Amazon Echo Show adds a touchscreen to the Alexa experience
You know what Alexa does. She turns on your lights. She plays your songs. She answers your math questions. She wakes you up. She sets timers. She's your canister of helpfulness wherever your voice can be heard in your house. She's your BFF.
She's benign AI. She does everything you need, that you should be able to do yourself. And, as long as she doesn't wake up one morning, decide to take over the world, and murder all of us in our beds, she'll be a friend to us all.
But Alexa is more than the Echo, that black Pringles Can of Doom we met back in November of 2014. Since the Echo was introduced, Amazon has been fielding a plethora of Alexas, a veritable Alexapalooza of devices. Since Alexa answers "Sorry, I don't know that one," to "Alexa, which Alexa should I buy," we figured we'd help out.
By the way, if you're confused about why I might interchangeably talk about Echos and Alexas, it's this: the devices are called Echos. They all respond to the name Alexa. It's like having a litter of dogs, whose names are all Pixel. Except that Alexa is not nearly as cute, but is way less yappy.
Here then, is the Alexa family as of mid-2017. Before we dive in, we want to mention that the Alexa technology is beginning to be baked into devices from companies besides Amazon. We're only covering the Amazon Echo devices. We're also not looking at the Alexa capabilities built into the Amazon Fire TV, tablets, and new TVs. We'll look into all that other stuff as it becomes more ready for prime time.
The Amazon Echo
This is the one. The first. The device that changed all our lives. Prior to the Echo, we thought it was okay to turn on our lights by touching the dirty switches on the wall. We thought it was okay to set our own alarm clocks. We thought it wasn't the height of crudeness to punch numbers into a calculator using our actual fingers. We were willing to do these simple, basic tasks ourselves.
But then we learned that we could set timers for every little thing, with impunity. We learned that having our choice of music at our fingertips no longer required actual fingers. The Echo became the least necessary, most appreciated simple helper in our home. We got to know Alexa, and she became family.
The Echo most closely resembles a black Pringles can. On Amazon, it lists at $179.99. It has a ring of powerful microphones, capable of picking up commands from a distance. It has decent quality speakers for room-filling music. It's meant to be both an intelligent assistant, and a spare Bluetooth speaker.
The Echo Dot
Dot looks like an Echo that went through a can crusher. It has all of Alexa's intelligence, but doesn't have the powerful speaker that Amazon says, "fills any room with immersive 360° audio."
The Dot is the essential Alexa, trimmed down to the bare minimum needed for the full Alexa experience. At $49.99, it's also a lot less expensive.
The Echo Tap
The Echo Tap is a bit of an oddity. It provides Alexa capabilities on the go, but you originally had to touch it to make it respond. That's why its name is Tap -- you originally had to tap it to wake it. As of February, that's no longer the case. With a simple setting in the Alexa app, you can now enable Hands Free Mode, which makes the Tap work like an Echo.
So why the Tap to begin with? Well, the Tap is a portable, chargeable Echo. As long as you have a WiFi access point or a hotspot, you can use the Tap anywhere. It provides its own power. The reason for the tapping action was to save battery life. The less time it spent listening for the wake word meant less battery usage.
With Hands Free Mode, the $129.99 Tap is a full-fledged Echo device. But here's one word of caution: Amazon is no longer promoting the Tap on its main Alexa page. It's still for sale, but is it on the path to end-of-life? We don't know. It's certainly no longer being treated as an equal partner to the Echo, or the newer Alexa devices we're about to discuss.
The Echo Look
If you don't mind a giant AI in the cloud watching your every move with a camera in your bedroom closet, you might be comfortable with the Echo Look. On the other hand, well, you really should read or watch Colossus: The Forbin Project to be truly weirded out by what can happen if an artificially intelligent being can observe your every move and mood.
For those who aren't wearing tinfoil caps, the Echo Look is $199.99. Unfortunately, it's only available for the beautiful people. You can only buy it if Amazon gives you an invitation. Why? Well, it's kind of a fashion accessory.
Look, I need to confess something. As soon as I typed "fashion accessory," I could feel my keyboard trying to pull away. I am not exactly qualified to talk about fashion. I did wear a shirt with buttons once in the past year but I am not the "target demo" for the Look.
The Echo Look is, at least today, a device designed to help clothes-conscious consumers keep track of their wardrobes, make decisions on what items look best together, and take full-length mirror-style selfies with a blurred background to, as Amazon describes it, "make your outfits pop."
So the Echo Look is, in my opinion, a beginning. Amazon embedded a camera and some LED lights into an Echo, and found one good application for a specific target market. By limiting the scope of the machine vision challenge to wardrobe, the company can get a feel for how extensive this opportunity might be.
Over time, I expect the Echo Look to expand beyond clothing. I can certainly see one in the kitchen, used to show the device what products are being consumed or are needed. I can even see one in the workshop, helping to provide measurements and catalog tools. Today, though, the Echo Look is merely a wardrobe assistant.
Keep an eye on the Echo Look. Either it's a flash in the pan, or there's a lot more to this than Amazon is showing us right now. For example, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Amazon didn't come out with a pet cam or home security cam application for the Look once it's ready for volume sales.
