Echo Show Review: Alexa Gets More Intrusive With Camera and Screen

By Geoffrey A. FowlerFeaturesDow Jones Newswires Inc. is masterful at changing our habits. Not long ago, it seemed unthinkable to buy clothes online. Or buy anything on your phone. Or talk to a speaker (also, mind you, a way to buy things).

The $230 Echo Show is Amazon's most audacious product yet. Now it wants to colonize your countertop with a 7-inch touch screen and a camera. You can even use it to randomly peer through the always-on camera of loved ones' Shows and into their homes, if they list you as persona grata.

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Amazon is onto a good idea: the casual kitchen computer that doesn't require a mouse, keyboard or even meatloaf-kneading fingers to operate. But there is still work ahead to make the Show a welcome addition to most homes. This first version has limited skills that take advantage of the new screen -- yet it is so intrusive, I was ready to yank the plug after a week.

The Show, which ships Wednesday, has all the functions of Amazon's original Echo speaker, the first home appliance to popularize internet-connected microphones. You call out the wake word "Alexa," then command Amazon's AI assistant to play Beyoncé, turn on the lights or tell a joke. The Show's boxy design and wide bezels aren't as cool as the cylindrical Echo. But it could hear me just as well as the original, and its speaker sounded slightly better (but still not great).

In some important ways, the Show is unlike anything we've seen before, whether the original Echo or its competitors Google Home and Apple HomePod. The Show is part phone booth, part hands-free tablet, part countertop TV.

So what can the Show show? In its first week, the screen "skills" -- Alexa's term for apps -- are limited and not particularly novel but suggest where things are headed:

-- It's a senior-friendly video-call station to use with people who also have a Show or the Alexa smartphone app.

-- It can pull up recipes or scan items to buy from

-- It plays Amazon and YouTube videos. (There are no TV channels yet, but "Jeopardy" live streams surely can't be far off.)

-- It shows lyrics while playing music, prompting spontaneous singalongs.

I wouldn't bet against the Show getting more screen skills fast: Amazon has proven far more successful at lining up partners for Alexa than either Apple Inc. or Alphabet Inc.'s Google have for their talking assistants. One of the Show's first partnerships pairs it with the Ring video doorbell, one of my favorite smart-home devices. Just say, "Alexa, show me the front door." It'll also work with cameras from Nest, August and others.

As a gadget pioneer, I'm willing to wait for more skills. My problem is more fundamental: Living with a Show is too often perturbing -- and occasionally creepy.

The first time I turned the Show on, the screen asked me if I'd like to subscribe to Amazon's Audible service. I couldn't proceed until I'd replied. ("No.") It was my first reminder that the Echo Show is as much an Amazon sales kiosk as a kitchen helper.

Once up and running, the Show started flashing a series of calendar events, headlines and usage tips. One read: "Video: Baseball Mascot Outruns Fan. Try 'Alexa, play the mascot video.' " That's one way to teach owners about Alexa's ever-growing capabilities. I assumed the tips would eventually fade.

But they didn't. They keep refreshing every seven seconds. In the span of one minute, the Show nagged me to play Katy Perry and told me about a Batman-costumed policeman. It felt like one of those elevator displays took up residence next to my toaster. Voice-only Alexa was well-bred enough to speak only when spoken to.

This much is a relief: An Amazon spokeswoman tells me the company has "no plans or future intentions to advertise products on Echo Show."

Eventually I found some settings that let me remove the "trending topics" messages, but not the tips. A Do Not Disturb mode stops incoming calls and dims the screen. Using another setting, for the clock, you can turn off the screen completely in Do Not Disturb mode, until you call Alexa. This should be the default, not hidden in settings.

Bringing home an always-on screen can disrupt family life in other ways. For one, it's catnip for children. Unlike a regular TV, they can operate it whenever they want, without a remote. It's cute when tykes ask Alexa for songs, weather and information but grating when they beg for videos. Now that Alexa can do so much, it's urgent for her to gain the ability to recognize the voices -- or faces -- of different family members.

The Show is fingerprint-prone, too. You'd think a device that begs to sit on a kitchen counter would be oil-resistant, or easier to clean.

The biggest head scratcher is that 5-megapixel camera. True, Amazon got millions of us to live with microphones, but cameras are a different beast.

One of the Show's headline features requires a very high level of comfort with being watched: "Drop in" mode lets approved friends turn on your camera and say hi, without requiring you to pick up the call. The nominal privacy protection is a 10-second countdown, in which the view into Lord-knows-what happening in your house is obscured by digital frosting. During that time, you can disable the camera or reject the call.

That function is optional, but another one isn't: To figure out when to activate the screen, the camera remains on, watching for people in the room. Amazon says it isn't storing or sending that video over the internet, yet it feels like a needless risk, since so few functions actually require the camera. You can cut off the camera with Do Not Disturb or with the same button that cuts off the Show's microphone -- but using the button means the whole thing stops working.

Another new Amazon product, the $200 invitation-only Echo Look, is designed first and foremost as a camera. It will doubtless come with similar baggage, if not more.

I understand that Amazon is doing everything in its power to keep the Show from becoming a portal for hackers. It is certainly way safer than the cheap baby monitors and security cams that have fallen to malware. But it's unfortunate the Show isn't compatible with the oldest safety trick of all: You can't just put tape over the camera and take it off as needed. If you try that on the Echo Show, it gets confused, dims the screen and becomes unusable.

The Show is a promising talking home computer and may appeal to people already heavily invested in Alexa's world. But it's a shame Amazon's strange design choices muddy its potential. Walking the line between futuristic and creepy, the Show landed in the worst place of all: annoying.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 28, 2017 10:47 ET (14:47 GMT)