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

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.

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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