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Last year, Amazon brought us the Echo Show, an Alexa-enabled smart speaker with a touchscreen display. My colleague Ry Crist wasn't sure about it. The design was boxy and old-fashioned, and as much as Amazon pushed it as device for making video calls, giving Alexa a touchscreen interface didn't really improve the voice control experience.
Since then, devices like the Google Assistant-powered Lenovo Smart Display and JBL Link View have made a more convincing argument for this new device category (that we're calling "smart displays"). In addition to video chatting and providing general access to Google Assistant, the Lenovo and JBL displays were deft helpers in the kitchen. They benefited from direct integration with YouTube, and they also provided useful smart home device controls.
You can say Amazon lost round one, but the company hasn't given up on the smart display concept. Instead, the online retail and services giant has redoubled its efforts with the second generation Amazon Echo Show. It's a vast improvement on the original Echo Show in aesthetics and audio quality, and it delivers most of what was missing from its predecessor for the same $230 price (£220, AU$349).
Still, parts of the visual Alexa experience feel underwhelming and some seemingly obvious features remain absent. If you're decidedly on team Alexa, this smart display is the one for you. Otherwise, pick up a Google-powered model for better visuals and a more conversational assistant.
The second generation Echo Show is miles ahead of the original, but many of the first generation device's characteristics remain. There's the same 5-megapixel, front-facing camera and Amazon kept an eight-array microphone setup, though the placement of those microphones is distributed just a little differently. Four microphones on the front of the device and four on the top only slightly change the look of the controls. As for better hearing, Alexa heard me the first time with the new Echo Show at distances where I had to repeat the wake word three or four times on the first generation unit.
The power button on the top of the device turns off the microphone and camera just like before, so you can choose privacy when you need it, though there isn't a physical shutter over the camera lens. Physical volume controls also remain at the top of the device, just like the previous model and like other Echo devices.
What's different in nearly every aspect is how the Echo Show looks. The smart display's second generation boasts a 10.1-inch, 720P full HD display. That's a higher display resolution than that of the first gen screen, and it's also 3 inches larger. With the speakers mounted on the back of the new Echo Show, there's no more awful looking front speaker taking up what should be prime touchscreen real estate.
Amazon also ditched the angular, rear projection TV-style shape this time around. Instead, you'll find a rounded back that's covered in a fabric-like material similar to what we've already seen from Apple HomePod and Google Home Max speakers. Like its competitors, it's also available in a dark charcoal or light sandstone color.
The redesign brought much-needed change which makes me a lot more likely to want an Echo Show on display in my own home.
The first thing I noticed while navigating around the Echo Show's settings and screens was the addition of smart home controls from the main drop-down menu, where new icons give you the ability to view and control connected smart home devices, launch multi-device "routines" and set alarms.
You'll find new icons entitled Lights & More, Routines and Alarms. Tap the Lights & More icon and you'll see a list of the smart home devices connected to your Amazon account. Turn them on or off with a tap of the touchscreen or adjust the brightness of your light by sliding a percentage bar left or right. If you ask Alexa to turn on the bedroom lamp, she'll answer you and present touchscreen controls for the light, too. This level of smart home control wasn't there at all in the first Echo Show, and I'm happy to see it here.
The Routines icon takes you to a list of all your pre-established Alexa routines, but you can't set up any new ones from the Echo Show. For that, you'll need your mobile device, and the willingness to put up with a disjointed user experience as you move between the Show and your phone. The Alarm icon opens a landing page for setting alarms. You can add these through the touchscreen interface or with voice commands. Alexa even asked me if I'd like to make my 7 a.m. Wednesday alarm a recurring daily alarm.
Like the first Echo Show, you can ask Alexa to show your the video feed from your smart doorbell or smart cameras. I tested this with two Netgear Arlo cameras and the Ring Doorbell 2 and brought up live feeds quickly and clearly over a 100MBps connection at the CNET Smart Home. Your mileage will vary depending on the strength of your home's Wi-Fi signal.
Not much has changed for video calling or playing music on the new Echo Show. Granted, it's on a bigger, higher resolution screen, but you'll still get scrolling lyrics along with a background image any time you play a song on it. Video calling has the same layout as the last generation.
I should mention that Amazon announced plans to integrate with Skype for voice calling. That feature wasn't live when I tested the device, but it should be a welcome option for anyone opposed to video chatting or who just wants to call a local business to ask a quick question.
What is different about the Echo Show experience is how it sounds. The new speakers come in the form of dual 2-inch, neodymium side-firing drivers and a passive bass radiator, which is evident in the noticeably improved bass levels. During the first audio comparison we filmed, it visibly shook the camera on the default 50 percent volume setting.
To my (admittedly non-audiophile) ear, the second generation Echo Show sounds much fuller, deeper and just plain better than both its predecessor and the Lenovo Smart Display. That's true for video chatting, online content and music streaming. Yes, a Google Home or HomePod will still win out for room-filling, quality sound. But for a smart display the new Echo Show is no slouch.
