Amazon Echo Show review: Alexa gets fancy

The quick take

Amazon adds a touchscreen and camera to a couple of decent speakers, giving us the best Echo yet for only $50 more than what the original Alexa device is selling for. Video calling is an easy-to-use (if still novel) feature, and Amazon's paving the way for developers to make use of the 7-inch display. Now it just has to get them to update those thousands of skills to take advantage of it.

Update Sept. 27, 2017: Google has pulled support for YouTube videos from the Echo Show. That takes away one of the major reasons to buy it. Proceed with caution.

The Good

  • Alexa as you've come to know and love
  • Not prohibitively expensive
  • Good sound and video quality
  • A reasonably attractive design

The Bad

  • Third-party skills taking advantage of the touchscreen
  • Amazon's Alexa app is still a little clunky
  • Video "drop-ins" are fraught with danger
  • Alexa calls and messaging are still a walled garden

Watch this

Amazon Echo Show Video Review

Two round speakers and a microphone (and a display and a camera)

Amazon Echo Show Full review

The Echo Show is the best Alexa-enabled device Amazon has made yet. Let's just get that out of the way. If you're considering between the original Echo and the Echo Show, find the extra $50 and get the newer one with the display.

Yes, there's still reason to keep reading. Because while the Echo Show is the best Amazon has done so far, it's not perfect. Far from it. In fact, it's entirely possible to have an Echo Show — with its 7-inch display and camera and integrated speakers — and very quickly realize its shortcomings. It is an imperfect device that simultaneously excites and occasionally infuriates. It's yet another example of Amazon beating everyone else to market, but with a product that in a number of ways still feels incomplete.

And that, I think, actually is a good thing.

This is the Amazon Echo Show.

See at Amazon

Amazon Echo Show

About this review

I've been using the Amazon Echo Show (as purchased from Amazon for the two-for-$500 deal) for nearly two weeks as of the time of this review. They've been on software 581231520, for what that's worth, and have lived in my kitchen, living room, bedroom, and office during that time.

Echo meets tablet

Amazon Echo Show Hardware and setup

At its simplest, the Echo Show is this: a 7-inch touchscreen at 1024x600 resolution, with a 5-megapixel camera and a pair of 2-inch speakers at the bottom. On top you'll find a trio of buttons — from left, there's a kill switch for the microphones and camera, then volume down and volume up. (I'd have put the mute button in the middle, but no one asked me.) And there's a round hole on the back of the Echo Show for the proprietary power plug. Eight microphones are hidden within the device.

And that's it. It's a very nicely designed, if cleverly simple Echo. It's just big enough — about 7.5 inches tall and wide — to be conspicuous without being so large that it gets in the way. It fits on a nightstand or into a kitchen nook or alongside living room knickknacks. And that's a key feature, because as the name implies the Echo Show will show you things as well as talk to you in the traditional sense of Alexa.

The matte plastic body comes in any color you want, so long as it's either murdered-out black or a white body with a black face for the display and speaker grille. I've leaned toward liking the black-and-white model a little more — I think it blends in to the background a little better — but I've also liked having the darker model on my nightstand in the bedroom. The white one definitely hides dust a little better, though.

The resolution of the display isn't exactly anything to write home about. But then again, you shouldn't expect it to be. A mere 600 vertical pixels might not seem like a lot in this age of 4K and "retina" and all that. But remember that you're not going to have your nose up against the Echo Show like you would a phone or tablet. Most of the time I'm barking orders at the Echo Show from a good 6 or 8 feet away in the kitchen. So the display is just fine. It's bright enough and the colors are accurate enough for this sort of use.

I love that you can use your own pictures for the background on the Echo Show and have it display your own albums. But I'm not sure I love it enough to start using Amazon Prime Photos as my photo storage system.

Echo Show is Alexa with a display and a camera. Don't overthink it.

