Amazon Echo Show (2nd Gen) review: Bigger sound and better looks

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.

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In the second generation, Amazon put all the speaker hardware in the back of the Echo Show, covered by a fabric backing.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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.

Sous chef smarts

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.

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Recipes with SideChef on the Echo Show provide step-by-step guidance with illustrations and videos.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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.

OK, but what about YouTube?

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.

Pretty, but not so practical

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.

Forthcoming features

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. 

The verdict

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.

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