Amazon has struggled to extend its Alexa audio service into the realm of video. This latest product shows the struggle is ongoing and far from resolved.
After introducing the first Echo (audio only) device in March 2014, and after steady sales success and acceptance, Amazon released its first video enabled device, the original Echo Show, in May 2017. This had a 7″ diagonal screen and a web cam, and sold for $230 – at about the same time, Amazon was selling Alexa-capable 7″ Fire tablets for around $50, so this was a massively more expensive device.
Fifteen months later the Echo Show was replaced by a 10″ screened product, and subsequently two more models were introduced, with 5″ and 8″ screens.
What are the screens used for? They can be used for video conferencing with other Show devices. They can be used to watch video. They can be used to monitor compatible security cameras. They can display visual versions of things that are hard to succinctly describe by voice alone such as recipes and weather forecasts. They can also save time if you ask Alexa to recite items on a shopping list. They can show reminders and calendar/appointment information. They can become an “intelligent picture frame” and scroll through a library of saved pictures. The can also, to a very limited extent, be used as an input device, too, via their touch screen and conceivably a touch-screen style keyboard like on a smart phone.
In other words, in theory, there are a lot of things you can use a screen for. But, somehow, the potential and promise of an added screen has never lived up to the much more limited reality of how Amazon has awkwardly bolted a video screen onto its underlying Alexa voice capabilities.
Which brings us to the present day, and Amazon’s release last week of a new Echo Show – this time, with an enormous 15″ screen. The most exciting thing about this new device was not just the larger screen per se, but the promise of the screen becoming more “useful”. In particular, an increasingly felt limitation of the Echo Show units is the screen can’t be split into multiple windows. If you have one type of data showing on the screen, it takes the screen over. Going from the tiny 5″ Echo to the four times larger 10″ Echo (yes, remember that if you double the screen diagonal, you increase the screen area four-fold) didn’t mean you could have four times more information on the screen, or four “virtual” Echo 5 screens. It just meant you could see the same screen of data, simply in larger size.
So the ability to have multiple windows seemed like a tremendous leap forward. With the generous financial help of several Travel Insider Supporters, I ordered and received a Show 15, and have spent the last several days putting it through its paces. You can see an initial “unboxing video” I made of it here, if you wish.
The unit was well packed for shipping, and when it emerged from its box, was stunning in size and full of exciting potential. But it only took a very few minutes to realize that its stunning size (and matching weight) was not necessarily a good thing. It was surprisingly thick, and had a huge “old fashioned” bezel running around the screen. It was also heavy.
I compared it with three other devices. This table tells it all.
|Show 15||15.6″||1920×1080||15.9″ x 9.95″||1.4″||4lb 14oz|
|Asus MB169B+ External Screen||15.6″||1920×1080||14.9″ x 9.25″||0.35″||1lb 12oz|
|Android 10″ Tablet||10.1″||1920×1200||9.5″ x 6.4″||0.38″||1lb 4oz|
|LG Gram Laptop||17″||2560×1600||15.0″ x 10.24″||0.70″||2lb 15oz|
Every part of the Show 15’s specifications are disappointing. An identically-screened external Asus monitor is an inch less wide, 0.7″ less tall, one quarter the thickness and one third the weight. My laptop, with a larger and very much better screen, is smaller, half the thickness (even when closed shut including the keyboard half) and, including its 15+ hour battery (the Show 15 has no battery) still weighs little more than half the weight.
While recognizing that weight isn’t completely a deal breaking issue because the Show 15 is not meant to be portable, how is it that Amazon released a product that is instantly “old fashioned” in its design and dimensions and so distinctively (but not in a good way) bulky and big? How can a complete laptop, with a bigger screen, a keyboard, and long life battery, be smaller, thinner, and lighter?
It seems that Amazon has deliberately added the utterly unnecessary thick white bezel and then secondary black frame to cause the screen to look like a wall picture, indeed that was my daughter’s immediate reaction on seeing it – “Oh, you’ve got a new picture frame”.
The unit comes with a “wall wart” type 30W power supply. Sadly, rather than accepting power through an industry standard USB-C connector and using a PD compatible power supply, Amazon uses its own power supply and plug. The cord from the unit that plugs into a power outlet and the Show’s screen is stated by Amazon as being 5′, but it measures a little bit shorter. This can be a problem, particularly if you’re wanting to mount it on a wall somewhere. Amazon will sell you “extension cords”, each being 6 feet in length and costing $13 (currently with a 16 day wait between ordering and receiving it). If you really need a lot of length, you can daisy-chain a reasonable number of the extension cords together (because it is just low-current power, not data).
