Amazon Echo Show review: It's more Echo than Show

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You can ask Alexa to show you the feed from your security camera on the Echo Show's touchscreen.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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.

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Skills from Uber, Starbucks, CNN and others take advantage of the Echo Show's new touchscreen.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Show me more

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:

  • Fandango
  • OpenTable
  • CNN
  • AllRecipes
  • Bloomberg
  • Capital One
  • Starbucks
  • CNBC
  • Uber

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.

The Echo Show's angular design is a little bit bulky.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

New look, new sound

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.

There's no way to adjust the viewing angle of the touchscreen or camera.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Seen enough?

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.

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