Amazon’s Evolving Echo/Alexa Products : Still Not Quite Perfect

Amazon's new Echo Show 5. You can see its wedge shape, large bezel, and the optional (unnecessary) stand.

The new Echo Show 5 is Amazon’s most moderate priced fusion of a screen placed onto an Alexa/Echo audio control device.

We’ve long held there’s a need to augment Alexa’s excellent voice capabilities with a supplementary screen/visual interface.

While this unit is a great step forward, sadly it is not yet a full answer to this requirement.

When Amazon came out with their Alexa voice operated service and the Echo units that offer it, we commented in our first review that an omission and weakness was the lack of any visual display.  In particular, the concept of asking for a recipe – something they proudly cited as a good use for Alexa – seemed nonsensical without being able to see on a screen the ingredients, the preparation steps, etc.

Since that time, Amazon has made several efforts to address this weakness, but with no great success to date.  It released the ridiculous Echo Spot – way overpriced at $130 in September 2017, with a tiny circular screen that was too small to be much other than an alarm clock.

This was actually Amazon’s second attempt at putting a screen onto an Echo device.  A few months prior, it came out with the Echo Show in June 2017.  This unit had a reasonablye sized 7″ touchscreen, but was in an oversized bulky surround, and was unrealistically expensive at a breathtaking $230.  As we observed at the time, you could buy one of their regular 7″ Fire tablets ($50), and an Echo Dot ($50), and have better functionality at a less than half the cost.

A year later, a much better Echo Show, with a generous 10.1″ screen, was released.  Also priced at $230, but now with a much nicer design and much larger screen, it still was more expensive than buying their lovely Amazon Fire 10.1″ tablet ($150 for a unit that has a very much better quality screen on it than the Echo Show) that already has a voice-activated Alexa capability built into it.  You could also add a separate Echo Dot device ($50), and still be less than the price of the Show, but at least it was no longer as ridiculously overpriced as was the first generation Echo Show.

As an interesting and exciting point currently, Amazon are selling refurbished first generation Echo Show units for just $85.22.  This is a great price.  It is even less expensive than the new Echo Show unit released yesterday, and at present is probably the “sweet spot” in the Echo Show range.  They were even less expensive for a short while, and so we’d recommend quickly buying one while they remain available.

So, with this as history and background, Amazon this week released their latest model Echo Show.  Following their earlier approach with other devices, after first trying to get “top dollar” from early adopters, they are now coming out with a product that is more realistically priced and designed for the mass market.  Priced at a more modest $89.99 (less if you buy two), this unit has a smaller 5.5″ color touchscreen – only about a quarter the size of the large 10.1″ Show, but Amazon hopes you’ll find it big enough for most casual uses.

We preordered this as soon as it was announced and received our unit on Wednesday and have spent some time getting to know it subsequently.  Actually, the learning curve was delightfully easy and simple – in large part because one could simply follow along the on-screen prompts to get the unit configured, connected to Wi-Fi, and added to our Amazon account.  This was just as well, because it came with only the briefest of instructions, and a tiny card “cheat sheet” with 28 suggested voice commands to try.

To put those 28 voice commands into context, Amazon says that currently there are more than 80,000 “skills” (think of them as analogous to apps on a smart phone) available for Alexa, so clearly the 28 is barely scratching the service.  We’ve prepared a more detailed listing of useful commands and how best to use the Alexa service – the most recent version, just now updated, spans 14 pages, and is available for our kind supporters here.  If you’re not yet a supporter, you are of course encouraged to please become one so as to get instant access this and assorted other special supporter-exclusive content.  🙂  For readers still considering becoming a Travel Insider Supporter, we’ve a shorter list that spans six pages, available here.

Also missing on the documentation was any way to contact Amazon support for further help if you encounter problems.  We did encounter a problem, getting Skype to work, which had us frustratedly searching through Amazon pages to find a way to contact someone, and then eventually speaking to a lady in India who knew less about Amazon’s Alexa Show products than we did, and eventually after a further ten minutes on hold, getting to a competent person who helped us solve the problem.

The unit is a wedge shaped triangle, and while you can buy a $20 stand to mount the unit on, we don’t see the need to do this.  It sits well on a desk or bench and the screen is suitably angled upwards.

Sadly, Amazon is moving away from its earlier use of the universal 5V USB power supply for its units.  Instead of using a standard USB connector and power supply, the unit instead has a special 12V adapter and special connector for it.  This is close to an entirely unnecessary change, and just adds to the hassle factor of more power adapters and less compatibility, in case things fail or get lost.

