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Editor's note, Sept. 20, 2018: Amazon introduced a new Echo Show with a larger screen and direct integration with Amazon's Fire TV streaming service. It ships on Oct. 11.
Editor's note, Oct. 26, 2017: Since introducing the Show in June 2017, Amazon has evolved its lineup of Echo smart speakers, refreshing some older models and continuing to expand Alexa's skills, support new third-party integrations and release special features like free domestic calling. Though the competition has stiffened, neither the Google Home Max nor the forthcoming Apple HomePod have a display, leaving this experimental ground wholly to Amazon -- for now. In fact, Amazon's own Echo Spot is the Show's closest competitor, combining elements of the Dot with the Show's visual capabilities. Here's everything you need to know about the Amazon Echo and Alexa.
The original Amazon Echo Show review, originally published in June 2017, follows below.
"Alexa, what can you show me?"
That's the first thing I asked the touchscreen-equipped Amazon Echo Show, the online retail giant's newest and, at $230 or £200, most expensive Alexa gadget. "There's a lot," Alexa exclaimed, inasmuch as a mostly monotone AI assistant can exclaim anything.
She can show movie trailers, she went on to tell me. She can show the weather, or the items on a to-do list. She can show the lyrics as she streams music. She can show your options as you shop for stuff on Amazon. She can show YouTube videos and movies from Amazon Prime Video. She can show you pictures of your loved ones, or connect you with them directly via video chat. All you have to do is ask.
All of that comes in addition to Alexa's existing capabilities for things like voice-activated alarms, timers, traffic, fact checking, bad jokes and smart home controls, not to mention the thousands of third-party "skills" that each let her do something new once you enable them. She's always been a likable over-achiever, and the Echo Show doesn't change that.
But how much does the Echo Show build upon it? If you're already happy with Skype or FaceTime, then video chat alone might not be enough. Third party skills might help, as they certainly did with the original Echo smart speaker, but Amazon needs to lead the charge -- and in a lot of cases during my time with the Echo Show, the touchscreen didn't add anything to the Alexa experience.
The Echo Show has an awful lot of potential, and with slightly better sound than the touchscreen-free Echo, it assumes its place as the fanciest Alexa gadget yet. Still, its ultimate success will largely depend on what outside developers -- and Amazon itself -- choose to do with it as the software library matures. In other words, there's room for the Echo Show to grow, but unless you're dying to try those voice-activated video calls, waiting for Amazon to show us more before buying in seems like the best bet.
The big, central question with the Echo Show is whether or not the new touchscreen really adds anything to the Alexa experience. The answer depends on how you plan to use it.
To me, the biggest draw is hands-free, voice-activated video calls with other Alexa users. To opt in, you'll register your phone number with your Amazon account in the Alexa app. Alexa will then scan the contacts in your phone, and if she sees any contacts with numbers from Amazon's database, she'll add them to the list of people you can ask her to call or message. If that contact has an Echo Show, or if they're answering using the Alexa app on their phone, you can video chat with them, FaceTime-style.
The end result is essentially a private home phone server populated only with people you want to talk to -- no telemarketers, survey takers or bill collectors. It's not a proper phone, so you can't use your Echo Show to call the police or the dry cleaner across town, but it's still an interesting idea at a time when fewer and fewer people are using landlines. This is especially true for fans of FaceTime who enjoy video chatting with friends and family -- I'll bet they'd enjoy the Echo Show's hands-free approach quite a bit.
Many of those FaceTime fans are probably parents and grandparents, and if you've watched any of the Echo Show's promo ads, then you know that Amazon is targeting that demographic pretty aggressively. Sure enough, with its large-sized font and gentle suggestions for Alexa commands on nearly every screen, the Echo Show is Amazon's most senior-friendly Alexa gadget yet.
That brings us right to Alexa's new "Drop In" feature. Enable it, and you'll be able to authorize specific contacts to peep in on your camera feed regardless of whether or not you actually pick up the call. When they do, they'll see a blurred feed for the first 10 seconds, during which you have the option of disabling the camera or rejecting the call outright. You'll also see a notification on screen whenever someone is actively viewing your feed. The feature pairs with a motion sensor in the Echo Show itself that -- again, when authorized -- lets your contacts know when it senses you nearby. Seems a bit creepy, but it also sounds like a pretty sensible way of keeping an eye on an aging relative.
At any rate, targeting older users with a camera-centric feature might make more sense than you'd expect. A recent SafeHome survey on tech-related privacy concerns found that respondents aged 65 and up were less bothered by security cameras than any other category polled, including fitness trackers, TV sets and even antivirus software.
On that front, another of the Echo Show's big draws is support for smart home video cameras that let you check out your camera's feed on the screen with a simple Alexa command.
I tested this out in the CNET Smart Home by enabling the Nest Cam skill in the Alexa app, then asking Alexa to show me the video feed from the CNET Smart Apartment 20 miles across town. It worked perfectly, and makes for a pretty compelling feature if you're security-minded, or if you just want to use the Echo Show as a voice-activated baby monitor. Along with Nest, cameras from big names like Ring, August, Logitech and Netgear Arlo are already supported, and more are certain to follow suit.
