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Amazon Echo Spot review: Alexa's touchscreen misses the sweet spot

The Echo Spot is basically an Echo Dot with a touchscreen -- and the combination is less compelling than you might have guessed.

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Ry Crist
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Ry Crist

Senior Editor / Reviews - Appliances

Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, and home networking.

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8 min read

Gaze into the abyss, and the abyss gazes back. That's what's running through my head on my first night testing the Amazon Echo Spot. I'm lying in bed struggling to fall asleep as I sometimes do, and it's sitting there displaying the time on my nightstand with its camera aimed straight at my face. It isn't recording me -- Amazon says that the Spot only streams the camera's feed during video calls and "drop-ins." If you want, you can disable it entirely with just a few taps.

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7.4

Amazon Echo Spot

The Good

The Echo Spot is a well-made device with a good-looking design, and it's handy for quick, voice-activated video calls. Sound quality was better than we expected, and noticeably better than the Echo Dot's.

The Bad

The Echo Spot doesn't currently support YouTube, nor does it offer many video sources for your flash briefings. The touchscreen adds less than it should to the Alexa experience, and it's too small to be helpful unless you're within a few feet of the device.

The Bottom Line

The Echo Spot is a fine for what it is, but Amazon still hasn't done enough to convince us that Alexa needs a touchscreen at all.

Still, I unplug it in the morning and relocate it to my kitchen. I'm just not there yet.

Read more: The Amazon Echo Show 5 helps Alexa fit on your nightstand

I've always been a bit more self-conscious than I care to admit, so maybe I'm the wrong guy to test out a future where we fill our homes with cloud-connected cameras. Granted, the Spot is much more than just a camera. It's a full-fledged Alexa speaker with a circular, 2.5-inch touchscreen. You could call it the love child of Amazon's most expensive Echo gadget, the touchscreen-equipped Echo Show, and its least expensive Alexa gadget, the pint-sized Echo Dot. At $130, the Echo Spot borrows from both, and splits the difference between them almost perfectly.

The Amazon Echo Spot isn't your ordinary clock radio

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Like the Echo Show, the Echo Spot makes sense if you're planning on taking advantage of those touchscreen-specific uses -- chiefly, making video calls to friends and family, watching news clips in your daily flash briefing or keeping an eye on compatible smart security camera feeds. You also get an added layer of "glanceability" with the clock face and with things like cooking timers, to-do lists and weather reports.

But (again, like with the Show) the Spot's touchscreen doesn't add as much to the Alexa experience as you might think. You'll see album artwork and in some cases lyrics when you play music, and you can stream video from sources such as Prime Video or Twitch -- no YouTube, though. Aside from that, this is still very much a voice-first user interface, which makes the camera and touchscreen more than most people probably need (and if you're like me, more than you actually want). The Spot is a charming and likable gadget, but it isn't a must-buy yet, even for Alexa fans.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Same Alexa, brand-new package

If the Dot is a hockey puck, then the Spot is a softball, albeit one with its front face sliced off. It's a distinct departure from the blocky, angular Echo Show, and it makes for a nice-looking device with a lot of the same visual appeal as the Nest thermostat. I wonder if something wider and a little more oblong would have been a better choice, though -- that 2.5-inch touchscreen feels smaller than it should be, especially when you're watching video on it.

To get started with the Spot, you just plug it in, wait for it to boot up and then enter your Amazon login info on the touchscreen. You'll still want the Alexa app on your phone to fine-tune settings, contacts and groups of devices, but I appreciate that you don't need it during setup. You can also access device settings just by swiping down from the top of the Spot's touchscreen. Like with the Echo Show, it's an approach that makes the device a little less intimidating to folks who don't typically use a lot of apps or smart home gadgets -- exactly the kind of people Amazon wants to reach as Alexa's influence continues to expand.

Like other Alexa gadgets, the Spot wakes up when you say the wake word ("Alexa" is the default, but you can also go with "Amazon," "Echo" or "Computer"). The array of far-field mics feels just as sensitive as on other Echo devices, and, for the most part, it does an impressive job of hearing and understanding commands, even from across the room. You'll still need to shout to be heard over music playback, though. Amazon hasn't quite figured that issue out yet.

The Spot is heavier than you might expect, weighing in just shy of a pound at 419 grams. It feels like a premium device, and it sounds like one, too. The audio isn't as rich or full-sounding as what you'll get with an Amazon Echo, but it's closer than you might have guessed -- and it's noticeably more powerful than the Echo Dot. 

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The Echo Spot will show the lyrics for some songs as you stream them from Amazon Music.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Like on the rest of the current-gen Echo lineup, there's also an aux-out jack in the back that'll let you hook it up with external speakers should you choose. Even if you don't, the Echo Spot is more than capable of filling a small to medium-size room with passable sound quality on its own. Audiophiles would obviously be better served with a higher-fidelity smart speaker such as the Sonos One or the Google Home Max, but if you're a casual listener who just wants to play a Pandora station loud enough to hear the lyrics as you cook, the Echo Spot will get the job done.

What can it do?

The Spot works just like any of Amazon's other smart speakers, and it can do everything the Echo can do. It can stream music, it can look up facts, it can set alarms and cooking timers, it can tell you the weather and traffic conditions for your morning commute, it can call other Alexa users, it can buy things on Amazon, it can control compatible smart home devices and it can run any of Alexa's third-party "skills," Amazon's parlance for voice apps -- they now number in at more than 30,000. 

