Does Alexa really need a screen? We put our Amazon Echo Show review unit through its paces to find out.
After last year’s Connections Conference, we wondered aloud if voice control is the future of smart-home control. The answer seemed to be “Yes, but…” We don’t need our Amazon Echo or Google Home to show us a picture of the light we’re turning off, but as things become ever more complex in our increasingly autonomous homes, screens will still have a role — as might gesture control, proximity sensors, and so on.
Enter the Echo Show, a digital assistant with a 7-inch touchscreen that can show you movie trailers, calendar, news alerts, Yelp ratings, and pictures of cats (if you ask the right way). We got our hands (and eyeballs) on the Echo Show to see if the screen opens up a whole new dimension to the voice assistant.
Saying and seeing Alexa
The Amazon Echo Show looks a bit like something you might find in a business conference room. It’s a squat little box dominated by a big screen and speakers. From head on, it might look like a tablet, but from the side, you can see its rounded triangular bottom jutting out. The 2.5-pound Show has a 5-megapixel camera, dual 2-inch stereo speakers, an Intel Atom x5-Z8350 processor, and dual-band Wi-Fi support for 2.4 and 5GHz Wi-Fi connectivity.
Setup is pretty quick, especially if you already have another Alexa device. When you plug it in, Alexa says hello and tells you it’s ready for setup. On the device, you connect to your Wi-Fi network, using the on-screen keyboard to type in your password. Then you’ll have to key in the email address and password for your Amazon account. You’ll confirm your time zone, watch an intro video, and then be greeted with the home screen. There might a picture of a leaf close up or some other desktop wallpaper in the background. Up in the left-hand corner, you’ll see the local time and temperature. It will also constantly show you news headlines or suggestions for what you can ask. Whenever you want to get back to the screen, you just say, “Alexa, go home.”
At the bottom of the screen, there’s a light bar that turns blue when Alexa is listening, and glows red when the microphone and camera are offline. You can turn these off with a button at the top of the screen. There are also volume buttons on the top. We’re waiting for more personalization options for the display, like the ability to always display your calendar instead of headlines, or being able to change the font and so forth.
We’re waiting to be able to personalize the display a little more
When you download and open the app, you should be able to see your Amazon Echo Show by tapping the menu button in the top-left corner, selecting settings, and clicking on the device. Here you’ll be able to turn on and off Do Not Disturb mode, as well as schedule times you want this mode enabled. You’ll also put in your address so you get personalized results for restaurants and your commute, and you can change your Wake Word (if your name is Alexa or you want to call your Show “Computer”), and make the screen’s background a personalized picture.
If you have smart-home devices that work with Alexa, you’ll also need the app. Though you can ask Alexa to “discover devices,” you’ll still have to enable the Hue light skill and input your account information. Giving it an edge over voice assistants without screens, the Show can also display feeds from a bunch of smart-home cameras and video doorbells, like Nest, Arlo, Ring, and August.
The Alexa app is also where you’ll set preferences for things like your news briefing — if you’d rather hear from NPR than ESPN, for example — and music services.
Show me the Money for Nothing lyrics
In some ways, the Echo Show’s screen grants you freedom while still acting as a tether. You can be across the room from your Dot and ask it to play some music. The same is obviously true for the Echo Show, but there are some times when you’ll need to be looking at the screen to get the full effect. Take movie times. We asked what was playing this weekend, and Alexa showed a scrollable list of more than 30 movies. She read a couple titles aloud and stopped. Below the list was a written suggestion: “Try ‘Alexa, next.’” When we obeyed, the list shifted to the next few movies, but Alexa didn’t read them aloud. Another time we checked for movies, the suggestion was “Try ‘Alexa, number one.’” The screen changed to show a description of the movie and its IMDb rating, all of which Alexa recited. If you were across the room and paying attention, you might remember Rough Night was number four in the list, so Alexa could still tell you about it, even if you couldn’t see the list.
If you’d rather not leave the house, you can watch Prime movies on the Show’s screen too. It’s maybe not the ideal movie-watching experience, but it’s a nice choice if you don’t have a TV in your kitchen. We watched the latest Game of Thrones trailer via YouTube on the Show, and it got the job done. We saw dragons. You can also ask Alexa to fast forward through a video.
If you have Amazon Music, Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, or TuneIn, you can listen to music on the Show, too. Some songs will even let you sing along with the lyrics. Drake’s Hotline Bling, our go-to karaoke song Blister in the Sun, and Madonna’s Spanish lullaby (La Isla Bonita) all showed us we’ve occasionally been singing the wrong words. Jawbreaker’s Want played sans lyrics. We still had to be careful about phrasing here. “Play Jawbreaker Want” didn’t work. “Play the song Want by Jawbreaker” did, though.
