The smart speaker with a screen: How does the Amazon Echo Show stack up?by Peter Griffin
Between Alexa, Siri and Google we’re starting to get our heads around the idea of talking to devices to get simple tasks done and to entertain ourselves. But what happens when we start talking to a screen?
We can expect a series of smart hubs with screens to hit the market in 2019, so what does Amazon’s main offering the Echo Show say about their potential? My verdict is that there’s great potential in these devices, but a much larger, more tightly integrated range of services need to appear before the screen-based smart speaker is worth paying extra for.
The Echo Show delivers all the functionality of the audio-only Amazon Echo and Echo Dot and expands massively, both in screen size and functionality, on the Echo Spot, which has a small circular screen capable of showing simple alerts and info updates, such as the time, weather forecast and your task list.
A good showing
The Show introduces a 10.1-inch screen that gives it the look of a tablet, connected to the front of a sturdy, angular speaker. The build quality of the device, as with Amazon’s other smart assistant devices, is very good. You get decent cloth-covered speakers that easily fill a mid-sized room and deliver rich bass for listening to music.
The screen displays video in 720p high definition (1280 x 800) resolution, which isn’t great compared to tablets and smartphone screens on the market, but is good enough given you aren’t likely to be watching this screen from as close a distance as those other handheld gadgets.
There’s no remote control as the Show is designed to be driven by your voice commands, though there are a handful of buttons on its top to control volume and to put you into privacy mode, which turns off the speaker and displays a red line along the screen’s bottom to show it is incommunicado. The touch screen will scroll through news headlines or shuffle a selection of your photos as a sort of digital photo frame, if you want it to do so.
A dropdown menu gives you access to settings and other controls.
The audio detection is as good or better than Amazon’s other devices – I had no problem activating Alexa from the other side of the room.
As with the other Echo devices, you can set it up using the Alexa app on your phone. I found this to be really simple and quick to complete.
What you are presented with when that’s completed is an attractive looking screen that supplements your audio commands with on-screen information. Ask Alexa “show my to-do list” and all of the recorded items will appear on the screen. Ask what the weather will be like and Alexa will pop up an infographic just like on a TV weather report.
Ask Alexa for a “flash briefing” and she will play audio news reports from Stuff, NewstalkZB and NPR Radio. TVNZ’s One News is also supposed to be part of the flash briefing stable on the Show, but I couldn’t get any of its video news items to appear in my briefing, which isn’t updated regularly enough yet to be very useful.
Tasks, routines, calendar entries and alarms all work as with the audio assistants, but with the addition of a visual prompt on the screen. So far, so convenient.
But where things start to go off the rails a bit is when you delve deeper, looking for information and factoids from the internet. You can’t use Show as a voice-enabled Google Search, it doesn’t work that way. The Show will pull down snippets of information from Wikipedia, displaying photos and some text on the screen as well.
But more unstructured and complicated queries more often than not elicit a “Hmmm, I don’t know that one” from Alexa, or simply puzzled silence.
However, this is largely the same when using Google’s smart speakers, such as the Google Home. All that search power hasn’t been properly enabled yet for smart speaker voice-controlled searches.
It would be a lot to expect Amazon to have the Echo integrate into all of the web and social media services. Instead, Amazon has created “Skills”, a selection of applications that allow you to do various things with your voice. Air New Zealand, for instance, will let you ask Alexa to check the status of your flight or hear your airpoints balance - though it won’t display them on the screen, it is very much audio-driven for now.
The problem is that Skills tailored to the New Zealand market are few and far between. There is a long list of Skills in Amazon’s library, but they are still very US-centric and there are many omissions among the big entertainment services you are likely to be using.
While the Show will play TV shows and movies from Amazon’s Prime video streaming service, it won’t show Netflix or Neon content. It also won’t display Youtube, unless you fire up the Show’s web browser and complete the task manually.
That’s frustrating, given the wealth of video content on Youtube, which is owned by Google. While Amazon Music is supported as well as Spotify, if you have signed up to a premium account, Youtube Music and Apple Music are not available. A service called Vevo serves up music videos on command, but from a limited range of artists – Lorde’s hits are on there, but nothing from Coldplay, for instance.
One thing the Show does very well is play audiobooks, thanks to good integration with Amazon’s Audible service. The book title and cover image will display on the screen while the book plays.
There certainly seems to be a disconnect between Google and Amazon when it comes to the former’s web services being tightly integrated into the Echo products. That’s no surprise given Google has a rival range of smart assistants in the market, but it limits the usefulness of the Echo Show.
The web browser that is included is however, the saving grace. I can use it to load up Youtube and play videos, though they stream in what appears to be standard definition, which isn’t great on the Echo’s screen.
However, I can use the browser to pull up a wide range of websites, including the Lightbox video streaming service offered by Spark. The downside is you get none of the voice integration which is the whole point of owning an Echo.
Where the Echo Show does a really good job is with home integration, with Zigbee smart hub support. That makes it compatible with a growing range of smart home devices, such as the Philips Hue smart light bulbs, the Nanoleaf LED wall panels and Nest cameras. I can tell Alexa to dim my lights or to display the view from my Nest security camera. Set-up of devices was easier than I expected.
The other main use of the Show is also yet to fulfil its potential. You can use the screen to make calls to a contact who has the Alexa app installed on their phone. I love the idea of my dad having a Show in his lounge and me being able to call him from my mobile. It works reasonably well, but currently is only for calls between Alexa devices running the app – you can’t make a call to a landline or mobile. That limits its attractiveness as a phone line replacement and in fact, it is easier to use Viber or FaceTime to make a quick video call.
When it comes to online shopping, the Show is again limited by New Zealand’s limited integration with the Amazon store. You can search for the “Samsung S9” smartphone and Amazon will display information on the Show’s screens about its top picks. But other retailers aren’t integrated and the intricacies of international product shipping and lack of Prime shipping subscriptions here mean it is easier and safer to just boot up Amazon.com on your laptop to do your shopping.
Amazon’s Echo Show then is a gadget that promises to be so much more useful when it is opened up to a wider range of services and features more locally relevant “Skills”.
Hardware wise, it is a nicely designed device and good value for the price. But for the meantime, you’ll get sufficient functionality out of the audio-only Echo or Echo Dot.
My smart speaker picks for Christmas
Google Home Mini
One of the cheapest routes into the world of smart speakers, easy to set up and definitely has the edge over Alexa when it comes to intuitively understanding your voice and accurately answering your questions. Only available online. $69
Harman Kardon Allure
The best option currently in the third-party market for speakers supporting voice assistants. It has all the functionality of Alexa, but built into a visually stunning speaker with a great lighting feature, and a powerful speaker providing rich bass and enough sound to make it suitable for music playback in mid-sized rooms. $430
Amazon Echo Alexa
The full-sized Echo is great for playing back Audible audiobooks, Spotify playlists and with the local integration of services, is currently the most functional smart speaker and good value for money. $179
Amazon Echo Show
Great design and build quality
Voice control works well for basic functions
Good value for money
Great smart home integration
Local Skills are limited
Key entertainment services not compatible
Clunky online shopping experience
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