Looking to set up a smart home? PAT PILCHER checks out Amazon’s new Echo Show smart home hub and discovers an elegant and useful addition for his kitchen bench.
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Hidden away among Amazon’s recent echo device announcements was the 2018 version of the Echo Show (around $400.00). It’s a powerful version of Amazon’s already hugely popular Echo range of smart speakers, but it has one crucial difference – it sports a 10” colour touchscreen, which adds a whole new level of usefulness to an already nifty piece of hardware.
Amazon long ago wisely chose to adopt an ongoing approach to learning how its users interact with Alexa, the digital assistant tucked away under the hood of their Echo gear. At a practical level, this equates to Amazon figuring out just what interactions are best delivered verbally and which are best visually (or touched) on an ongoing basis and continually making small refinements and tweaks. The Echo Show demonstrates the approach is working well.
Where the Echo Dots I have scattered around my home are discreet and can be tucked away to listen and be heard but not seen, the Echo Show commands more presence. This is thanks to that 10-inch display along with rear/side firing speakers. Where the previous version had a speaker underneath its smaller display, this time, Amazon has (wisely) chosen to make the screen take up the entire frontage for the Echo Show.
Behind the display is a small array of speakers. These give the device an elongated triangular form factor that cleverly gives it stability when sitting on a kitchen bench, shelf or table. The rear has a white (or charcoal) fabric speaker cover. Its speakers come equipped with 2” neodymium drivers, plus a passive bass radiator. It delivered surprisingly deep bass and bright audio.
The audio is a definite improvement over what I’d been used to with the Dots.
Music and TVNZ content was listenable and had plenty of body and depth. That said, the Echo Show won’t replace my home audio system any time soon. It still does an excellent job for casual listening while cooking a meal or having breakfast.
Another handy feature is the addition of a Zigbee smart hub. This allowed me to control Philip Hue bulbs as well as checking to see who was at my front door via the Ring doorbell and unlocking my Yale smart lock with nothing more than my voice. No additional Zigbee or Z-Wave hubs were needed, reducing gadget clutter.
Both Zigbee and Zwave are popular smart home protocols, so lights, plugs, doorbells, locks, vacuum cleaners and other gear from a range of manufacturers can be easily connected and controlled via the Show. Non-Zigbee/Zwave hardware such as my Ring doorbell, Logitech Harmony universal remote, Arlo and D-Link cameras were also a doddle to connect and drive, making the Echo Show the hub of my evolving smart home.
With Zwave or Zigbee Hubs costing at least $150 to $200, the inclusion of a hub in the Show definitely adds to its appeal for anyone building a smart home who is watching their pennies.
One of the significant strengths of Amazon’s Echo platform and Alexa is its support for a vast number of home automation widgets.
I particularly liked how I could say “Alexa, show me the Ring front door” to see – and talk – to whoever was at the front door.
Changing TV channels was as easy as saying “Alexa change to Discovery channel” and my Logitech Harmony’s hub would beam the appropriate commands at my TV.
There are still gaps. While the Sonos skill lets me stream radio stations to the Sonos gear around my house, I have yet to work out how to stream ripped CDs off my NAS drive via Alexa.
On top of the Echo Show display are three buttons: volume up/down, mic mute and front-facing camera enable/disable. As handy as the option to turn off mics and cameras is, those really wanting privacy can also choose to turn the device off.
In use, it recognised all the commands I mumbled at it regardless of me being on the other side of the room or standing right next to it. Where some speech recognition gizmos can struggle with Kiwi accents, Alexa copes just fine.
The Echo show’s screen displays news and other information. Some of the news headlines can also be tapped which lets you drill down into any info that takes your fancy. News items, weather and sports results are all passively pushed out to you, which proved surprisingly handy.
Just like with an oversized smartphone, swiping downwards from the top of the screen lets you adjust settings and customise the home screen. The addition of a lights shortcut provides quick access to any smart lights you’ve got connected, and there also a routines button. These are basically collections of skills that can be started with just a single phrase, allowing you to, for instance, play some jazz, warm and dim the lights and flick on the heating.
As these controls are tucked away, the home screen has an uncluttered look and feel. This appears to have been a conscious design decision by Amazon, and it’s one that makes a lot of sense. Having a smart speaker/display is pointless if it is really nothing more than a bigger version of your smartphone or tablet. The clean home screen makes using voice commands a must – and that’s the main reason you’d buy the Echo Show in the first place.
That said, Amazon has made some concessions to non-voice activated use by touch enabling the screen. This allows you to scroll through news, recipes and other on-screen info.
About the only real negative, I found wasn’t Amazon’s fault so much as Google banning their own apps from Amazon gear. Instead of such anti-competitive behaviour, perhaps Google and Amazon need to learn to play nice as YouTube, Google Music and the Google search engine would have been fantastic additions to the Echo Show.
Hopefully, sanity will prevail, and Google will realise that their ‘do no evil’ corporate mantra should also apply to not exercising their dominant position to act anti-competitively. With YouTube easily being the most prominent video service online and so tightly integrated into Google’s search engine, Google is in a prime position to exploit their strengths in this space, leaving competitors such as Amazon at a significant disadvantage. It is pretty poor behaviour.
There is a workaround, using the Echo Show’s browser, but it is clunky. For now, you’re mostly locked into Amazon’s ecosystem and, as good as they are, broader support for other services would take the Show from excellent to amazing.
One nifty feature is the device’s ability to act like a smartphone, sending messages to contacts, calling other Echo devices, and placing video calls and Drop-ins. The usefulness of this will increase significantly with Skype support expected to kick in soon.
A lot of the Echo shows functionality comes down to the availability of Visual Alexa Skills. While there are more available now than last year, Amazon needs to get existing developers to update skills for visual support as well as bringing new developers on board. I particularly liked the screensaver skills that transformed an inactive Echo Show into a fireplace or fishpond.
Much of the video support of the Echo is US/Australian centric, but I was able to get TVNZ One News to stream as my daily news briefing. Here’s hoping Amazon can get more kiwi video partnerships up and running.
The 2018 Echo Show plays well to Amazon’s strengths. Its smart home chops and support for a vast range of third-party smart home widgets is hard to beat. The screen and improved audio also make it an elegant and useful addition to my kitchen bench. It’s early days for this category of hardware, but Amazon have so far done an excellent job of building a smart home hub with a touch screen and voice support. If you’re looking to set up a smart home, the Echo Show should be one of the first items on your shopping list.