The speakers also are just fine for what I'd expect in a $229 device. No, it's not as good as the more expensive Sonos Play:1. This is decent directional sound, but it won't be filling a room like a Sonos can. There's enough bass to keep things interesting but not so much as to make this a primary entertainment device. Music sounds fine, as do podcasts and other spoken-word events. This is another one of those times when "good enough" is good enough, particularly in the kitchen, which tends to get noisy.

Setup is excellent. Chances are you ordered directly from Amazon, and so your Amazon account will be preloaded. Just enter your Wi-Fi and confirm your Amazon password and you're up and running. The initial boot may take a few minutes, though, depending on whether a Day 1 software update is in order. (If you had any lingering doubts whether this was an Android-based OS, the post-update boot time should confirm that suspicion.)

From there you're run through a couple of instructional videos of what to do and how to do it — tl;dr: You talk to the Echo Show most of the time and tap the screen some of the time — and through the new video calling features.

Amazon Echo Show

Plug-in baby

Using the Echo Show Eyes, ears and now a screen

Echo Show is, above all else, an Alexa device. So you can talk to it just like you can the OG Echo or Echo Dot or Tap or even the strange little Echo Look. And Alexa will talk right back to you. There's really nothing new here, except to say the eight microphones generally pick out my voice just fine, even when I've got music playing through the Show. (That's an important thing to be able to do, of course.)

The game-changer here is the display. Now Alexa can, as the name implies, show you information and content. That's maybe not as easy as you might expect. It's easy to clunk up a display with too much or too little information or with horrible fonts or an otherwise unusable user interface. (Look at pretty much any car stereo interface and you'll know exactly what I mean by that.) But Amazon has adopted an excellent design aesthetic here.

Amazon Echo Show

Nobody likes to read about fonts and UX (except for those of us who have to deal with such things for a living), so I'll just say that there's nothing haphazard here. The mix of serifs and san-serifs and italics help the time and weather stand out from headlines, and headlines (and their keywords) stand out from the prompts for how to get more information out of the Echo Show. It's all understated, easy to read, and ultimately very well-done. The transitions between cards and fade in/out times are damn near perfect.

My only real complaint here is that a lot of the time I just don't find what's on the screen to be all that informative. Time and weather? OK. Actual news? Fine, I guess. (Though I'd argue that "news" and "what's actually important" are two very different things these days.) Upcoming calendar events? Definitely helpful (assuming you've connected your calendar to Alexa).

Echo Show's home screen looks great. The problem is it's wasted real estate so far.

Dive in and turn off ...

I'd recommend turning off a couple things. First is the "Trending Topics" content. I rot my brain plenty of other ways, thanks. I'd also turn off the option to have cards continuously repeat. (At least until they time out and are replaced by something else.) Those two sort of go hand in hand, though. I guess maybe it's fine to see the fluff once. But not over and over again.

How do you change settings like this on Echo Show? Pull down from the top of the screen like you would a phone or tablet. This is where you'll find options for the display settings — including the all-important do-not-disturb mode — and themes, as well as for what you see on the cards themselves. Most of these settings can be changed in the Alexa app on your phone, too, save for what you see on the screen. (Which is sort of a weird thing to leave out.) In any event, it's worth taking a few minutes to look around these parts, though it shouldn't be something you have to come back to very often.

The exception to that would be the "Home" icon. If you have Alexa read you news or stories or get into one of the thousands of "Skills" available (more on that in a minute), you'll want a way to get back to the main home screen. For that, just say "Alexa, go home." Or you can pull down from the top of the screen and use the on-screen button. I think I might prefer a hardware button for this, though — say, short press for Home, long press for mute. That's not a huge deal, though.

Those really are the basics. A lot of this is self-explanatory. And I'm not going to spend and real time here on playing music and videos. Echo Show plays music — though Amazon Music or Spotify or Pandora or iHeartRadio — just fine over Wi-Fi. For anything else you can connect via Bluetooth. (I still greatly prefer Google's Chromecast or Apple's AirPlay, but Bluetooth is simple enough.) And Amazon Prime Video is front and center, and you can tell Alexa to show you videos from YouTube, with the touchscreen serving as a decent way to let you pick exactly what it is you were hoping to see.

