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Friday, March 31, 2023

The New Echo Show Hints at Amazon’s Vision for TV

Amazon announced so many new hardware products last week that it’s hard to know which one will respond the next time you shout “Alexa!” in your house. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Alexa-equipped microwave sucked up a lot of the (electromagnetic) air in the room: not only does the $60 microwave work indirectly with Alexa, but it knows when you’re running out of popcorn.

But the most interesting home product to emerge from the pile of Echo products last week wasn’t the microwave. It was the new Echo Show. It’s a glimpse of Amazon’s vision for the TV of the future—whether that’s streaming video, over-the-air television, or casual games played on a large screen.

Amazon first released the Echo Show in June of 2017. The two-in-one gadget combines a smart speaker and a display; the first one had a flat, rectangular face and a thick lower half, where the speakers were housed. And yet it found a welcome place on my kitchen countertop. On the tubular Echo speakers that shipped before the Show, Alexa was disembodied, a floating voice that responded in pleasant tones even when you shouted from another room. With the Echo Show, Alexa suddenly had a face.

When you use your voice to set a timer, the countdown appears on the Echo Show’s screen. When you ask Alexa to play a video, it appears right there on the display (provided it’s not a YouTube video, since Google pulled YouTube videos from Amazon products last year). The home screen cycles through a series of news updates and teasers. It’s not a perfect gadget, and some people find the Echo Show’s front-facing camera creepy—but it’s infinitely more useful than the outfit-judging Echo Look, Amazon’s other Echo with a camera.


The new Echo Show refines the older model, upgrading from a 7-inch display to a 10-inch display. But this new version, which ships next month for $230, also says a lot about how Amazon thinks we’re going to interact with TVs and streaming video in the near future.

That larger display is part of it. The unspectacular display on the first Echo Show had a low resolution of 1024 by 600; this one is an HD display. The speakers have been relocated from the lower portion of the device to the rear, which means the new Echo Show is mostly screen from the front. The speakers have been upgraded, too. Several months before the Echo Show shipped, Amazon A/B tested different speakers and opted for dual two-inch neodymium drivers, made with rare-earth metal, despite the added materials cost.

Looking at the thing dead on, it would be easy to mistake it for a tablet. But in its entirety, it actually looks more like a little countertop TV. Like a TV, you’re not supposed to touch it all that much, even though the Echo Show has a touchscreen. That’s why Amazon built it with eight far-field microphones—“our most powerful mics ever,” the company says—so you can shout at it all day long.

While the new Echo Show’s hardware points to the kind of lean-back, immersive experience that TV manufacturers talk about when they’re trying to sell you on their flatscreen wares, the software suggests it even more explicitly. The Echo Show is one of three product types (along with an Amazon Fire TV stick and a mobile app) that will work with a new gadget called the Fire TV Recast. This Recast doubles as a live TV tuner and a DVR. Tune the Recast to your local news station, or live sports, or anything else that’s available on over-the-air television, and you can cast it to your Echo Show’s display.

“Fire TV Recast makes it easy to put video everywhere in your home,” Amazon wrote when the Recast was announced, “and not just by your TV.” In other words: Watch more TV, but not necessarily on the TV. Watch it on something like…the Echo Show. It’s not a television, but it has morphed into some alternative form of it in Amazon’s land grab of a unmapped smart home landscape. Two streaming TV apps will also run on the Echo Show: NBC and Hulu, both of which support live-streamed TV.

Amazon already sells actual TV sets. Earlier this year, Amazon partnered with Best Buy to sell Fire TV-branded televisions, made by Toshiba and Best Buy’s own Insignia label. It was another critical step in infiltrating people’s homes—and, like Roku, Amazon sells these TVs at a competitive price: $400 for a 55-inch, 4K, Toshiba-made Fire TV. Roku says Roku OS TVs are its fastest-growing hardware segment; Amazon surely wants a piece of this pie.

But shortly after it announced its TV sets, Amazon also announced the Fire TV Cube, an Alexa-controlled video streaming box. Use your voice to search for something to watch, and the Fire TV Cube shows you a voice-friendly interface in your TV. Pick up the Fire TV Cube remote, and the UI switches to something that could be navigable by remote.

This voice-controlled interface on the Cube wasn’t designed from scratch, though. During a briefing for the Cube, four months ago, Amazon executives said the Echo Show informed the Cube’s UI. “The reason why we’ve tried to leverage Echo Show is because voice interaction is different from TV remote interaction,” Sandeep Gupta, vice president of product development for Fire TV, told me at the time. “…It’s presented in a way that can be navigated through voice.”

I found the Fire TV Cube to be unintuitive in its earliest days; I never quite got used to voicing command after command just to find a show to watch, rather than scrolling, quietly, with a remote control. But this UI is something Amazon is still working on. And the second-generation Echo Show may very well be more drafting practice for that.

The Echo Show is not a TV in the traditional sense, at all. But if it looks like a tiny TV, shows live TV shows, and isn’t supposed to have your grubby fingers all over it like a TV, well, it might just be a duck.

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