There’s also a puzzling micro-USB connector next to the power connector, on the back of the unit. What is that for? Amazon is silent on that point, and although I asked a question on their site about that, there’s not yet been an answer. Some sort of future enhancement potential? Maybe so, but if that is the case, it is unfortunate that Amazon chose an obsolete micro-USB connector rather than what has been the new standard style of connector for some years already – the USB-C.
The unit has speakers on each side (if you’re mounting it in landscape mode), or on the top and bottom if in portrait mode, and plays stereophonic music sources. The sound can go loud and is of better-than-expected quality. If you want to augment the sound, you can “connect” it logically through the Alexa app on your smartphone to external speakers and even a sub-woofer too.
The screen is reasonably good, although far from high resolution. My phone screen and iPod both have better resolution than this unit. I also noticed that off-axis viewing would quickly diminish the brightness and contrast of the image being displayed.
There are four controls on the unit – a physical blocking slide to obscure the camera, a logical camera/microphone on/off button, and volume up and down controls.
A tiny little booklet seems to be more focused on showing you how to mount the unit rather than how to use the Show 15, and most of its advice is generically about the Alexa voice app, rather than how to configure and best use the Show 15.
Where to Put It And How?
The earlier Show units had bases on them, so all you needed was a flat surface to place them on. This unit has no base, and being larger and heavier, the question of where to place it is a non-trivial issue to optimize.
It does come with a metal mounting bracket. You drill four holes into the wall, screw the bracket into the wall, and then place the unit on the bracket. The bracket and the mounting design on the back of the unit allows you to mount it either horizontally (“landscape mode”) or vertically (“portrait mode”). That’s fine, but I hesitated at the thought of drilling four holes into the wall and more or less committing myself to a location. It is likely to be something you move around a bit as your pattern of usage evolves, based on how you use it and what it can do for you, and what other Alexa units you have and add in the future.
Amazon will also sell you a tilt stand for $30, or a tilt and swivel stand for $40. A third choice is an under-cabinet mount for $50. All three products seem to be greatly overpriced for what they are.
I’ve ordered a tilt and swivel stand, but although ordered at the same time as the unit (19 November) it won’t arrive until some time between 14 – 22 December – ie, sometime between today (Tuesday 14 Dec) and next Wednesday. Amazon has so lost the plot that it doesn’t even know to within eight days when something ordered almost a month earlier might arrive; and I’ll wager – it now being mid afternoon on Tuesday – that the tantalizing hope it might arrive today is unlikely to eventuate. The shipping status page shows it has yet to be shipped.
The Show unit itself was also delivered later than promised. I’ll let you know when the stand arrives and update this review to comment on that after it has been received.
Update : The stand didn’t arrive until 21 January.
The “where” you place it part of the question is probably as important as the “how”. Amazon envisages it as becoming a “family information hub” where family members can leave virtual “post it note” messages for each other, check their respective diaries to understand where everyone is, have a communal shopping list, and no doubt other apparently helpful things, too. In that case, you’d want it somewhere public, visible, accessible. But even that information, while mostly (!) suitable for sharing among family members, might not always be so appropriate for other people to see. Do you really want the gossipy next-door neighbor seeing reference to a doctor’s visit regarding an unrevealed pregnancy or severe ailment? Do you really want a work colleague seeing an appointment for your job interview with a competing company?
Using the Echo Show 15
Now for the difficult part of the review. How to fairly describe the frustrations and disappointments of the last several days using the Show 15?
I had probably been hoping for too much prior to receiving the unit. The small Echo Show 5 does not make good use of its screen, but that can perhaps be partly excused by it being a small screen. The ability to have multiple windows open, each reporting on a different thing, which was implied in the promotional pictures of the Show 15, were very appealing, and I dared to hope that after having had more than four years of experience with other Show devices, Amazon might have finally come up with a good way of adding video features to their audio interface.
Sadly, this proved not to be the case at all, and I’m left puzzled by how such a huge and successful company, full of tens of thousands of very clever people, can come up with such a disgraceful disappointment of a flagship product.
There is what is termed a widget gallery allowing you to add some number of widgets (perhaps better described as tiles – they are in two standard sizes, one being three times wider than the other) to the “home screen” display of the unit. The screen is laid out to allow up to six small widget places; if you add more than six widgets, they are not visible unless you swipe the widget window to open it up further, which then shows nine widgets in portrait orientation or eight and two half widgets in landscape orientation. The extended view of more widgets automatically closes after a while – apparently Amazon would prefer to use the rest of the screen to show you things it wants to show you, not things you want to see.
