REVIEW: Amazon's newest Echo speaker is not for everyone

Welcome to the big show.

On June 28, Amazon will release its $US229 Echo Show in the US market, the latest entry in the retail giant’s line of Echo smart speakers.

Like the other Echo devices, the Echo Show is powered by the Alexa virtual assistant, which lets you use simple voice commands to get the weather, set alarms and timers, peruse the news, control smart thermostats and light bulbs, and even shop on Amazon.

The Echo Show, however, is different in one big way: It sports a 7-inch touchscreen. To use Amazon’s tagline, “now Alexa can show you things.” Wisely, Amazon is hyping up the ability to use it as a video phone, but it has some other neat tricks, too.

I’ve been using the Echo Show for the last several days. It’s an intriguing experiment, and it will get a lot of Alexa fans excited. But it probably isn’t for everyone.

Here’s the deal with the Echo Show. Editor’s note: It’s unclear when the Echo Show might be available for the Australian market, although Amazon is known to be working on Alexa products as part of its rollout Down Under.

Meet the Amazon Echo Show, which will sell for $229. It looks like a tablet mounted on a big speaker base.

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Like the original Amazon Echo, pictured here, the Echo Show is powered by the Alexa voice assistant. Alexa can perform simple tasks, answer basic questions, and even control your smart-home devices, just by asking her.

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The Echo Show does all of that, too. It looks like a tablet, and it does indeed have a touchscreen, but the primary way you're going to interact with the Echo Show is via voice. And you can shout commands at it across the room in the same way, too.

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Amazon Echo

Hardware-wise, the Echo Show isn't particularly petite. It sports fewer microphones than the stock Echo, but Amazon promises that software magic makes it just as responsive. And its sound isn't quite as good as the regular Echo, but it's still pretty solid.

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The screen gives the Echo Show the ability to perform some neat new tricks. For instance, if you ask Alexa to play a song from Amazon Prime, the lyrics appear, karaoke-style. (Echo Show still works with other services, like Spotify, but you don't get the words on screen.)

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And if you ask Alexa to buy something from Amazon, the Echo Show pulls up a few options for you to choose from. This is where the touchscreen comes in handy.

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A lot of the more popular built-in Alexa apps get that little touchscreen touch-up. Your weather becomes a multi-day forecast you can swipe through; you can ask Alexa to show you your calendar and then scroll through it.

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The flagship feature on the Echo Show, though, is video calling using the speakers and the built-in camera.

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Recently, Amazon added the ability for any Alexa-powered device to make free voice calls to any other Alexa device, or anyone using the Alexa smartphone apps. The launch of the Echo Show will add video calling to Alexa's repertoire -- provided the person on the other end also has a screen to see you.

Speaking of video chat, the Echo Show also sports a feature called 'Drop In.' This feature lets you choose a select few people who can remotely activate your Echo Show's camera and 'drop in' on you without your needing to pick up the call. For the first few seconds after dropping in, it shows through this 'frosted glass' effect -- giving you time to hang up if you're not ready for virtual company.

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The Echo Show's screen gets put to good use elsewhere: You can ask Alexa to show you movie trailers, play movies from Amazon Prime Video, pull up videos from YouTube (with age-restriction guidelines in place by default), and display your Amazon Prime Photos library.

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Alexa's 'skills,' or apps, also come along to the Echo Show. Skills like AllRecipes, Uber, and NPR have been updated to use the screen. That means that when you ask AllRecipies how to make the perfect grilled cheese, you see it in front of you while you cook.

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Another neat thing is that Echo Show will actually integrate with common smart security cameras, like those from Nest or Ring, so you can tell Alexa 'pull up the nursery' and it will show the feed on your screen. I couldn't test this particular functionality myself, but given that Alexa already rules the smart home, it could come in handy.

Amazon
The Echo Show comes in black or white.

So how do I like it? Well... it's complicated. See, Alexa works as well as it always has, the range at which it can hear your voice is impressive as ever, and I'm a particular fan of the karaoke sing-along mode.

Amazon

Still, it's hard to see where it might fit into your life. The benefit of the original Echo lineup of devices is that they're relatively discreet. You can put them on a bookshelf across the room and still have a full conversation with Alexa. It frees you, somewhat, from the tyranny of staring at a glowing rectangle just to get the Giants score.

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Right to left: Amazon Echo Dot, Amazon Echo Tap, and Amazon Echo.

It's hard to grasp where the Echo Show might fit into your life, though. In this still from Amazon's promo trailer, it's seen as kind of an alarm clock. But if you need a screen in the bedroom, you might already have some kind of TV, laptop, or at least a smartphone. Same for the living room.

Amazon

(It'd make a lousy alarm clock, anyway. As near as I can tell, you can't dim the screen. It's always on, and it's always nice and bright.)

At the same time, I actually found it to be kind of cool in the kitchen. I was able to browse news headlines, check my calendar, and watch a few movie trailers while I was doing dishes. If I had needed one, I could have pulled up a recipe, too. It was, I have to admit, less intrusive than picking up a phone.

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Still, that's pretty limited. I have a feeling that lots of Alexa fans are going to read this and go 'yes! That's exactly what I need!' But it's not quite the game-changing breakthrough that was the original Echo -- and I doubt most people are looking to put another screen in their house.

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