One big positive of a smart display is its helpfulness in the kitchen. We saw how useful voice assistants with visuals can be when my colleague Andrew Gebhart tested the Lenovo Smart Display. Google's voice experience for recipes simply feels more human-oriented. It's easy to get it to repeat steps, and to pick up where you left off if you switch to another task mid-quiche. The first Echo Show has recipe support, and not much is new in the way Alexa navigates, presents and reads recipes to you from the new model. It's serviceable, but not as good as with Google Assistant. It at least all looks and sounds better on the new screen.
The idea of displaying a recipe on a screen like this is probably one of the most compelling reasons to even consider a smart display and certainly one of the most practical. It's nice to see Amazon recognizing the potential for the Echo Show to help in the kitchen. We've already seen how useful it can be with other voice assistants. For recipes without videos, the experience is nearly identical to the original Echo Show, just on a better display.
When Amazon announced the new Echo Show, it also announced integration with Amazon Meal Kits, mail-order meal packages available through the AmazonFresh online grocery service. You can receive video instruction while preparing a meal kit or with SideChef's library of recipes. The step-by-step recipe guide works on both Amazon Echo Shows and the Echo Spot. I took a walk-through for a recipe for macaroni and cheese. Like the Google-enabled Lenovo smart display, you can ask the assistant to go to the next step, repeat the instructions, list ingredients or set timers. While Alexa can read directions and follow commands like "Alexa, next step" for recipes from Kitchn, All Recipes and SideChef, she only provided visuals for SideChef dishes.
I thought you'd never ask. No, YouTube hasn't magically appeared on Amazon's doorstep with a big, Google-branded bow on it. After Google pulled YouTube support from the original Show after it debuted, its absence here isn't surprising. Amazon put effort into solving this problem by way of a workaround to view YouTube videos.
The new Echo Show comes with two web browsers, Amazon Silk and Firefox. Just like with Amazon's Fire TV streaming service, you can view a mobile version of YouTube's site on either browser. It's not perfect, and you can't search for YouTube videos via voice, but it's better than what the first Echo Show offered for YouTube viewing (i.e. nothing at all). When I did use voice commands to ask Alexa to show me videos, the Echo Show displayed results from Dailymotion and Vimeo in an easy to navigate layout. If well-integrated YouTube support is important to you, a Google Assistant smart display is the obvious alternative. You can also control your Fire TV from the Echo Show with voice commands like, "Alexa open Netflix" and watch Prime Video on the Echo Show itself.
Speaking of Fire TV, the Echo Show will integrate with Fire TV Recast to put live TV on the Echo Show as a recording when that service debuts Nov. 14. Fire TV Recast is a DVR setup for your smart display. Not everyone will value watching real TV on a smart display, but if nothing else, Amazon is taking the logical step of marrying its video services to its video-capable hardware.
As much of an improvement that the new Echo Show is, there were still moments in my testing when it left me feeling underwhelmed. I just wanted more out of the visuals. Commute information or driving directions are a good example.
Ask Alexa where the nearest coffee shop is, and you'll see information like business hours, an address and a phone number. Ask Google Assistant on the Lenovo Smart Display the same question, and you'll get a helpful map that pinpoints the location. Ask Google how you get there, and you'll see Google maps with live traffic information, which you can then send to your phone to bring with you in the car. Ask Alexa for directions and she simply responds by telling you how long it will take to get there and via what major roads. No maps or visuals beyond a clip-art style illustration of cars on a road.
Amazon doesn't make use of maps for commuting or directions and they absolutely could with Bing. Yes, I know how to get to work, but if there is a traffic jam on the highway, I'd like to see that red strip of interstate.
There are several features of the new Echo Show that Amazon announced but hasn't launched yet, which means I wasn't able to test them. When you pull up a feed from a smart home camera or a video doorbell like Ring, you can watch the video stream, but two-way audio support isn't live yet. The Skype integration, NBC and Hulu integrations were also not rolled out. I will test these out as soon as they are available, so stay tuned for an updated review.
Smart displays are here to stay, and they're getting better. They can be truly helpful when it comes to video chatting, cooking, monitoring video cameras and controlling smart home devices, not to mention the overall utility and novelty that comes with also working as smart speakers. Amazon made a real effort to address the issues in the first Echo Show. With a much better design, bigger touchscreen and improved sound quality, it's a better device that its predecessor.
It's prettier to look at, easier to use due to a bigger display and it sounds much better. If your smart home already works with Alexa, this smart display will add to your experience.
The problem is Google. Google Assistant-enabled smart displays like the ones from Lenovo and JBL (and rumored forthcoming displays from Google itself) have the edge when it comes to being conversational and presenting helpful visuals. Amazon's improvements just aren't enough to compete with the Google displays that add truly helpful extras like real-time traffic and a native YouTube experience. For nearly the same money (there's a $20 different between the Alexa and Google versions), I'd go for a Google-enabled smart display every time, or at least until the next surprise Amazon event.