Amazon is hell-bent on taking over the home with its Echo smart speakers and Alexa voice assistant.
Its latest device, the Echo Show, includes a 7-inch touchscreen and costs a hefty $230. Compared to other Echo devices, it’s the most expensive one yet $50 more than the regular Echo, $180 more than the smaller Echo Dot, and $30 more than the soon-to-be-released Echo Look. Still, it’s well under the price of Apple’s $350 HomePod smart speaker launching this December.
The beauty of the Echo Show is its simplicity. As an Echo product, its primary method of input (as you probably guessed) is voice commands.
Ask Alexa to do something like turn on your smart lights, and it should do it without fail.
Ask Alexa to play cute cat videos on YouTube, and the Echo Show’s screen comes to life with furry little floofs looking predictably adorable.
Ask Alexa to make a video call to a friend or family member who has the Echo Show (or the Alexa app on their phone), and you’re instantly connected like you would with FaceTime on an iPhone or iPad.
But the Echo Show is not intended to be a do-everything device like the iPhone. Instead, it’s essentially just a speaker with a screen for those moments when it’s convenient to have information visually presented to you.
Honestly, I admire Amazon’s restraint. It could have easily just attached an entire Kindle Fire tablet to the original Echo speaker, but instead Amazon kept things simple. The company deliberately stripped the more advanced features (like web browsing) out touchpad display to make it easier to use.
I wish it hadn’t.
For the last couple of weeks, the Echo Show has been sitting on my desk at work, and I’ve had an excellent time video calling my colleague Lance using just my voice instead of having to drag my feet over to his office.
It’s been great. I have a few small quibbles with the somewhat pixelated-looking video quality, and frankly the hollow-sounding speaker could be better, but in terms of its ease of use, it’s been great. This is the video-box communicator futurists promised us about 50 years ago.
Oh, and it’s bulky, boxy design that everyone was quick to drag (you know, before they’d even seen it in person)? Not really a problem. You’re never looking at the Echo Show at any angle other than directly in front of it.
As much as I love the device’s pared back features, I wish Amazon had given it just few more. Even just a couple of extras would have done the trick.
In its current state, the standby home screen shows only a handful of things you’d expect from a digital assistant. You get the time, the weather, news headlines (no idea how it surfaces these), and suggestions on what to do with Alexa.
But the very fact that the device has a screen begs you to do more. And sadly, you can’t.
Swiping down from the top of the screen brings down just a few icons for “Home,” “Settings,” “Do Not Disturb,” and brightness slider.
Where are the apps? Unfortunately, there aren’t any, and it’s the Echo Show’s greatest weakness.
The Echo Show is great at the things it’s programmed to know, but is maddeningly limited if you try to do more. That’s where its chief rival Google Home beats it. Google Home can search the internet for information to questions rather than relying on a finite number of programmed answers. It’s better at improvising and understanding unusual requests.
Without access to the wealth of information crawled by a search engine, the Echo Show’s screen kinda feels half-baked. I’m not asking for the entire Google Play Store of apps, nor do I expect people to play Angry Birds or read an e-book on the Echo Show’s screen, but it would be nice to have access to an internet browser or Google Maps for when you need it in a pinch.
I can already see the counterargument: The Echo Show will sit on many people’s kitchen counters and therefore it’s not a situation where your grease-slathered fingers would want to poke at a touchscreen.
But that’d be limiting the Echo Show to a kitchen appliance. I have an Echo in my living room and an Echo Dot in my bedroom. Guess how many Echo devices I have in my kitchen? None.
I’m not saying there aren’t many people with Echos in their kitchen, but I’m willing to bet there are more in other rooms of the house.
There’s also another argument that you don’t need access to a web browser or apps on the Echo Show because you can always use your phone. But you could say the same about a device like the PlayStation 4, which has a web browser and Spotify for those rare moments you need them.
My point is, the Echo Show is actually a pretty powerful computer. I consider it an “internet communications device” and in 2017, that type of device should have access to some apps (even limited ones) to make up for Alexa’s shortcomings as an artificial intelligence.
Maybe one day Alexa will be super brainy, but it’s not smart enough today and so the screen should at least help carry some of the load (regardless if it repeats a phone’s functions).
I’d also like to see the Echo Show’s screen put to better use for showing what Alexa skills are available. Right now, the only ways to enable an Alexa skill is to tell it to (assuming you know the skill), enable it through the Skills Store website, or through the Alexa app.
The Echo Show should have access to some apps to make up for Alexa’s shortcomings.
A home screen that lists every Alexa Skill easily searchable and discoverable from the Echo Show itself just makes sense. Tap, tap, tap…boom several new skills enabled. Alexa Skills discovery is a huge pain point right now.
Whenever I visit people and see they’ve got an Echo set up, I always ask them what Alexa Skills they have. The answer is always the same: Nothing special. Why? Because finding Skills is frustrating.
Listen, Amazon: The Echo Show has a nice touchscreen, but it’s underutilized. But you can give it some real purpose. There’s nothing wrong with letting the Echo Show do more, and it would also help justify the ridiculous price. It wouldn’t take much work, either. All it needs is a little software update, and maybe we can finally get some good use out of this thing.