Other use cases for that touchscreen are more niche, and less compelling as a result. You can see your options when you ask Alexa to add something to your Amazon shopping cart -- but voice shopping has never been Alexa's most interesting skill, no matter how much Amazon wants it to be. You can see the details of your local forecast when you ask Alexa for a weather update -- but seeing a forecast on a screen just duplicates a feature we already have on our phones.
Video playback on the Echo Show feels a little superfluous, too. Sure, I can imagine scenarios where voice-activated YouTube access makes sense -- say, in the kitchen, where you might want to pull up a recipe video while you're busy chopping onions. For the most part, though, I think a phone or a tablet would suffice.
In the end, the touchscreen's limitations seem to stem from uninspired design on Amazon's part. Some of that design feels downright lazy. For instance, when I told Alexa to "show me pictures of cats," she showed me just a single picture of a cat. When I told her to "show me more," she replied, "I'm not quite sure how to help with that."
The bigger issue to me is that the Echo Show could have been an opportunity for Amazon to flesh out Alexa's personality with clever, stylized visuals accompanying her spoken responses. Instead, we get a bland, barebones display that doesn't do much of anything to bring Alexa to life.
Take smart home control. Like with other Alexa products, you can ask the Echo Show to dim compatible smart lights up and down. When I asked her to set the lights in the CNET Smart Home kitchen to 70 percent, she was happy to oblige -- but the screen didn't change at all. I was expecting to see an animation of a light bulb illuminating, or perhaps a slider on screen dialing up to 70 that I could then touch to make an additional adjustment up or down. Nope, nothing of the sort.
Alexa's kid-friendly collection of terrible jokes is another missed opportunity for the display. She'll still gladly tell you a corny joke, but when she does, the screen won't display anything but the text of her response. Call up an easter egg from her long list of easter egg responses (i.e. "Alexa, may the force be with you"), and she'll add in some monochromatic, nonanimated clipart of fireworks above the text. Yawn.
Perhaps Amazon is just being cautious here and waiting to see which touchscreen-optimized Alexa skills really click with customers before committing to a stylistic direction. The problem? Aside from the smart home camera feeds, only a handful of the more-than-10,000 Alexa skills will actually put the touchscreen to use at the time of Echo Show's launch. Here's all of them:
That list is likely to grow pretty fast, especially for touchscreen-familiar services with existing Alexa skills -- they've already got the voice control part of development done and out of the way. On the other hand, I polled my smart home contacts from Alexa-friendly companies like Philips, Lifx, Lutron, Wink and more -- none of them would confirm that they had a touchscreen-optimized Alexa skill in development.
Amazon could have primed the pump here by developing a couple of showy new touchscreen skills of its own. For my money, the most obvious would have been a karaoke skill that takes advantage of Alexa's new ability to display lyrics as you stream music. Amazon designed no such skill, however, and while I'm certain that some third-party developer ultimately will, it's still another missed opportunity.
As for the product itself, the Echo Show sheds the curves and cylindrical designs of the Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Look camera in favor an angular, blockier build. If you ignore the three buttons up top (volume up, volume down and a mute button that turns Alexa off), it looks a little like a mini rear-projection TV for your kitchen counter.
Reactions to the design were mixed when I polled my colleagues. Some appreciated the sturdy, simple build, but others, including myself, found it to be a bit dated-looking. The 7-inch screen is big enough for the job at hand (and slightly bigger than the screen on an iPhone 7 Plus), but the double bezel around the edges and the bulky body surrounding it both make it feel smaller than it actually is.
My biggest complaint with the design is that you can't adjust the angle of the touchscreen or the camera, which is less than ideal for what's essentially a modern-day video phone. Even something simple, like the adjustable feet you'll find on the bottom of a keyboard would have been nice here -- instead, you're stuck squeezing something underneath to prop it forward or backwards.
The sound quality, on the other hand, was surprisingly strong -- and, to my ear, noticeably better than the Amazon Echo, which has a habit of distorting bass just a bit at high volumes. By comparison, the Echo Show puts out clean, rich bass, thanks in no small part to the pair of Dolby speakers hidden inside. My colleague David Carnoy agreed that the Echo Show is a sonic step forward for Amazon -- though he also pointed out that those Dolby speakers are too close together to provide meaningful stereo sound unless you're unrealistically close to the device. At any rate, it certainly sounds good enough for casual listening, or, heck, even a small-sized house party.
The iPod and the iPhone showed us how an audiocentric gadget can evolve into something exponentially more significant -- and perhaps Amazon is trying to bottle some of that same lightning with the Echo Show. But, new video call functionality aside, the surprisingly uninspired touchscreen feels less like an evolution than a lateral move. For all of the things Alexa showed me, I wish I had seen more of a vision.
That's not to say that Amazon's $230/£200 touchscreen speaker isn't an intriguing device. Far from a swing and a miss, it might just be a hit, if early indications of strong preorder sales are accurate. But unless you think you'd put that video calling feature to regular use, I think it's worth waiting to see what else Amazon and its army of outside developers can show us before you buy in.