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Commentary Smart Home

There's something the Amazon Echo Show still isn't showing us

Commentary: Amazon's smart displays lack an obvious feature found on each and every Google Assistant smart display, and it's stopping me from buying in.

The Amazon Echo Show 5.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Smart displays seem to be catching on, and Amazon's newest is the Echo Show 5, a pint-size, voice-activated speaker with a 5.5-inch touchscreen display. It's actually the online megaretailer's fourth smart display -- and, according to CNET's Andrew Gebhart, it's Amazon's best Echo Show yet.

So why why why why why does this thing still not show me the text of my voice command as I'm saying it?

Let me back up a bit. I spent three years writing about Alexa before moving to cover wireless networking. During that stretch, I made sure to pick up some Alexa gadgets of my own in order to get a good sense of the ins and outs of life with Amazon's AI assistant. There's a first-gen Echo in my living room, a second-gen Echo Dot on my bedroom nightstand and an Echo Plus that I use to control Zigbee smart lights in my house (I keep that one in the bathroom so I can listen to news, music and podcasts in the shower each morning).

I like Alexa and think my smart speakers are worth it for the easy access to my Spotify playlists alone. The convenience of voice-activated smart home controls, news and weather updates, kitchen timers and the like makes for gobs and gobs of icing on the cake. I use the things each and every day.

But in spite of the glut of gadgets in my home, I've never bought in with Amazon's Echo Show smart displays. Not gen 1, not gen 2, not the spherical Echo Spot -- and, based on first impressions, not the new Echo Show 5, either.

Sure, I've been mildly tempted. All of them offer the same Alexa features that I like from the regular Echo smart speakers, and they add a visual interface to the experience via the touchscreen, along with a camera for video chats with friends and family. And, at $90, the Echo Show 5 is the most affordable one yet -- about 60% less expensive than the full-size, second-gen Echo Show, and $10 less than even the second-gen Echo, which doesn't have a touchscreen at all.

Google Assistant smart displays like this one from Lenovo will show you what the Google Assistant thinks you're saying as you're saying it. Echo Show smart displays still don't.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Still, I'm holding out -- and not (just) because I arguably have too many Echo devices in my home already. It's because, frankly, the Google Assistant smart displays that I've played with feel like better devices to me. I don't like the idea of compromising, and I'm not ready to switch my smart home setup from Amazon to Google. So I'm sitting pat.

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Now, to be clear, all of these smart displays do the same basic things -- but more often than not, Google Assistant displays from names like Nest and Lenovo do a better job with the little things. A few examples come to mind, but the lack of on-screen text when I'm giving a command always bugged me the most.

Every Google Assistant-powered smart display that we've tested already does this (and for the record, so does Siri on iPhones and iPads). As you talk, the display shows you the text of your question or command in real time. It's surprisingly handy -- if the assistant mishears you, you'll see the error right away and can blurt out a quick "cancel" or "never mind" to abort the command and start over.

When the Echo Show mishears you, there's no way of knowing it's confused until you've waited a few seconds for it to think about how to respond, and then listened to it offer either the wrong response or a tidy "I'm not sure how to help with that." From my experience, you'll sigh a little sigh at that point, then try again, with a lingering sense of stupidity for talking to a hunk of plastic in the first place. That's the last thing Amazon should want its users to experience.

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It's a tiny thing, I admit, but it's one that makes the Google smart displays feel superior to Amazon's. Displaying the text of your command as the assistant understands it helps mitigate those occasional misfires -- and it makes excellent use of the screen, which is, you know, sort of the whole point of these things.

Another key bit of nuance: Seeing the words that commonly cause your assistant to trip up can help you refine the way you talk to it. 

What's most odd is that the Echo Show 5 is Amazon's second smart display to hit the market since Google's smart displays began to launch last year. Amazon's oversight should have been obvious at that point. Given that -- and given the way Amazon and Google have labored to match each other's features in the smart-assistant space -- I find it surprising that Alexa still cedes the advantage here.

But it does -- and as a result, Amazon's new smart display feels like a less well-thought out version of the Nest Hub. That has me content to stick with the Echo Dot I've already got, along with the old-fashioned alarm clock that sits next to it on the nightstand. Maybe a smart display replaces both of them at some point in the future, but Amazon hasn't taken enough strides to guarantee that it'll be an Echo device.