The Amazon Echo Show Is the Best Dumb Smart Machine in My Home

By Alex Cranz on at

The first night the Amazon Echo Show was in my bedroom I had to carefully lay it face down on my nightstand. The display, which was cycling through my upcoming meetings, most recent news, and the weather, was simply too bright. It was like having a little super informative sun shining in my face. The second night, as if it knew, the Echo Show had another slide on its screen. “Try saying ‘Alexa, do not disturb.’”

I gave it a go and the screen instantly darkened to a degree perfectly acceptable to sleep by. The Echo Show understood exactly what I wanted and when I wanted it, and when the device does that, it’s one of my favourite gadgets in my home right now. But man, when Amazon’s new Echo acts stupid, the device is an exercise in dashed expectations.

But it’s hard to blame the Echo Show, Amazon’s new combined smart speaker and display. This device is Amazon’s bid to stay ahead of competitors like Google and Apple. Smart speakers are positively last year, and this year everyone (excluding Apple, for now) is focused on building a digital home assistant with a big bright screen. Google is doing it by using the version of Android built into its televisions and the Nvidia Shield, but Amazon is putting it all into one small package that can sit on a bookshelf.

Image: Carmen Hilbert/Gizmodo

And this package is so good at what it does that its failures feel like collateral damage. With a powerful speaker and a bright, surprisingly high-quality display, the Echo show answers all my simple questions so neatly, and provides the data in such a perfectly consumable format that I keep expecting it to be able to do more. Why can’t the Echo Show call my vet when the dog is being weird, or find (and order) my favourite brand of salsa from a small Texas distributor. My positively reinforced expectations led me to issue bigger and bigger challenges that, inevitably, set the device up to fail.

Like a smart assistant for your phone, the Echo Show is always being proactive with its information. It pops up the weirdest and most fun news, the weather, and reminders about upcoming meetings without asking. I tell it to show me CNN and, virtually instantly, the latest news from CNN is on the screen. Yet some intentional elements of the Echo Show feel like oversights. It can’t go to a website. It will not do an image search on Google or Bing. If you demand it find you porn it will, inexplicably, suggest you watch a Spring Breakers featurette on Amazon Prime instead.

Image: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo

The Echo Show is built around the Amazon ecosystem, so it will only display images from your Prime photo library and movies from your Prime media library. If you want music, it will only play it from the Prime library, and if you want a book read to you, it will need to come from your Kindle library. This is, actually, pretty fantastic for most of us. I don’t know about you but the only time I really use either my older Echo or my Google Home is to either check the weather or time, play music for the dog, set a timer, or turn off all my smart lights.

For all those things the Echo Show is fantastic. I’m always asking what the weather is like and then wandering off before I get my answer. The Echo Show displays the forecast for the next few days and leaves all the info up on screen until I ask it a new question, and when I set a timer, it actually shows the timer, so I don’t have to ask how long I have left every thirty seconds. I can even dismiss a timer with a swipe instead of trying to shout “STOP” over the din of the alarm. The display even gives me touch control of my music, providing a play, pause, and skip buttons.

Besides the touch display, the Echo Show also has physical buttons for volume, and muting the microphone. (Image: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo)

All these little perks are useful enough that I really don’t mind spending an extra $50 on the Echo Show over the traditional Echo. But besides being more useful as a gadget, it’s less of an eyesore. “Oh this is way better than that big black tube,” my roommate said when she noticed it. The old Echo hides behind a router, but the Echo Show, like the Google Home, is one of those digital home assistants I don’t mind taking up a prominent place in the living room or bedroom—even if its super sharp black edges give it a distinct ‘90s Sharper Image vibe.

And it makes me feel like I’m in the future! I know, I get it—7-inch touch displays like the one found in the Echo Show are cheaper than they’ve ever been, and anyone with an old phone, laptop, or tablet, could probably build something nearly as effective as the Echo Show with a little time and programming know-how. Heck, if you have the latest Android TV or a new Nvidia Shield you can even get a similar, Google-flavoured experience from your television—albeit sans touch control.

What the Echo Show is doing isn’t ground breaking, but until now, if you wanted to have a super smart touchscreen brain running your home and delivering stuff like the weather and your schedule, you either had to hack it together yourself or make like Mark Zuckerberg and spend a whole lot of cash. The Echo Show is the first device of its kind that the rest of us can own, and it feels, in many ways, like that first step towards The Jetsons’ future.

The Echo Show has a camera for video calls (and definitely not to watch you), it is also SUPER prone to fingerprints. (Image: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo)

It even has a camera for video calling! Though it currently only works with other Alexa-enabled devices, including Echo and the Alexa app on your phone. It’s a neat concept, and can be fun to use. When I was testing the Echo Show at the office I shouted “call home” and the Echo in my apartment immediately startled my dog and my roommate, and being able to simply say “call mom” and have your mom’s face appear on screen feels like some Star Trek futurist wonder. But it also means that now Amazon isn’t just listening to everything you do, it’s also watching every thing you do, and that can feel...creepy. Particularly if you keep the Echo Show in your bedroom.

Yet the biggest problems with the Echo Show are are more a result of the Amazon Alexa infrastructure than of any particular flaw in the Echo Show. Every single criticism I have of the Echo Show could apply to the original Echo as well. As with that device, the Echo Show is overly reliant on skills—the mini-apps that allow Alexa to move out of the carefully constructed ecosystem and onto other sites and information repositories. If the skill doesn’t exist or isn’t specified when you make a request, Amazon will get dumb. So it will navigate to Amazon Prime videos instead of YouTube or look up movie times through the Amazon store instead of Fandango.

Sometimes it misunderstands words too. I always carefully enunciate because digital assistants can be stupid, but when I told the device to “show me Joe T Garcia salsa medium picante,” it heard “Show me a joke Garcias salsa medium picante,” and when I said “show me GOOP,” it heard “show me group.”

These problems, though, are ones that are already familiar to you if you use an Amazon Echo. So they feel more like nitpicks of a device I otherwise adore. If you feel the need to upgrade from your old Echo, or if you’re finally ready to experience the first truly consumer grade digital brain for you home, then yes, you really need to go order an Amazon Echo Show immediately, it’s that good. But it could be much better, and until Amazon improves the interaction between OS and skills and makes Alexa more intuitive, it’s still gonna be a far cry from that Jetsons future I’m ready for.

Image: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo

README

  • I asked for it to show me a titmouse and it bleeped “tit.”
  • I don’t have to ask for the weather five times.
  • For $230 the Echo Show is $50 more than the original Echo and $100 more than the Google Home, but its very good 7-inch display makes it superior to both. [Editor's note: UK prices are yet to be announced.]
  • The touch screen means you can swipe to stop music or alarms—which is way better than shouting. It also makes it easy to log the thing onto wi-fi.
  • The Echo Show introduces video calling via Alexa. It’s great quality video calling, and testing it I experienced zero stutters or hiccups. Yet it only works with other Echo devices and phones with the Alexa app. Could be great for family, but has limited uses otherwise.


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