Update Sept. 27, 2017: YouTube and Amazon apparently are a in a bit of a spat, and Google has pulled support for its video service from the Echo Show.

Amazon Echo Show

That's table stakes, though, and it's actually pretty limited by design. You're relying on Alexa to understand you — there's no on-screen way to launch music or video, you have to use your voice — and return the right result, and then you chose what you actually want. It's like you're using a tablet, with a couple of extra steps thrown in, including voice commands. (Want some bedtime music? You'll need to tell Alexa first. Just try not to wake anyone who's sleeping next to you while you and Alexa are chatting away.)

There aren't really any rough edges on Echo Show in terms of software. Things tend to work really well, and it's obvious there was a lot of time spent on getting them right. But what we have is a tablet-like interface without the usual tablet-like paradigms.

We had a saying in the newsroom of my newspaper when I was younger. "Less yapping, more tapping." The opposite often is true of the Echo Show. You'll talk to it more than you will tap to get to where you want to be. That's not necessarily a bad thing — it's quicker to say "Show albums by Muse" than it is to tap into an app, and then either type out "M-u-s-e" or drill through a menu system.

But it's a bit like going to a restaurant and needing to have some idea of what's available, instead of being handed a menu. I might know I want the grilled salmon. But then again the blackened snapper looks pretty good, too. You lose that sort of discovery this way, and the interaction is much slower than if you see another option.

And you have to remember to be specific. If I say "Show me Tesla Model 3 videos," Echo Show will return results from Amazon Prime Video, which isn't actually what I want. User error? Maybe. But better might be to show results from multiple sources and then let me choose which one is best.

Skills start to fall short pretty fast

Then there's the issue of Alexa's "skills." Think of these as apps for Alexa that bridge gap between traditional apps and the voice-only interface of the previous Echo devices. But now we have a display. And a touchscreen, at that.

The good news is that all the skills pretty much still work. (At least in my testing.) The bad news is that as I write this in early July 2017 (a week after the Echo Show shipped) there's very little that actually takes advantage of the display. And that goes for some of Alexa's native features, too.

A few examples that I've run up against:

  • Flash Briefing: One of my favorite early features of Alexa, this news roundup reads you content from any number of sources. Seems like a perfect opportunity for video. Only there isn't any yet. Not even a basic slideshow.
  • Audio books: Echo Show hooks into Amazon's Kindle and Audible services just fine. (Alexa is still a lousy narrater, though.) ... The screen is wasted here, too. Or at least it was on the examples I used. Music — some of it, anyway — gets the lyric treatment. Why not books?
  • Dominos Pizza: Ordering a pizza by voice is easy and doable. Better would be to be able to actually see what it is you're ordering. Amazon's done it with its own listings. Third parties need to as well.
  • Recipes: An Echo Show in the kitchen is a very good thing, and being able to view recipes is key. But you immediately get kicked into the Allrecipes skill. And if the specific recipe you want isn't available, there's no way to get to it. No web browser. Just frustration.
  • Security: I was extremely excited to see the Ring doorbell as a launch partner for Echo Show. Turns out all you can do is tell the Echo Show to show you the live view from the camera. It doesn't pop up the feed when someone triggers the motion sensor or hits the doorbell. Ring says they're working on it.

And that's just for starters. The point is that in these very early days, the Echo Show is still a very long way from being the sort of whole-home digital hub that I so badly want it to be. Nobody else has come close yet. Especially not in an affordable package like this.

Should skills on the Echo Show actually be full-fledged Android apps? Maybe. And there's really no reason they couldn't be. It's just that it's disappointing there's not more available at launch that takes advantage of the hardware. Amazon's skills are pretty robust, and I've no doubt that developers will improve on what we have now.

And they'll need to.

Echo Show video call

Drop in any time. Or don't.