The one third of the screen that can’t have widgets added basically “belongs” to Amazon, giving it a chance to barrage you with unwanted messages, offers, and other distractions and visual clutter. Hey, Amazon – this is my Show unit, not yours.
I have a great dislike for visual clutter in my work environment. The problem is that if I see movement out of the corner of my eye, I turn to look to see what it is, and that breaks my concentration on whatever I’m doing. There’s an automatic response, with an underlying assumption that if something is appearing on the screen, it must be important. Sadly, it never is important, but is a continual distraction. So, how about this for a total failure – I’ve put the Show 15 somewhere out of sight!
There is an ability to reduce the visual clutter. You should touch and hold on that part of the screen and wait until some options appear. Choose the Settings option, and turn off most of the things that might appear on that part of the screen.
Back to the widgets, which at present comprise :
- Alexa Suggestions
- Calendar and Reminders – Daily/Monthly
- Calendar and Reminders – Daily
- Favorite Photos
- Maps (large)
- Maps (normal)
- Music and Audio (large)
- Music and Audio (normal)
- Reorder Suggestions
- Shopping List
- Smart Home Favorites
- Sticky Notes
- To-Do List
- What to Eat
- Your Deliveries
Hopefully these 17 choices might become more numerous and truly useful in the future. Currently, they are massively under featured and as much frustrating as helpful. Plus, it is also worth noting that – depending on your definition – probably at least half of these widgets are designed to bring you closer in to the Amazon eco-system. They are for Amazon’s benefit, not for yours.
That might be acceptable if the unit was bargain priced at a level obviously at or below cost price. But it isn’t. At $250, it is far from inexpensive, and clearly profitable for Amazon.
Now let’s look at some of these widgets and why I don’t like them. For example, one widget shows my pending Amazon orders/deliveries by date. That is great, but it doesn’t tell me what is being delivered – it just shows generic pictures of boxes. One would hope that tapping a box picture would reveal what is inside, but it doesn’t. Apparently, there’s some option in the Alexa App or somewhere else that might be able to turn this on or off, but I don’t want to have to now dig out my phone, and work through layers of app menus to find the option and change it. I want to simply change it, on the device itself, which is of course logical and intuitive.
Instead, currently the Show 15 is telling me I have one delivery coming today, and one item already delivered today. Does that mean in total I have two deliveries today? You could be excused for thinking so, but no, that is just its puzzling way of saying “You had one item to be delivered today, and it has already been delivered”. Why is it continuing to tell me “You have one item arriving today” after it has arrived, and after Amazon has sent “Your package has been delivered” messages to my phone and email? Who designs an interface so unhelpful as that?
To add insult to injury, the notifications I get about deliveries from Amazon on my cell phone are excellent, clear, complete and correct. The delivery I received today was fully described on my cell phone notification (in terms of what was inside the package). Why not also on the Echo Show 15?
There is a shopping list widget that is frustratingly worse than useless. I have four or five different lists I use regularly – a Costco list, a Trader Joe’s list, a “regular supermarket” list, and assorted other specialized lists. But the shopping list widget will only show items on the single default shopping list, not on any of the other lists. What is the point of allowing you to maintain multiple lists, but only allowing you to display the default list on the Show widget?
A similar weakness applies to its display of Alexa-controllable devices. It shows a list of “favorite” devices, but doesn’t give you the ability to specify which ones are your favorites, or how to order them in the list. That is very frustrating. I want to decide which are my favorite devices, not have Amazon decide for me.
Even worse, the list of devices includes a bunch of “false negative” status messages – “unresponsive” and “network error”, for example, even when the devices actually work perfectly and respond to my commands. This is another widget that succeeds brilliantly at annoying rather than assisting you in your life.
I’d really love to have the Amazon thermostat (reviewed here) displayed in a widget all the time, telling me simultaneously the temperature it is set to and the current temperature (and humidity) it is measuring. But there’s no way to do that. When I ask what the temperature is, the Show 15 shows me the temperature, but takes up the entire screen to do so (or, I just tried again now, and this time it didn’t show anything on the screen and just said “the average temperature inside the home is 68 degrees”).
I’d really love to have camera widgets allowing me to monitor selected security cameras all the time. There’s no way to do that.
I’d like a weather widget that shows me not just weather for later today but also for tomorrow and subsequently. But there’s no way to configure that, so currently at 3pm, it tells me the current weather (sort of, it says it is raining but it is not), plus the forecast for 6pm, 9pm, midnight, and 3am, but that is all.
