Digital speakers powered by virtual assistants are one of the hottest consumer product categories right now. Apple Inc. recently debuted its Siri-controlled HomePod, Google launched its Home speaker last fall and Amazon.com Inc., the pioneer, has been churning out Alexa-powered devices for the past few years.
This week, the online retailer is taking it a step further, adding a screen to its popular speaker system with a device called the Echo Show. But is another screen really what consumers have been asking for, and is it worth the extra money over the regular Echo?
Major features: 7-inch touch screen: The screen lets you watch YouTube videos and Amazon Prime Video content, scroll through music lyrics like a karaoke machine, see restaurant ratings and weather forecasts and screen visitors to your home via connected security cameras. Of course, you can also do all of that from a smartphone or tablet.
Louder speakers: While the main draw of these voice-activated speakers is the AI assistant, sound quality is still important. That’s Apple’s pitch for the HomePod, while Amazon’s past offerings and the Google Home mostly have focused on audio good enough to be a loud voice assistant. The Echo Show is different. It has Dolby speakers with better bass that can fill a fair-sized room.
Video calling: Amazon has also created a proprietary service that lets users with the Echo Show video-call each other. From the device, you can also call smartphones running the latest Alexa app (but you can’t use the device as a speakerphone for regular calls). There’s another option to call another user’s Echo Show without needing the recipient to accept the call. Amazon calls this its “drop-in” feature, and to enable this, both users would need to pre-approve each other beforehand. I can’t think of a single person in my life to whom I’d feel comfortable giving this kind of constant access, but maybe you can.
Music playback: The Echo Show can connect to Amazon’s Prime Music service, Spotify, Pandora, although not to Apple Music. You can work around this by streaming Apple Music content (or any other unsupported music app) by connecting your iPhone and your Echo Show over Bluetooth. When doing this, Alexa will still let you pause your music and skip between tracks, but you won’t be able to look up specific songs with your voice.
Calendars: One helpful feature on the Echo Show is the ability to view and add items to your calendar. You can set this up in the Alexa app on your smartphone, and even though Apple Music is unsupported, iPhone users will be glad to know that support for iCloud calendars has recently been added to Alexa. You can set this up in the settings section in the Alexa app. Gmail and Microsoft calendars are also supported.
Price comparison: Amazon Echo Show: $229.99 Amazon Echo: $179.99 Google Home: $129 Apple HomePod: $349 (release in December) Do you need it?
Voice-activated speakers are not essential purchases. I don’t see the benefit to looking up a weather forecast on a speaker attached to a screen, when you can easily do that with your smartphone’s voice assistant. And for those of you who have a portable tablet or a big-screen TV in your home, would you really want to watch a video on the Echo Show’s 7-inch screen?
That said, let’s say you’re already planning on spending $180 on a regular Echo because you want a digital speaker. The louder and higher-quality audio of the Echo Show, and the added ability to see information on a screen instead of only hearing it, might be worth the extra $50. Think about pulling up a recipe video while your hands are employed on a cooking task. The Echo Show would also make for a capable (albeit expensive) hub for home intercoms and security cameras.