The Spot also includes Amazon's ESP feature, which makes it so that only the Echo device closest to you will respond to your command. That's key if you're living with multiple Alexa devices under one roof.

The real question is what can Alexa do now that she's got a touchscreen. The answer: Not as much as you'd probably expect. To start, you can swipe down from the top of the screen to access ample device settings, and you'll also get some extra at-a-glance info with your day-to-day Alexa usage. Ask her for the weather, and she'll show you additional information from the forecast as she speaks. Ask her to add something to your to-do list, and you'll see the list on screen, with the option to mark items off with a swipe. Ask her to play a song from Amazon Music, and she'll show you the lyrics as it plays (provided she knows them). Ask her how old Patrick Stewart is, and the answer will come complete with a picture of the actor pulled from Wikipedia.

The problem is that all of it feels basic and underdeveloped. Like the Echo Show, the Spot will offer occasional onscreen suggestions on things you can ask Alexa. At one point, it told me to "try asking Alexa how to make chocolate chip cookies." I gave it a shot, and Alexa began describing a recommended recipe for double peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. She read me the ingredients needed and offered to send the recipe to the Alexa app -- but she never once showed me anything on the Spot's screen, not even a simple image of what these supposedly mouth-watering cookies looked like. And again, this is something the Spot itself recommended I try out.

(Amazon now says that Alexa's recipe capabilities were "temporarily down while we finished prepping for customer ship." After trying the same question again now, Alexa displays pictures of a few different cookie recipes, and asks which one you'd like to hear more about.)

Other shortcomings are more subtle. Ask Alexa to start a timer and you'll see the countdown on screen -- but the font is much too small to read unless you're standing within a few feet of the device. The mute button's indicator light on the top of the device is hard to see, too, because it's angled up and toward the back of the Spot. Both of those cut right against that glanceability selling point.

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The Echo Spot can stream video from sources like Amazon Prime Video and Twitch -- but it can't play YouTube videos.

Chris Monroe/CNET

A poor pivot to video

Beyond improving Alexa's existing capabilities, the touchscreen gives her a couple of new ones, too. Along with making video calls to other Alexa users, you can ask her to show you the feed from a compatible smart home camera like the Nest Cam, the Netgear Arlo Pro or Amazon's own Cloud Cam. You can also ask her to stream video from sources like Amazon Prime and Twitch.

This brings us to arguably the biggest problem with the Echo Spot: the lack of YouTube support. Google yanked it away from Alexa back in September, citing a dispute over how YouTube content should appear on Echo devices. Amazon made some changes to its software, and YouTube support was restored just before Black Friday. Then in December, Google announced that it would once again be pulling YouTube support from Amazon devices -- this time, directly citing the fact that the online retailer doesn't sell Google hardware and doesn't stream Prime Video on Google devices.

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Out of nearly 4,000 flash briefing sources, fewer than 30 are optimized to show video on the Echo Spot.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

In short, it's a mess. A Google spokeswoman told CNET that the company hopes to resolve these disagreements soon, and Amazon recently began selling Chromecast streamers as an olive branch, but who knows how close the two are to actually figuring things out. In the meantime, the real losers are the consumers -- especially the ones who preordered the Echo Spot on Black Friday after hearing that YouTube was back.

Without YouTube, Alexa can't pull up many of the exact sorts of videos that seem best suited for the Spot. Whether it's a recipe from your favorite chef or a fresh compilation of funny cat clips, you won't be able to play it on the Spot, at least not until Amazon and Google work out their differences. I'm not holding my breath.

YouTube isn't the only trouble spot here, either. Consider Alexa's flash briefing feature, which offers a quick rundown of up-to-date clips and headlines from your preferred news and entertainment sources. There are nearly 4,000 sources you can add to your personalized briefing, but as of this writing only 27 of them feature video -- and it's actually just 14 if you don't count the region-specific local news affiliates.

Either way, that's less than 1 percent, which is frankly terrible considering that the Echo Show has been available since June. It's similarly tough to find more than a handful of third-party skills that put the screen to meaningful use. Make no mistake, Alexa's bandwagon is still ultrapopular with outside brands and developers, but that popularity doesn't seem to be translating to the touchscreen. That's odd at best, and a red flag at worst.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The verdict

Whether you're looking up a fact or setting an alarm or controlling your smart lights or playing a podcast, Alexa lets you keep your phone in your pocket for a change. That freedom from touchscreen dependency sits right at the core of Alexa's appeal -- and maybe that's why the Echo Spot feels a bit misguided. It's a well-made gadget that looks great, but the marriage between that touchscreen display and Alexa's voice-first user interface feels forced, just as it did with the Echo Show. Amazon still has work to do.

People with smart home cameras and folks who would get a lot out of that video calling feature will like the Spot quite a bit, but outside of that, it's a hard speaker to recommend at $130. That could change if Amazon manages to restore YouTube, beef up on flash briefing video content and come up with some creative new ways for the display to help personalize Alexa. Until then, I say hold off.

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7.4

Amazon Echo Spot

Score Breakdown

Design 7.5Features 6Performance 8Sound quality 8