If I ask the unit to play Classic FM, the entire enormous screen is taken over by an empty screen telling me it is playing Classic FM (well, actually, I did that just now and only got a blank screen, with nothing else at all). But whether it is the entire screen saying “Classic FM now playing” or a blank screen, in both cases it is a ridiculous use of the screen. All the other information in all the other widgets disappear.
I set a calendar entry for today, but when I got up this morning, there was nothing on the screen to tell me of my 10.30am appointment. A good job I wasn’t relying on the Show 15 to tell me. Happily, my computer and phone were both eagerly telling me of the appointment, but the Show 15 failed to tell me.
Some commands which work on the Echo Show 5 (and non-screened Echoes) don’t work on this unit, and sometimes after a command it doesn’t recognize, the unit becomes unresponsive for a while before internally resetting itself and starting to work again. If the unit doesn’t recognize a command, I want to be able to immediately repeat it, or use a different phrase, not have to wait around waiting for the unit to time out, give up, and reset. This is supposed to be a time-saving convenience, not an annoying time-wasting frustration. (It just did it again – first it gave the wrong response, then the second request by me caused it to lock up. Aaagh!)
Overall, it seems to be worse at voice recognition than my other Echo units. I’ve a mix of six or seven different types/generations of Alexa device, some of which are now quite old, but all seem better at voice recognition than this, even though it is the newest and most expensive of them all. Maybe it is just in a bad place, but if that is so, that is even more cause for concern – how would you like to drill the holes into your wall, mount the Show, then only subsequently find out that its fussy acoustics didn’t like the location.
Similar to the other Show units, Amazon offers the ability to display your own photos as a background for the unit, or in a panel on the unit reserved (more or less) for displaying photos. This is, to my mind, a “dangerous” feature – particularly the options to show historic photos of you, generally in the past, and/or on the same day in previous years.
Even the showing random recent pictures can be less than desirable – the recent pictures which somehow (I’m not exactly sure how!) Amazon knows about are a mix of “work” photos, blurry mistakes, junk I haven’t deleted yet, as well as a few memorable pictures I’d like to return to and see again. Increasingly, as Amazon reaches into the past, the photos become either less relevant or more embarrassing. As a single man, would I really want a lady I’d invited around for a visit to see a series of pictures of me with other women?
I asked the unit to open YouTube, which it did within its Silk web browser. But how could I then type something into the YouTube search bar? How could I log in to YouTube so it would know what to show me? I tried tapping in the place you’d type, but nothing happened. No keyboard appeared. Subsequently I found that (I think) if you swipe from the top, a keyboard appears to allow you to type a URL into the Silk browser, but at that point, the entire unit froze so severely I had to unplug and replug it to reset/restart it. When it had restarted, I confirmed there seems to be no way to type into YouTube’s search bar. What another inexplicable and colossal fail.
I should add that the touch-screen is not very responsive, and sometimes does the wrong thing. For example, when trying to swipe to the left to open up the widget management controls, many times my swipe is interpreted as a widget touch rather than as a swipe. Another pinprick of frustration.
There is a semi-spooky feature where it offers to recognize people as they appear in the view of the camera and to tailor the information on the screen for them. So you could leave a message for your spouse or child, and when the unit sees them, that message would appear on the screen. That is a bit too much sharing for me, and I’ve the camera switched off, but perhaps I’ll come to terms with that in the future and enable it. But the thought of Amazon being able to recognize me – and not just in my own home, but on anyone/everyone’s Ring or Blink cameras, and in its Whole Foods supermarkets, and goodness only knows where else – that’s a bit too much loss of privacy for me to be comfortable with at present.
I could continue with more frustrations and annoyances and limitations, but by now you’ve probably got the picture.
Amazon has had four and a half years of disappointing failure to do a decent job of integrating video features with its Alexa voice-based assistant services. The Show 15 demonstrates that the four and a half years have been completely wasted, because the Show 15 is, if anything, more frustrating and annoying than its several predecessors.
It is not inexpensive. The Echo Show 15 is priced at $250, and it is probable it won’t be discounted much or maybe not at all until some time next year (perhaps the Prime Day specials?). You don’t get a lot for your $250.
While I love gadgets, and instinctively want to love every new gadget I encounter, I’m having to give this product a thumbs-down and recommend you do not buy one.
The good news is that all the limitations in the unit are software based, not hardware based. In other words, there’s nothing preventing Amazon from improving and upgrading the unit in the months that follow. Essentially all it needs are more and better widgets, and a more flexible screen layout.
Maybe, in six months time, we’ll both look back at this review and laugh when comparing how useless the unit is today with how greatly improved it has become over the next six months. I truly hope so – but noting the lack of progress in the last 4 1/2 years, perhaps wait until things are improved, rather than buy one now and hope.