If you can stomach the price (or get it on offer), the Echo Show's screen adds a lot of useful functionality to your virtual assistant. However, that doesn't include Netflix or YouTube, and that'll kill it for many people.
Great design, ideal for recipes and news, lots of third-party Skills to add functionality
No Netflix. No YouTube. Weird, unnecessary video calling addition that means there's yet another camera in your house. It's also really expensive.
THE FIRST thing that hits you when you take your boxfresh new Amazon Echo Show out of its glossy packaging is something that must have also troubled the first people to buy TVs: where in our beautifully-arranged houses are we going to put this newfangled thing?
It's not hard to find a space for a smart speaker, because it's just a speaker. Anywhere you can hear it (and it can hear you) is fine, and most of them look unobtrusive in an air freshener sort of way. But the Echo Show is different. It's an Alexa speaker with a screen, so it needs to be somewhere you can see it, but not somewhere it's going to annoy you. It constantly cycles through 'cards' including your upcoming appointments, pretty pictures and news headlines, so putting it right next to the TV was an error. Not much can tear my eye away from RuPaul, but that did.
I tried putting it on my bedside table like an extra-fancy alarm clock, but I don't spend much time in there and the thought of the camera right next to my bed gave me the heebie-jeebies. Yes, it can be turned off, but we all know how hackable these things can be. Anyway, the new Echo Spot seems much better suited to the alarm clock function.
Eventually, I placed it on a table near but not next to the TV, where we usually have an analogue clock so I can tell how long there is until University Challenge. This turned out to be the ideal place for it, since the Echo Show always displays the time, plus other interesting snippets. Some of the news stories it selected were a little bizarre, and finding bad news via Echo Show is kind of weird, but it's definitely useful and I found out about some stuff I wouldn't have otherwise.
When a news story comes up that you're interested in, Echo Show will tell you what to say to find out more information about it. Alternatively, you can tap the screen to read the story. It bugged me slightly that when I asked for more information about a particular story, Echo Show didn't stop showing me the headline after that. I kept seeing it all day. I guess that might be useful for other members of the family, though.
What isn't useful to anyone is appointments on your calendar that continue to show long after they've occurred. Some were still there the day after! There's no excuse for that when the Echo Show has the date and time right there on the homescreen - it's not like it doesn't realise the date was in the past. Additionally, for some reason a lot of my calendar appointments came up as "unknown event", which was a bit daunting, especially for someone who reads too much dystopian fiction. You can adjust what it shows in the settings (say 'Alexa, show settings'), so you can turn off appointments or news stories if you prefer. That's also where you switch the camera off if you want to.
To get back to the home screen, you get to say "Alexa, go home." For fellow 90s Nickelodeon fans, this is deliciously reminiscent of ‘Go home, Roger' from Sister Sister, and in my house is always said in the same exasperated tone just for fun. However, it may not amuse people more mature or less old than me.
Forgetting the words
One of the selling points of the Echo Show is the ability to see lyrics on the screen when you're playing a song. However, it turns out this only works on Amazon Music. Since my music all comes through Spotify, I got the song title, band name and album art, but no words. Disappointing.
On the bright side, the sound quality is very good - much better than I was expecting. The Amazon Echo Show is cleverly designed to hide quite a bit of bulk at the back, where it thins out from the screen, making it look much thinner than it is. There's actually a decent amount of sound tech in there, resulting in a deep, bassy sound that gets loud enough to upset the neighbours if you want to.
However, while Amazon touts the benefits of its beam-forming tech to ensure you're well-heard around the house, we found this not to be the case: Alexa seemed to have much more difficulty hearing us clearly than the Google Home placed in the same room. Sometimes she didn't hear us at all, and sometimes the little blue line that lights up when you say "Alexa" just stayed there until she gave up.
It's probably worth mentioning that our house is pretty noisy and includes pet birds, so it's a harder sound environment than many. However, Alexa is supposed to be able to handle this, but in our experience, she failed more than we expected.