Echo Show Camera, calls, drop-ins and privacy

Another area of great potential — OK, a really big deal I've said previously — on the Echo Show is video calling. Amazon sort of eased us into this with messaging and voice calling a couple months ahead of the Echo Show's release. And all that still stands today. You can call another Echo device — or a phone with the Alexa app — exactly the same way as we could previously.

Now? We have video. In its simplest form, it's video calling just as we've come to know with Skype and FaceTime and Google Hangouts.

Do you really want someone to be able to turn on your camera?

Where things get interesting is with Drop-in.

This feature lets you literally "drop in" on someone who has an Echo device. As in, you call them, they don't touch anything, and then you can talk at them. Sort of like an intercom.

This works from one Echo device to another or from a phone (via the Alexa app) to an Echo device, video or no video. It works for any devices that are on a single account — so I or my family can drop in on any of my devices wherever they may be located. This turns all your Echo devices into an intercom. And that's kind of cool, actually.

The drop-in

Drop-in also works for any contact in your Alexa app — but only after you give that person permission to drop in on you in the individual contact listing. So while it's still very bad that Amazon doesn't give you better control over who can contact you on your Echo, it does keep random folks from dropping in.

This all might seem a little unnerving at first. In reality, it's not that bad.

Drop-in video on Echo Show

Back to dropping in on an Echo Show, though, which is where things get a little interesting. Because the Echo Show has a video camera, it's much more intrusive — particularly if you decide to keep an Echo Show in the bedroom. But this really is true for any camera anywhere in your home.

So when you drop in on someone else, you won't see them at first. Instead, you'll get a mostly opaque view of what's going on. After 10 seconds or so the pictures clears up. In that time, anyone on the other end can choose to nuke the connection. Of course, that's assuming they're paying attention and weren't doing something more fun than answering their Echo Show.

So drop in on someone at your own risk. Conversely, teach your kids to drop in on your Echo Show at their own risk.

Alexa Messaging: Neat, but not very useful yet

In any event, video calling on Echo Show is very cool. Voice calling on any Echo is still very cool. The ability for a youngster or an aging parent to get ahold of me anywhere without the complication of a phone or tablet is a big deal — especially when you consider all you need is a $50 Echo Dot.

Messaging and video calls are great. Now Amazon just has to get you to use them.

What Alexa messaging is not, thus far, is ubiquitous. At this point it's still just one more means of messaging in an era in which we already have too many ways to do it. Phone calls. SMS. MMS. Facebook Messenger. iMessage. FaceTime. Whatsapp. WeChat. Telegram. Signal. Skype. Slack. Duo. ... The list goes on. Right now the only differentiator for Amazon is that it's easy to use on a $50 Echo Dot.

What I'd really love to see happen is for Amazon to get one of the big players to come on board. But everyone has their own interests, and this isn't something I'd expect to see anytime soon.

So for now, Echo Show-to-Echo Show video calling is a novelty, not a necessity, even if it's done very well.

Amazon Echo Show

Oh, Alexa ...

Amazon Echo Show The bottom line

Almost 3,000 words ago I said that the Amazon Echo Show is the best Alexa you can get today. That hasn't changed. First, it looks cooler than the original obelisk Echo. It also does all the things that the OG Echo does. The addition of the touchscreen is what really opens it up.

Or, rather, I think it will. Like I first said about the OG Echo, there's a ton of potential here. Back then it was needing skills to be built out. That's true again, but for different reasons. Now skills need to be refined for the touchscreen.

This is the best Alexa yet — and makes headless speakers seem tired.

The simple act of adding lyrics to music is good. Being able to see what Alexa is ordering from Amazon is a great improvement. Rudimentary integration with smart home tech is a nice start, though it needs to go much further. And video calling is a vast (if natural) improvement — now Amazon needs to get it to more people.

But you can see how Amazon is sort of coming in through the back door. A $50 Echo Dot gets the Alexa app onto your phone. And now you're on your way to messaging and video calling with anyone else via Alexa. It's not WhatsApp, but you can tell there's a strategy in there.

