The most important thing to know about the new $229.99 Echo Show, an Alexa speaker with a screen, is what it doesn’t do. You basically never need to tap the screen for anything, unless you really want to. There is not an “app store” where you hunt around for new things to add to your screen. It sits on your counter, answers your questions, sets your timers, and occasionally displays useful information. That’s it, and that’s great.
From nearly any other company, adding a screen would have resulted in feature-itis of the worst kind. By holding back, the Echo Show feels like it does more. Its strength is in its simplicity.
Like the standard Echo before it, the Show is pretty uninteresting at first glance. It’s a wedge-shaped device with a middling seven-inch touchscreen tablet built-in, flanked by a webcam and a big, ugly speaker grille. It’s pretty bulky — not the sort of thing you want to move around from room to room.
The Echo won me over one morning. It’s legitimately helpful in that scrum between waking up and getting to the train. It’s an alarm clock and a weather and traffic reporter all in one, and after Alexa gives you a an audible response, the information lingers on the display, letting you interact with it on the touchscreen. In the case of, say, the weather, you can keep swiping right to get more information for the rest of the week.
Every morning, as I survey the landscape of jeans and blue gingham shirts in my dresser, I ask Alexa about the weather. One day last week, as my virtual assistant chirped out of Amazon’s new Echo Show smart speaker, I noticed the voice sounded muffled. I walked into the kitchen and found the Show’s 7-inch screen facing the wall. Weird. I asked Anna, my fiancée, if she’d moved it. “Yeah,” she said, between yoga poses on our living room floor. “It has a camera, it’s creepy. I didn’t want it watching me.”
Still, I find the Show’s potential fascinating. The Alexa ecosystem has grown big enough that I suspect Netflix and Hulu will soon make video skills, most smart-home manufacturers will support the new device, and games and apps will pop up all over the place. Alexa’s voice recognition works well enough to make all of this work, and developers can access the camera, the screen, the microphone, and the speaker. The Echo Show is basically an always-on, plugged-in smartphone, which could become hugely powerful.
A lot of companies make successful products because of their prowess in industrial design, but Amazon manages to despite it.