We also didn't find much appeal in the Echo Show's video calling feature. We all have smartphones, we have absolutely zero desire to use a different device to video call people (never mind having to explain it to them). Maybe some people who want to do video calls as a family will appreciate this feature, but for us, it wasn't worth switching from the smartphone apps we currently use.
Available in black or kinda-black
Our review unit is black, but we were amused to see there's also a ‘white' variant which looks almost exactly the same from the front, since it has a black faceplate. Still, you can have a white border and back panel if that's your preference. Either way, the unit is well-designed and very stable: everything else falls over when the cats are playing Wacky Races, but the Echo Show stayed firm. It should also withstand children, and being poked too hard by people who are bad at touchscreens.
The screen is bright and high-res, and while we didn't get to see lyrics, it's still good to see what's playing. It certainly stops my partner asking if everything is Maroon 5 (he only knows one modern band). However, we did spot a few occasions when the screen didn't catch up with what was playing: it committed the cardinal Naughties Girl sin of mixing up Britney Spears with Christina Aguilera because a song of hers had played a few tracks ago and it didn't update. Tut.
Despite hiccups like this, the Echo Show quickly became my preferred way to stream music in the living room, over the Google Home nearby. That's because for some reason that I've never figured out, Echo devices stay connected to Spotify all the time, so you can just start playing music in Spotify and it comes through the speaker without you having to say anything out loud. With Google Home, you always have to say something first. Sometimes you're not in the mood to talk to a computer (and sometimes it's awkward to - ever tried saying "Hey Google" while you're having an argument with your spouse? Cringe), so that's appreciated.
Another area Google Home falls a little short is that the Echo Show, like all Echo devices, can take advantage of the huge library of Alexa skills. That means it's easy to add functionality to the Echo Show via third-party skills (a bit like apps), whereas with Google you have to wait for the Powers That G to add features.
Not all the Alexa skills are useful: in fact a lot of them are questionable - Poop Facts, Pet Rock, Chewbacca Chat and so on - but equally many are. There are loads of trivia and quiz skills, integration with services like Uber and Just Eat, and since there's a screen, lots of recipe content. It's definitely easier to cook with an Echo Show than a virtual assistant with no screen, although bear in mind it'll probably get splattered with stuff like ours did.
However, you won't be able to use that screen for YouTube or Netflix at the time of writing. The Echo Show has had YouTube in the past, but due to constant bickering between Amazon and Google, it's currently not there. And as for Netflix -- nothing yet, maybe nothing ever.
Overall, I was surprised by how much I liked the Echo Show. It added much more to my household than I was expecting. We all used to laugh at people who bought digital photo frames, and I was expecting this to be a £200 over-designed version of the same, but it turns out that having a screen on your virtual assistant is actually really useful.
It's considerably better for news, for instance: not only do you get the constantly-updating headlines rotating through, but you can also watch videos from reputable sources like the BBC for your flash briefing.
I also appreciated being able to see at a glance what was playing, the frictionless connection to Spotify, and the opportunity to use video and visual instructions for recipes. On the downside, the screen isn't as useful as it could be without YouTube or Netflix. Hopefully, that will change, but the former will require Google and Amazon playing nice, and we won't hold our breaths for that.
The Echo Show's design is well-considered and the whole unit feels sturdy and quality (as it should at £200). It's not for everyone, particularly at that price, but if you're already a fan of voice assistants and fancy having a living room clock with superpowers, the Echo Show might suit you perfectly.
It's well-designed and sturdy, the touchscreen is attractive and adds lots of functionality, it's much better than the standard Echo for recipes and news. Amazon and Curry's often do deals on Echo devices, so you might be able to get it cheaper.
The video calling feature seems really unnecessary, and we'd prefer the Echo Show not to have a camera at all, frankly.
It's £200 for a device with a screen that can't use YouTube or Netflix.