Since the Show is brand new, Alexa’s skills haven’t fully caught up. The integration with cameras and video doorbells aside, there haven’t been a lot of updates to current Alexa skills announced as of yet. It would be great if the Food Network skill let you watch tutorial videos, for example. There’s still YouTube, but it’s not quite perfect. We asked to see a video of how to make scrambled egg and the Show pulled up a single video: Anthony Bourdain’s take on the subject. Granted, we learned a few tips — we’ve definitely been over-beating our eggs — but it wasn’t an outright tutorial. It also auto-played the next video in the series, which was a bit annoying. The Food Network obviously has an opportunity here to curate helpful videos here, so the skill is your go-to when you need to learn how to cut an eggplant.
The trick for watching YouTube videos? Say “Show me …. from YouTube,” and fill in “cat videos,” Game of Thrones trailers, or whatever you want to see in the middle. We learned you have to be a bit precise if you want to see something. Saying “Show me cats” made Alexa tell us about cats instead, while “Show me pictures of cats” did the trick.
Even after experimenting with it, we’re not 100 percent sure how the headline skill works. Alexa will scroll through these stories, and you’ll get a picture of Nancy Pelosi or whomever it’s about in the background. If you want more information, you have to say, “Tell me about Shania Twain.” Saying “What’s the news about Shania Twain” gives your flash briefing instead. We knew there was news about James Comey, but saying, “Alexa, tell me about James Comey” gave us his Wikipedia info instead. Meanwhile, asking “Alexa, tell me about Dracula,” we learned about an upcoming TV show from the Sherlock creators instead of more general info.
In addition to seeing a fuller picture of the weather forecast and your calendar events in big, bold font, there are a few other advantages to the Show’s screen. You can see your reminders and lists, which is much handier than going into the Alexa app. Our favorite is the timer, though. It’s something we use constantly in the kitchen. While it’s not difficult to ask for how much time is left, glancing at the Show gives the answer.
(Almost) face to face
Of course, you can also use the Show to call contacts who also have the device. You’ll have to set this up through the app, and you’ll be able to see which of your friends sprung for one. From the Show, you can ask it to make the call. We tried out the feature with Donny, who works in the Devices and Speech division at Amazon. After telling us we didn’t have a contact named Denny (few do), we were finally connected after a couple tries. It works pretty similarly to Skype or Facetime, so whomever you’re calling will have to answer. The call quality seemed on par with these services. You’ll also be able to make voice calls to people you know who have an Echo or Dot.
Your family member can call in whenever they want, and you don’t get the choice to decline.
The Drop In feature is a bit different. It’s the technology equivalent of the pop-in. Your family member — it’s something you’ll only want to enable for people you know well — can call in whenever they want, and you don’t get the choice to decline. You’ll get a few seconds to compose yourself if someone drops in, as their screen will glaze over while you get an alert. It makes more like a video intercom.
That feature brings us to some privacy issues. Like the Echo, Dot, and so on, you can mute the Show, as well as electronically block the camera. There isn’t a physical shutter, though, unlike the Nucleus intercom. The intercom also has Alexa built in, but it lacks some of the features of the Show. For one thing, Amazon devices have an ESP feature that ensures only the closest Dot or Show will answer if you say Alexa. It works really well, even when your devices are in adjacent rooms with no walls separating them. The Nucleus lacks this feature, and we had trouble getting it to respond to the wake word, especially if it was playing music or news briefings.
The Amazon Echo Show has a one-year warranty.Our Take
Right now, the Echo Show’s on-screen features aren’t show-stoppers. We’re still waiting for a bunch of skills to catch up with the new capabilities. Right now, the Jeopardy! skill just displays the clues as Alexa reads them. Helpful, but there could be more. Still, we can see a lot of potential from our first round of testing.
Are there other alternatives?
The Nucleus is the closest competitor to the Echo Show at the moment. It has Alexa built in and works like a video intercom. It recently dropped its price to $149, but it likely won’t get all the skills that come with the Echo.
Will it last?
Alexa is always improving, but we can’t say if Amazon won’t come up with a newer version in a few years — or the equivalent of a Dot-ified model that’s smaller and cheaper. And who’s to say Google Home won’t have its own screen in a year or so?
Should you buy it?
The Amazon Echo is $180. The Echo Show is $230. For $50, you get some new perks and a lot of potential. If you’ve been thinking of grabbing an Echo for a while, you might as well get something that adds video calling, visual search results, and, in time, much more.