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2017-06-26 12:19:02
Tech Fix: Alexa, What Happens if the Echo Has a Screen? You Get This Review

A week ago, I began testing Amazon’s Echo Show, a new smart speaker that has a touch screen. For due diligence on the device’s capabilities, I ran it through a battery of tests, including its ability to play podcasts, book a restaurant table and list movie showtimes.

Halfway through, I started to come to a conclusion: Using the new smart speaker and its screen is not much different from asking Siri on an iPad to book a restaurant table or saying “OK, Google” to an Android-based phone to create a calendar appointment.

Keep those similarities in mind as the Echo Show becomes available on Wednesday, joining Amazon’s expanding family of Echo products. The Echo speakers are widely adored in homes, where people have put Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant that controls Echo, to work on tasks like creating shopping lists, setting kitchen timers, playing music and turning on the lights.

With the $230 Echo Show, Alexa has gained some new capabilities. The touch screen means that you can ask Alexa to place a video call to a friend, pull up a YouTube video on making ice cream and show you lyrics when you play music. And unlike a tablet or smartphone, the stationary Echo Show sits at a fixed angle and stays plugged in for power at all times, similar to a digital picture frame.

But the device’s kinship to a smartphone’s or tablet’s capabilities are unmistakable. Asking Alexa to do a video call with Echo Show reminded me of asking Siri to do a FaceTime call on an iPhone. Ditto for when I asked Alexa what my day looked like on the Echo Show, which produced the same summary of events as when I asked Google the same question on an Android phone.

After a week of tests, while I concluded that the product is ideal on a kitchen counter or an office desk, I also decided it was superfluous if you already own an Echo speaker and a smartphone or tablet. Whether or not you will be persuaded to buy one will probably hinge on your affinity for Alexa.

The setup process for the Echo Show was one of the easiest and fastest I have ever experienced: Just plug it in and enter your Wi-Fi password and Amazon credentials. From there, I could start putting Alexa to work. (If you use third-party services like Spotify, you have to log in to those as well.)

The Echo Show’s screen constantly stayed on with a background photo of my choice. It displayed the time while rotating through captions showing future calendar events, the weather and tips on questions I could ask Alexa.

Video calling and video playback are the most important features of the Echo Show. After a command like “Alexa, show me how to roast a duck from YouTube,” the screen loaded a list of YouTube videos; each video is numbered, so you could ask Alexa to play a specific clip by naming the number.

You could also ask Alexa to place a call to another Echo customer. When I tried it, the Alexa app synchronized with my smartphone’s address book to determine who else was using an Echo. Then just by asking Alexa to call the name of a contact, I could immediately commence a video call.

What was also nice about the Echo Show’s being stationary is that it remained fixed on a flattering angle of my face. (If you’re tired of staring up people’s nostrils on FaceTime calls, you’ll know what I mean.)

There’s another task that the Echo Show handled better than the Echo speaker: shopping on Amazon. By saying, for example, “Alexa, order me some batteries,” you get the screen to show a list of batteries to choose from. By contrast, with the Echo speaker, the device could only reorder batteries you had bought before — or, if you hadn’t ordered batteries before, choose a pack of batteries for you.

For audio, the Echo Show included two small stereo speakers. They sounded loud and clear but lacking in bass. Compared with fancy speakers, the Echo Show sounded average, but it’s adequate for watching YouTube videos in the kitchen or streaming music if you aren’t a nitpicky audiophile.

The Echo Show is buggy. In my tests with a fellow product reviewer as well as an Amazon spokesman, video calls were inconsistent. While video calls from my apartment looked clear and sounded good, other calls placed from the New York Times building failed to show any video — and, soon after, the calls disconnected. (In both locations, I used a strong Wi-Fi connection.)

There were also some quirks with so-called Skills, which are essentially third-party apps that you can install to expand Alexa’s capabilities. For example, for looking up recipes in the kitchen, I tried a skill by AllRecipes.

But when I told Alexa, “Show me how to make pasta,” the device loaded a list of recipes from AllRecipes.com, and then I had trouble quitting the app. The command “Go home” was supposed to quit the AllRecipes Skill, but it got stuck until I said, “Alexa, quit.”

When I was shopping, the Echo Show displayed a pared-down list of items from Amazon. For example, when I asked Alexa to buy a dog bed, the screen showed only 18 results for dog beds. But searching “dog bed” on Amazon.com brought up hundreds. That’s not to say that more is better, but shopping on the Echo Show will make you wonder if you are missing out on better options.

What I found most baffling about the Echo Show was that the screen always stayed on. Even when I asked Alexa to turn the screen off, it dimmed the screen and showed the time. While that made it act like a digital clock, the background of the screen was still lit up black, emitting a faint glow in the dark. What’s more, the screen turned back on when the camera detected motion.

In other words, light sleepers will not want an Echo Show on their night stands.

Amazon said that third-party Skills had not yet been finalized for the Echo Show, and that for shopping, the device displayed only the top search results to simplify the interface for customers. The company did not have a clear explanation for my video-calling issues.

But the worst part about the Echo Show is its aesthetic design. Reminiscent of a black doorstop, the Echo Show looks like an uninspired piece of tech that you’d find in a Brookstone store or SkyMall catalog.

The Echo Show’s greatest strengths are its stationary applications: getting a quick glance at your calendars while checking the time, for instance, or having a dedicated TV screen in the kitchen for learning recipes. Calendar addicts in the office, people who cook with Alexa and, more broadly, Alexa fans with multiple Echo products deployed throughout the home will love having another Echo, this time with a screen.

But the average person would be wise to wait before buying the Echo Show.

The device is the priciest in the Echo family — $50 more than the Echo speaker and $180 more than the Echo Dot, the miniature version of the speaker. And it remains to be seen what third-party companies do with applications designed for an always-on screen that stays put.

Until then, you could always grab a tablet you already own, put it on a stand and leave it plugged in. The results will most likely be the same.