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Amazon Echo Show 8 (2nd-gen) review: Great upgrades for video callers, good updates for everyone else

Frequent users of Alexa's video call and Drop In features stand to benefit the most from Amazon's new smart display, but those aren't the only improvements worth looking at.

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Amazon's latest Echo Show 8 looks almost identical to its predecessor, except now it boasts a light-adjusting screen to improve image quality.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Amazon's latest midsized Alexa-powered smart screen, the updated $130 Echo Show 8, has finally arrived (just in time for Prime Day, no less) but I might not have even recognized it as the new one based on looks alone. For this iterative update, Amazon eschewed any noticeable external design changes and focused instead on a few key internal upgrades -- namely, a more powerful eight-core processor and a 13-megapixel camera to replace the previous model's wimpy little 1-megapixel lens. 

8.5

Amazon Echo Show 8 (2nd gen)

Like

  • Hugely improved camera
  • Pan and zoom to center video call subject
  • Person detection can trigger automations
  • Loved ones can share photos to home screen

Don't Like

  • Adaptive display is middling
  • Physical design not updated
  • Best new features only benefit video calls

I'm OK with that -- just those two spec bumps allow for the device's headlining new feature -- its ability to keep the subject of a video call centered, even as they move around inside the frame, using digital pan and zoom. This isn't the first smart device to boast such a feature -- Facebook's Portal and Google's Nest Hub Max had it first -- but it's still a welcome improvement on an Amazon device.

My personal favorite new feature is the Echo Show 8's ability to detect when people enter or exit the room -- then fire off Alexa routines accordingly. I'll dig into how person detection can both level-up your other smart home devices and potentially save you some money in a bit.

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I'll also delve into all the other fun new features -- like the adaptive display that adjusts to ambient lighting conditions, the new shared home screen that lets loved ones add photos, plus the animated visual and audio reactions and augmented reality backgrounds coming later this summer, just to name a few.

First, let's take a look at that headliner.

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The Echo Show 8's new 13-megapixel camera will pan and zoom on a squirmy subject to keep them front and center (as seen on a first-gen Show 8).

Dale Smith/CNET

Video calling is the new Echo Show 8's main attraction

The real question whenever any smart home gadget gets an update is this: Who is the upgraded device really for? In the case of Amazon's Echo Show 8, the answer is about as clear as the new 13-megapixel images captured by its upgraded webcam: people who do a lot of video calling.

That includes people like me who use Alexa's Drop In feature to regularly connect with others in a different room of the same house.

Whether calling someone outside the house or in it, the massively improved camera translates into a dramatically better image quality for the person on the other end of the line. For those who often talk to especially antsy callers -- young children, busybodies -- the Echo Show 8's new pan and zoom function offers a substantial improvement in video call quality.

What, then, if you aren't a frequent video caller (or you are, but on a different platform)? What does the new Echo Show 8 have to offer?

Echo Show 8 2nd gen during thunderstorm

While testing out the new Echo Show 8, a thunderstorm rolled in, offering the perfect opportunity to see the device's new adaptive display in action.

Dale Smith/CNET

The new ambient light sensor is good but not great 

A while back, one of the innovations Google introduced to the smart display category was a sensor that adjusts the screen brightness and color temperature of Google's similarly midsized Nest Hub smart display to match the room's ambient light. On the Google Nest display, photos pop in a way Amazon struggles to mimic with the new Echo Show 8.

This isn't a huge surprise -- Amazon's latest-gen Echo Show 10 (you know, the one that spins around in circles) was the first Amazon smart screen to include adaptive display technology when it was introduced earlier this year and it was underwhelming then.

Don't get me wrong -- images on both the Show 10 and the new Show 8 look better than those rendered on their nonadaptive predecessors. The new adaptive screens look good -- better -- just not quite as good as the Nest Hub or the Nest Hub Max.

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The new Echo Show 8 can trigger an Alexa routine when it detects people in the room.

Amazon

Person detection could save you bandwidth, table space and money

In terms of the number of smart home gadgets you're willing to scatter around your house, less is almost always more. That's why my ears perked up when Amazon announced last month that the new Echo Show 8 would be able to trigger Alexa routines based on whether or not it detected people in the room.

A smart display that's also a motion sensor lets you enjoy all the benefits of motion detection -- automated lighting, intruder alerts -- without the additional drag on your router's bandwidth, the used-up space on a table or wall or the added expense of yet another gadget. Win-win-win.

Older-gen Echo Shows also get shared home screen and video reaction features

The new shared home screen that lets trusted loved ones add photos to your Echo Show 8 display is fantastic, although it's not restricted to just the latest generation of devices. That's a good thing! It's silly when device makers deprive owners of older gadgets from enjoying new features just to give them a reason to upgrade. Bravo to Amazon for letting everyone enjoy this feature.

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Soon, you'll be able to add animated visual and audio reactions -- like animated hearts -- to video calls on any generation of Amazon's Echo Show 8.

Amazon

Same goes for the forthcoming visual and audio reactions and augmented reality backgrounds on video calls -- older devices are allowed play, too, but I can't really comment on quality until I see those features in action.

That said, if you're interested in setting up a shared home screen on your device (or someone else's), or you'd like to learn more about the video features coming later this summer, check out our in-depth guide to those new features and more.

Final verdict: Is it worth upgrading to the new Echo Show 8?

Back to the real question at the heart of every review -- is this device worth your hard-earned dollars and cents? It always depends on the individual and what they're going to use the device for, but in the case of the Echo Show 8 the answer is "yeah" more often than "nah."

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The first-gen Echo Show 8 might be had for a song, come Amazon Prime Day on June 21 and 22, so if you don't need all the updated bells and whistles, you may want to hang tight until then.

Chris Monroe/CNET

If you make or take a lot of video calls, it's very much worth it -- although it would almost be more worth it to give an upgraded Echo Show 8 to the people you call with most often, since the better camera benefits the other caller the most.

If you're a smart home hobbyist and you've always wanted to automate your house with motion sensors -- but balk at the $40 or so price tag you usually find -- at the very least, you can deduct that cost from the price of the Echo Show 8 when deciding whether to buy it.

For casual users -- folks who just want a smart screen to occasionally glance up at the weather forecast, display photos of loved ones and play music from time to time -- now's the best time to start watching Amazon Warehouse Deals for drastic discounts on the first-gen Echo Show 8, especially (and I can't stress this enough) since Amazon Prime Day will be here June 21 and 22, when any available inventory is likely to be at the lowest price you'll see all year. There's a good chance the new Show 8 will see a price reduction too, so maybe you'll be able to take your pick.