What the Echo Show is now, however, is inexpensive at $229. But it's easily the best, and it looks like it will be for some time.

See at Amazon

Echo Show: The two-month update

So we're a couple months into the life of the Echo Show. That's plenty of time to get a good handle on what's working well, and what's not.

The display — simultaneously brilliant and dumb

I still love the idea of having a whole-home hub. A single place where I can see headlines and my camera feeds and messages and pictures and ...

The Echo Show could be this hub. But it's not yet.

On one hand, it's a great little digital picture frame. I'm not actually using Amazon Prime Photos any more than as a way to feed an album to the Echo Show, though, and I'm not sure I ever will. It's definitely a great digital photo service, but it's not so much better that I'm ready to move everything over from Google Photos.

And as much as I love the idea of the headlines on the Echo Show, I need something better than the tired fluff Amazon decides to show me when there's actual news going on in the world.

That's by design, though. Amazon purposefully is keeping things light on the Echo Show's always-on headlines. If you want something more meaningful, you'll need to hit up Flash Briefing.

Here's Amazon's full explanation when I asked:

For trending topics on Echo Show, we primarily surface lifestyle, entertainment, and sports news since it's a communal device that the whole family sees and uses. If customers want to hear business or political news, we offer the daily Flash Briefing which offers a variety of news outlets to choose from. As with everything we do, the Echo Show trending topics experience will continue to improve and evolve over time based on customer feedback.

So it could well change at some point. But for now it's a missed opportunity. I need better options.

The night manager ...

I have one Echo Show on the night stand next to my bed. Now why I fully agree with folks who don't want any sort of tech that close to their noggin while they sleep, I've never actually been able to do that myself. Besides, the Echo Show is a sweet sort of alarm clock, right?

But the problem is that the display isn't OLED, it's LCD. That means it has to be lit from the back if you're going to see anything on it. And that means that even though it's pretty dim at night — you can see the clock 24 hours a day — it's still like having a 7-inch display lighting things up a bit. All. Night. Long.

Maybe my brain just knows it's there, and that's why it's bothersome. Or maybe it really does wake me up. In any event, I've moved it to the far side of the night stand, and that's helped a little.

Video calling works great — just like I knew it would

One of the more exciting features of the Echo Show for me was video calling. A platform-agnostic (well, so long as you're on Android or iOS) way for my kid to be able to call me without needing a phone to do so? Sold!

And it's worked flawlessly. My 7-year-old has gotten off the bus a few times now to find that she's home alone for a few minutes. And she's able to call me over the Echo Show. No phone numbers required. No having to hunt down a device (and then hoping it's charged). Nope, it just works. And it works very well.

That's sort of a limited use case, though, and it's actually the only way I've really used Alexa calling. Will it become more useful at some point? Who knows. ...

What's next? I'd love to see Alexa be able to call actual phone numbers. There's a lot of opportunity here — and I'd be surprised if Amazon wasn't exploring this.

Sure, Google Home can already make calls, but it doesn't have nearly the market share of the Amazon Echo devices. (And Google Home's ability to recognize someone's voice to properly return information means that my 7-year-old daughter is effectively locked out, and that's a problem.)

Echo Show's skills need to be smarter, though ...

For all intents and purposes, what I originally wrote about the Echo Show remains true two months in. It's really good, and it has a lot of potential. But it's still pretty early yet, and Amazon has a long way to go to make the Echo Show the killer device I think it can be.

That almost completely comes down to software. One side of that coin is what runs on the Echo Show itself — things like being able to chose headlines that are actually useful.

The other side of that coin is Alexa Skills — the cloud-based "apps" that third-party developers use to tie in to Echo devices. Skills need to be able to take better advantage of the display, and show information more quickly, and without being prompted.

The example of the Ring Video Doorbell Skill not being able to show who's at my door until I ask remains true today. It needs to be able to pop up on the screen as soon as it's triggered.

Software problems are fixable, though. We just have to wait on Amazon to fix 'em.

Phil Nickinson