When Amazon’s hardware team first stuck a screen on their smart speaker, it felt like a backslide for voice-assistant technology, which had promised a future in which we would converse naturally with omniscient objects in our house about the population of Angola, or where we know that guy in the TV show from, all without the need for a phone or display.
But use one and you’ll soon see the advantages of having a screen on a speaker. The Amazon Echo Show fulfils all the roles of the existing Echo speaker range, but is equipped with the means to show you stuff as well as tell you stuff. For most requests, what it shows you is supplementary. Sure, Alexa (Amazon’s virtual assistant) can tell you how cold it will be today, but glance over at the Show’s screen and you’ll see the five-day forecast to boot.
Enquire about a celebrity and their grinning face will loom into view as Alexa rattles off their details. Ask about football and you’ll see fixtures and results. Request a song and you’ll get lyrics and music videos. Like any other Echo device, the Show picks up your voice from across the room with an array of far-field mics.
Pull down from the top of the touchscreen and you’ll see a dashboard of smart home controls, which is compatible with most lights, switches, thermostats and other third-party devices. If you’ve got a smart doorbell you can take a peek outside, chat to a courier or, if nobody is at the door, simply shout into the street for fun.
The first version of the Echo Show launched in 2017, and was successful enough to spur rival Google into slapping a screen on to a version of its own competing speaker, the Google Home. The second generation device is a huge improvement, a more refined tablet that looks less like a proof of concept, and more like something you’d stick in the corner of your kitchen or living room.
It’s smaller and less retro-looking than the first iteration, which resembled a lost prop from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It has a larger screen than the teensy seven-incher on the Google Home Hub, and houses a beefier and better sounding speaker.
The Show’s main advantage over the Home is the camera embedded at the top at the frame, which allows you to make and receive video calls. Support for Skype is promised later this year, but currently you can chat face to face with anyone else with an Echo Show (or the smaller Echo Spot), or with the Alexa app on their phone. The intercom-style Drop In feature returns, which lets you automatically start a video call with (very) trusted friends and family. It’s useful for checking in on elderly relatives, and so far unique to the Echo Show.
If you’re locked into the Google ecosystem, the Home Hub is the better device – thanks to bickering megacorps who don’t play nice with one another’s services, the Echo Show can’t yet display your Google Photos or play YouTube videos. But it matches Google for smart home management, and beats it hands down when it comes to videocalling your nan.