Tantalizingly, right next to the power socket on the back is a USB connector, but this isn’t capable of being used to power the device.  Actually, Amazon doesn’t explain its purpose at all.  There’s also a 1/8″ headphone jack to connect to external speakers (and the unit has Bluetooth if you’d prefer to connect via Bluetooth).

Its Wi-Fi is dual band and supports  a/b/g/n/ac type connections.

The unit has a screen in a 2:1 aspect ratio, and with an only modest resolution 960×480 pixel display.  Most phones with similar sized screens would have close to 2 million pixels on it; this unit has a scant 461,000.  It doesn’t matter too much when viewed from a distance, but if you were to get up closer to the screen, for example to watch a video, you’d be losing 75% of the picture information that is present in all modern 1080P or even 1080I videos.

We did like the fact that the unit has a physical privacy control.  If you want to turn off the camera, you slide a switch on the top of the unit and that slides a physical screen over the front of the camera.  Amazon clearly realizes that we don’t trust the concept of software-based switching, because it is too easy for a hacker to bypass a “video off” setting in software and change it to “video on” and then record us without our realizing it.

Amazon describes the camera as being a 1MP camera.  That probably means a resolution of something like 1280×720 or 1200×800.  They inexplicably choose not to share that with us.  Neither resolution is very good by modern standards.

The screen has what these days looks to be like a very large bezel going around its edges.  Particularly because it isn’t designed as a unit to hold, and with all the space behind the screen in its “wedge” to fit in extra electronics (unlike in a slim phone) there’s no need for anything other than the tiniest of bezels.  Amazon’s design department doesn’t really excel when it comes to designing its Show family of products.

The default display on the screen is a clockface.  Having been engrossed in the minutiae of our lovely Apple Watch and all the screen options and “complications” available there, we eagerly went to set up things on our Show unit, only to be colossally disappointed.  The only options were a very few styles of time display (analog or digital), and showing the date and/or temperature, and various background choices.  That’s a terrible disappointment, and hints at a consistent thing we experienced all the way through – the screen is an afterthought, not an integrated essential part of the Show, and Amazon really wants you to be speaking and listening rather than typing and looking.

As further example of this, we connected one of our email accounts as well.  We can get Alexa to read out emails, but we can’t get Alexa to display a list of emails, or to display individual emails.  This is another very regrettable omission.

You want still another example?  We asked for a weather forecast, and hoped to get a screen visually showing weather for the next some days.  Instead, we got a lengthy speech, and only limited information on the screen and no way to “drill down” to get more.  The extraordinary thing is that our tiny Watch display can cram much more information onto it than Amazon chooses to with its Echo Show.

After attempting to choose the least offensive and least distracting screen display – the last thing we need or want is another electronic/visual distraction in our life – we then started to use Alexa.

Ugh.  Awful!  The sound out of the unit was appalling.  There is a very prominent booming bass that obliterated most of the rest of the frequency range, and a muffled higher frequency range.  This is really strange – and gratuitously unnecessary.  With a unit the size of this Show, there’s no reason why it couldn’t have a halfway decent midrange and higher range sound, and indeed it is the bass that is, in theory, hardest to reproduce with a small sized speaker.  We get a much more neutral and appealing sound out of the tiny Echo Dot devices than we do from this much larger (and more expensive) Show.

Going into the Settings, we dialed the bass way back in the equalizer and added a bit of treble boost, so now the bass isn’t quite as booming, but there’s no high end to talk of at all.  The unit’s sound is a surprising and huge weakness.

We tried using the unit to show us a recipe – the “poster problem” that we’d earlier identified.  That worked moderately well, although the way Amazon formats information on the screen anticipates it being viewed from across the kitchen, rather than close up – few words on the screen at a time, in large type.  For example :

Bake in preheated oven for 20
minutes, stirring occasionally.
Serve immediately.

This filled the screen.

We then thought of another possible use for its screen – to watch video.  We were unsurprised to learn that Amazon doesn’t support Netflix (our special supporter document explains a workaround), but does a decent job of playing its own video streams.  We also called up YouTube, with disappointing results – it was displayed in a web browser, with “other stuff” at the top of the screen and to the right, leaving only a very small window for the video, and there was no way we could discover to enlarge the video to full screen.  Another disappointment, but in this case, most industry observers believe it is a forced workaround due to Google blocking direct access to YouTube from Alexa.

