a Face Not a bad entertainment platform Highly extensible Excellent hearing
Call audio quality sub-par Needs to make even greater use of the display Screen is too reflective
The Bottom Line
The Echo Show gives a ‘face’ to the now-familiar Alexa digital assistant, but Amazon and its partners will need to do a lot more to fully untap its benefits.
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