The smart speaker has been given a screen — but how useful is it?

Personal Technology

It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Amazon’s Echo Show went on sale the same week that Apple celebrated the iPhone’s 10th anniversary. Pundits are looking for the next big thing in tech — and virtual assistants could be it. Amazon is giving the Echo “smart speaker” its biggest upgrade in almost three years, with a screen and a camera. Yelling at Alexa, like Siri, can be frustrating. But the Echo is gaining real momentum, both in terms of sales and reviews, leaving Apple and Google scrambling to catch up.

It is odd, then, that if the Echo Show is the future, the product feels strangely retro. With its stout, boxy design, it looks a bit like the videophones that were imagined in the early 1980s. How does it work? Video calling technology is now just a matter of uploading your address book to Amazon via the Alexa smartphone app, then calling out the name of the person you want to call.

To get over the chicken-and-egg problem, users who do not yet own an Echo Show can video in using just the Alexa mobile app. Either way, it works pretty well, with the added benefit that the Show always stands upright.

There is no need to find somewhere to balance a tablet or phone at the right angle. But when so many of us already have Skype or FaceTime on other devices, it does raise the question of why we would need video calling on a kitchen-counter device as well.

Adding both the screen and these communications features seem like an attempt by Amazon to ensure that an Echo device is used more regularly. Talking speakers make for a fun demo, but without a reason to use them often, the novelty can quickly fade, especially when they do not always understand us quite as well as we would like.

Why the screen is useful — but sometimes not Without a prompt, owners do not know what they can and cannot do with them. By adding show to the original Echo’s tell, Amazon now has a screen on which to make suggestions about what else Alexa can do.

When not in use, underneath the time and weather icons, the screen scrolls through a repertoire of phrases to try — “Alexa, how is my commute looking?” “Alexa, remind me on Saturday to call Dad”, “Alexa, play the Radiolab podcast”. By default, this screensaver-like mode also shows a selection of “trending topics” that Amazon has “curated”.

These I found about as welcome as an advertising video screen in the back of a taxi. With the Show sitting on my desk, I was bombarded with such crucial breaking news items as: “Armpit tattoos: popular on Instagram”,

“Slime queen has popular YouTube following” and “Study: American pets are overweight”. The joke wore thin when they looped around for hours on end. Fortunately, after discovering a settings menu by swiping down from the screen top, I was able to turn this “feature” off.

Perhaps one of the Echo’s constant behind-the-scenes software updates will tweak this default. At least Amazon has promised that it will not show advertising on the display, as it does with some Kindle ereaders and Fire tablets.

What I used it for The colour touchscreen seems rather small next to an iPad and at only 7 inches across, it is not that much larger than a Plus-sized iPhone. But it was decent enough for streaming videos from YouTube or Amazon’s Prime service, or showing the lyrics from whatever song is playing on Spotify.

So far, only a few of Alexa’s 13,000 “skills” (Amazon’s word for third-party apps) support the screen but, after a slightly fiddly set-up, I was able to book cinema tickets using Fandango and call up a live video feed from the Nest Cam in my living room. Security The camera device has raised concerns that Amazon is keeping an eye on its customers.

Amazon says the Echo Show only records when the user makes a video call or activates Alexa through the “wake word”. I was less unsettled by the camera pointed at me than some of my colleagues, given we all already carry the same technology on our smartphones and laptops. I am more worried about what Amazon — and Google, for that matter — do with all the data they collect from our spoken commands.

A peculiar feature called Drop-In brings that nervousness about the camera into focus. If you and a friend or family member has an Echo Show, you can“drop in” on each other without the device ringing out in the way that a regular phone does. Instead, it gently chimes once and blurs out the video feed for the first 10 seconds before turning on.

The feature requires both sides to opt in, so it is really only intended for very close friends and family. You can opt out entirely. It may sound counterintuitive, but the easy intimacy of Drop-In removes many of the barriers to casual conversation that technology throws up. If you do not like it, do not turn it on. But the possibility of making a mistake in the set-up might legitimately put people off buying an Echo Show.

The verdict Even at this early stage, the device has potential as a genuinely new type of always-on intelligent appliance. It is more like a smart little television box than the mobile screens it also resembles.

I am not convinced that it is an iPhone killer, though. Just as the amount of time spent watching TV or using PCs has stayed remarkably stable given the extra hours we spend staring at our smartphones these days, devices such as the Echo are more likely to be additive than replacements. As the iPhone enters its second decade, the all-screen era shows no sign of retreating. Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.

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