The next use we tried was Skype.  Unexpectedly, and apparently as a result of connecting Alexa to our Skype account, we were told we’d been given 100 free minutes of international calling a month for each of the next two months.  That was a nice bonus.  Skype video calling worked well, and we also have the “bonus” now of whenever a Skype call comes in, it rings on the Alexa Echo units too.  All of them.

We’re not sure if we should be pleased or disappointed though to note that if someone types us a message in Skype, that doesn’t generate any sort of message or notification.  Skype seems to only work for video (and voice) calling, not for sending or receiving typed messages.  Which brings us back to the same point that so many of the Echo Show experiences take us to – whether it be deliberate or just incompetence, Amazon really doesn’t seem to want us using the Alexa Show for anything that isn’t voice related.

Using Alexa for the usual types of commands was sometimes improved compared to a voice only Echo Dot.  For example, asking Alexa to turn on a device brought up a display of the device, and one could touch it on the screen to turn it on and off.  Another very helpful thing was that when setting a timer or reminder or alarm, it would then show this on the screen.  Sometimes I don’t remember if I set an alarm/timer/reminder or not, or am curious to know how long it has to run, and having the information immediately in front of me on the screen saved the need for a voice interaction with Alexa – at least until Alexa decided to “helpfully” take it off the screen, and – to my great annoyance – replace it with unwanted news headlines or advertising or other material that I do not want to see or be distracted by.  I’ve not worked out how to prevent these random attacks of visual pollution, and lack the will to struggle to find a phone number on Amazon’s site again to ask for uncertain help.

The device desperately needs a way for the user to be able to manage what the screen is used for, and not have Amazon take it over and show whatever it chooses.  This is a great annoyance.

Should You Get an Echo Show?

We’ve expressed impatience and disappointment throughout this review with Amazon’s new Echo Show 5.  It has needless restrictions imposed on it, due to an unimaginative limited use of its display screen.

However, we are definitely sold on the concept of Alexa in general, and find it hard to imagine life without Alexa these days.  So the question is really in two parts :

  • If you don’t already have any Alexa devices, should you get this or a less expensive Echo Dot?
  • If you already have Alexa devices, should you retire one and replace it with this new Show device?

To answer the first question first, if you don’t already have any Alexa devices, you definitely should start getting some.  Your four choices would be a refurbished Echo Dot (2nd generation) which is usually available for about $25-30, a new third generation Echo Dot for $50, this new Show 5 for $90, or a refurbished Show 7 for $85.

For only $40 more than a current model Echo Dot, a new Echo Show 5 seems like worth buying.  The screen, while massively less useful than it could and should be, is still a great added feature and convenience, and a small part of us hopes that over the next few months, Amazon will choose to makes its Alexa “skills” more screen friendly.  Of course, that hope ignores the fact that the first Echo Show was released two years ago – after two years, they are still a country mile away from making good use of a screen, so perhaps it is not very likely to expect much progress in the next year or two.

A better comparison though is between a refurbished earlier Echo Dot and a refurbished Echo Show 7.  The 2nd generation Echo Dot seems, to us, to be indistinguishable from the latest third generation, and every bit as good in every relevant respect, and at $25, a great bargain.  Note – occasionally we see 3rd generation Echo Dots also appearing on this listing, and even for the same price.  As for the Show 7, its larger screen is a huge plus, and it is $5 less costly than its newer and smaller stablemate.

So, if you just want to dip your toe into the water to see what Alexa is all about, get the lowest priced Echo Dot you can, and consider the refurbished Echo Show as an alternative.  If nothing else, the screen makes commands and responses a bit easier to follow and understand.

As for the second question, if you already have one or more Echo devices, should you now get a Show as well?  One thing is certain – you’re unlikely to choose to junk any of your current units, and will instead add a new unit to your growing collection.

If you should do this, though, is for you to decide.  If you find yourself wishing there was a screen on your Echo devices, then yes, of course, and perhaps first try the refurbished larger screen lower cost Echo Show.

Summary

The existence of a growing number of Echo Show devices suggests Amazon realizes that its Alexa service can be greatly improved by adding a screen and visual output.  We agree with this concept.

Sadly and strangely, Amazon has yet to get its act together and actually make sensible and full use of the screen capabilities on its Show devices.  However, these limits seem to be software rather than hardware based – in other words, you can buy an Alexa Show unit now and when/if Amazon adds new screen capabilities, they’ll almost surely be added to your existing unit, too.

Sort of recommended.

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