The Echo Show
Speaking of a lot more to it than Amazon is currently showing, there's the Echo Show. The Echo Show is an Echo with a screen and a camera. Remember all the hype about video chat back in the 1990s? That's the Echo Show. Except, I think, maybe more.
First, let's talk price, because that tells us a little about how Amazon wants this thing to sell. The Echo Show is $229.99. It will be available at the end of June. But -- and here's the part that's informative -- if you buy two Echo Shows, Amazon will take $100 off. Essentially, they're pricing the Echo Show, when purchased in pairs, at the same price as the original Echo, but you also get a screen and a camera.
So what is the Echo Show? It's an Echo that is aimed at video chat. At least that's its starting application. Let's deconstruct that for a moment. We've all used FaceTime or some similar video chat capability on our phones. The Echo Show does the same thing, except it has to be plugged in and must sit in one spot.
Does this remind you of anything? If you're a Millennial or older, you remember telephones. These were devices tethered to the wall that were rock-solid reliable. They allowed us to talk (with our voices) to other people, who also had telephones.
While there were eventually wireless phones, for years, most of us had to walk to the location where the phone was, dial the party we wanted to talk to, and stay within the reach of the cord. We could only talk, not text.
There was no panic over where we put down our smartphone. There was no concern over whether the battery was charged. We rarely uttered, "What? I can't understand you." It was a simpler time.
Okay, I know I'm being a bit facetious in my description, but there's a point here. My mom, who spent the last 30 years of her life using computers actively, kept getting confused trying to use her smartphone. She kept hitting the red button, then wondering why her calls kept dropping. My dad didn't trust his smartphone at all, and insisted I install a landline for him when he moved to a new house.
Neither my mom nor my dad liked the idea of the contact list in the phone. They had a few numbers memorized. For everything else, there was a sheet of paper with phone numbers next to, you guessed it, the telephone.
There are two immediate and powerful applications for the Echo Show: checking on elderly family members, and being able to easily look in on the kids. The Echo Show easily allows you to use voice activation to contact, talk to, and see a family member.
If on the approved list, you can establish a connection immediately. This gives concerned middle-agers the ability to quickly ascertain the health of an elderly parent. It gives parents and grandparents the ability to easily connect with, talk to, and see the kids and grandkids. It bypasses the whole smartphone thing completely. While many of us might find the idea of a fixed, plugged-in phone to be an inconvenience, it also provides a hands-free calling experience, from a set place, a known location, and a predictable setting.
Like the Look, only time will tell with this one. But all the people I've talked with who are dealing with supporting and caring for their aging parents have said they're going to buy a set as soon as they become available. Yes, there are privacy issues. But since the Show requires the consent of the parties at each end on setup, it's a great way to keep tabs on someone you're concerned about.
Let's go farther, though. What might someday be on that screen? Right now, you can ask Alexa to time things and calculate things, but you can't tell her to show you the next item in the recipe. But with the addition of video and image skills, I'm betting that's not far off.
Would you place an Echo on your desk for easy voice calls? Or for quick lookups that don't require your main screen? Or to replace the calculator that you still have somewhere in your drawer? I'm not sure. But I'm guessing that this, too, is an experiment. We'll see where it takes us.
Already, Amazon is taking on FaceTime and Skype (especially since plain ol' Echos can now message as well) with Alexa Calling & Messaging. There are a lot of fiddly things about this that still have to be worked out (like managing messages for multiple family members) and why you'd use the Echo instead of, say, iMessage. But it's still interesting.
How to decide
Now that you've met the Echo family, let's look at which device is right for you.
If you don't have any Alexa devices yet, and you don't need to care for elderly folks or kids (or have friends who want to video chat with this technology), your first device should be the original Echo. It's a little more expensive, but the added speaker is worth it.
If you want to save $130 and still get an Alexa, get a Dot. You won't have the music-playing fidelity, but you'll have the rest of Alexa's magic.
If you already have an Echo and want to add-on a device somewhere where music-playing quality isn't of top importance, buy a Dot. We bought a second regular Echo for the bedroom, where a Dot would have worked. But we do like playing music there as well.
If you want a portable Alexa, don't want to plug it in, and have good wireless internet available, get a Tap. Just be aware that Amazon doesn't appear to be favoring this device as much anymore.
If you're already drooling at the idea of the Echo Look, get one (if you receive an invite). Otherwise, wait until it does more, or doesn't terrify you.
If you're caring for elderly parents, or want to see the people you're connecting to at a fixed place and location, get an Echo Show. Otherwise, wait for a while. You'll probably get one. We just don't know why, yet.
The bottom line
The bottom line, especially for the Look and the Show, is that it isn't entirely clear how these beasties will change our lives. But I'll tell you this. When I first looked at the original Echo, I thought it was ridiculous and unnecessary. Now, if you want my Alexa, you'll have to pry her from my cold, dead hands.
And she still doesn't do anything that I couldn't do if I wasn't self-enabling myself to new levels of laziness. I mean, really? I should be willing to flip on a light switch with my actual hands.
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