The smart speaker with a screen: How does the Amazon Echo Show stack up?

by Peter Griffin / 11 December, 2018
The Amazon Echo Show.

The Amazon Echo Show.

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?

That’s the intriguing question thrown up by the rise of smart speakers equipped with touchscreens, such as the Amazon Echo Show and the Google Home Hub, which isn’t officially on sale here yet.

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.

Check out Noted’s smart speaker buyer’s guide | Best smartwatch: What to look for before you buy

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.

amazon echo show

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.

Skills shortage

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.

echo show

The Show has good integration with Audible audiobooks.

Amazon-Google disconnect

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.

Alexa calling

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

Pros

Great design and build quality

Voice control works well for basic functions

Good value for money

Great smart home integration

Cons

Local Skills are limited

Key entertainment services not compatible

Clunky online shopping experience

Rating: 6/10

Price: $399

Follow NOTED on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to our twice-weekly email for more tech news.

Latest

The key to long-term success after weight-loss surgery
107438 2019-06-26 00:00:00Z Health

The key to long-term success after weight-loss sur…

by Nicky Pellegrino

Weight-loss surgery is becoming more common, but lifestyle and attitude changes are needed for long-term success.

Read more
Matariki feast: Kasey and Karena Bird's family recipes
107605 2019-06-25 11:39:22Z Food

Matariki feast: Kasey and Karena Bird's family rec…

by Lauraine Jacobs

Māori food champions Kasey and Karena Bird share traditional family recipes that are ideal for Matariki.

Read more
Julie Anne Genter on bicycles, babies and what's going to make a better world
107579 2019-06-25 00:00:00Z Profiles

Julie Anne Genter on bicycles, babies and what's g…

by Emma Clifton

The MP made world headlines when she cycled to hospital to give birth. She talks about how this put her and what she stands for in the spotlight.

Read more
Toy Story 4: The beloved franchise reaches a Forky in the road
107472 2019-06-25 00:00:00Z Movies

Toy Story 4: The beloved franchise reaches a Forky…

by Russell Baillie

The fourth Toy Story instalment is clever, enjoyable and refreshingly weird.

Read more
Mitre 10 living wage ruling sets precedent for retail staff - union
Apple set to offer sign-in service to rival Facebook and Google
107596 2019-06-25 00:00:00Z Tech

Apple set to offer sign-in service to rival Facebo…

by Peter Griffin

In the wake of data-privacy scandals, Apple is beefing up protection for owners of its devices.

Read more
Understanding New Zealanders' attitudes to paying tax
107563 2019-06-24 16:28:59Z Business

Understanding New Zealanders' attitudes to paying…

by Nikki Mandow

We are pretty good about paying our taxes here, so why would we willingly go along with avoiding GST?

Read more
Border tax rort: Could you be caught by a Customs crackdown?
107530 2019-06-24 10:19:12Z Business

Border tax rort: Could you be caught by a Customs…

by Nikki Mandow

New Zealand retailers hit by a GST rort that has been going on for at least two years hope officials, Trade Me, ministers and even customers will...

Read more