Saturday , August 18 2018

Smart speakers are an exploding category in Australia, and around the world. Amazon and Google are fuelling the charge, with Apple also adding, well, they’re adding something to the conversation. The new hotness in smart devices though is the addition of screens and on this front, Amazon is leading the charge. Last month Amazon brought the Echo Spot to Australia, a small Dot sized device which adds a circular screen and video conferencing camera along with new usability to their virtual assistant.

The Echo Dot is a fantastic entry level device, while the Echo adds more to the conversation with a larger more fully featured speaker. Alexa herself has proven to be quite the competition for Google, and it comes down to whether the addition of a screen will add something to the conversation.

At $199, the Echo Spot isn’t cheap, but it has the promise of adding another level to your smart home setup. Is it worth adding to your home though? Let’s check it out.

Hardware

In terms of hardware. the Echo Spot sits just above an Echo Dot – their base model smart speaker which sells for $79 normally. The Echo Spot gets a slightly larger, and more powerful speaker with a 1.4″ speaker and of course the defining features – a 2.5” display and a camera.

The device itself is a pleasant looking – ok, I’m just going to say it: It’s cute…it’s goddamn cute – sphere in black or white colour options, with a flattened rubber feet covered base, allowing it to sit with the screen and camera slightly angled upwards. Put simply it’s perfectly positioned for placing on a desk to make it easy to see and interact with, and interact with it you will. The screen is touch enabled, so you can scroll, or tap through the content on it.

Above the screen is a camera – we have no idea what resolution the camera is because Amazon doesn’t list it anywhere, but suffice to say it’s decent enough quality for video conferencing.

The power puck for the Spot – a nice square one that fits nicely on a power board – outputs 15W (12v @ 1.25A) through the proprietary adapter into a port on the rear of the Spot – right next to the 3.5mm out port. It’s a disappointing difference to the Echo Dot which uses a microUSB connector, but a larger power draw on the standard Echo also demands a different connector, so we understand.

Also on the rear of the unit are volume controls, with a mute button in the middle. The control panel is also surrounded by the microphone array for the Spot. As with the rest of the Echo range it’s a pretty good array too, hearing your call of ‘Alexa’ from almost anywhere even when it’s noisy.

The Spot supports WiFi and Bluetooth – Wifi to connect to the internet, and Bluetooth so you can pair a speaker with it for better sound. The speaker in the Spot – a 1.4″ one – is better than the one in an Echo Dot, but not quite up to the full blown Echo, so if you enjoy music then pairing it to a better quality speaker through Bluetooth or 3.5mm cable via the port on the rear is definitely recommended.

Using the Echo Spot

One of the biggest reasons for getting an Echo Spot is for that screen. We’ve all gotten used to using smart speakers and talking to them, but Spot adds in a screen to the user experience.

The touch enabled screen is also used during setup, which is done on the device – not through the Alexa app like you do with the rest of the Echo family.

The screen at 480 x 480 resolution isn’t really up to showing you high-resolution video, but it’s bright enough and colourful and it works for the snackable bites of information it displays, even if they’re videos.

The screen is a winner for the most part, the Echo Spot screen tends to scroll through a selection of topics including a clock, the weather, your calendar appointments and then throws up a few trending news stories and occasionally suggests things to try.

The clock is what’s going to be on the screen most of the time, the default analogue choice is nice but you can choose between different types of clock in the settings menu. There are six analogue and six digital clock faces to choose from and you can even make either an digital or analogue face with your own personal background that you upload through the Alexa app.

The weather is also a perfect example of well presented information on the Echo Spot. If you ask for a forecast Alexa will tell you but you’ll also see a bite-sized 6-day forecast displayed on the screen.

There are also visual additions to search results as well if appropriate, which means occasionally it’s worth glancing at the Spot if you ask Alexa a question. The search visuals did confirm that Alexa uses Bing for searches – which explains a LOT!

One aspect of the Spot I really am not happy with is also a big drawcard for it: Video calls.

To set the scene, I have a 100Mbps NBN FTTP connection – suffice to say it’s fast. I’ve attempted on a number of occasions to video call home to the Echo Spot on various connections – 4G through Telstra, AT&T, as well as on a Verizon Fios home broadband connection and the calls basically failed. On each and every occasion I switched to Google Duo to perform the video call – which worked perfectly.

The better use of the Echo Spot screen was when playing video which is drawn from Amazon Prime Video, or a number of video flash briefings that have been created for the Echo Spot – Amazon has teamed up with ABC NEWS and FOX SPORTS Australia to offer video flash briefings for the Echo Spot, but there’s a lot more out there if you look.

There is of course the spectre of YouTube not being available on the Echo Spot still looms. It’s a disappointing omission and I wish Google and Amazon would just solve their issues and do what’s right for customers.

You can watch Amazon Prime Video on the Echo Spot…I’m not quite sure why, but if you have this on your desk at work it could be pretty neat.

The other use case I found for it is the integration with the Ring Video Doorbell whom Amazon recently purchased, though the integration existed long before the purchase. Once you enable the Ring Alexa Skill, the Echo Spot run through the Discover Devices protocol when you tell it to (‘Alexa, Discover devices). Then you can just say ‘Alexa, show me front door’ and boom: Front Door stream!

Privacy

I’d love to use the Echo Spot as an alarm clock – but I’m wary of putting a device with a camera into my bedroom.

One thing Amazon could do to assuage fears about the camera on the Echo Spot would be to include a manual switch with a cover for the camera. The inclusion of a manual switch on every one of the upcoming range of Smart Displays from Lenovo, JBL and LG impressed me and Amazon could learn from this design choice.

You’re not bereft of choices for the Echo Spot though, Amazon did include a mute switch on their Echo devices which disables the camera, but also disables the microphones rendering the Echo Spot useless.

You can disable the camera through the settings menu though – swipe down and hit the cog for Settings > Device Options, then hit the toggle the switch and accept the warning.

Of course the option to cover the camera with a piece of gaffer tape exists, but be careful not to cover the ambient light sensor next to the camera.

Should you buy one?

Oh god yes! This is the most fun I’ve had with a device in a long time. I’ve been loving the Echo line and Alexa since it arrived here in Australia. The inclusion of a screen to the Echo line is an evolutionary – yet still revolutionary idea.

I’ve enjoyed almost all aspects of the screen on an Echo, from the news broadcasts, to a sneaky watch of The Grand Tour while cooking – because that’s where I eventually ended up setting the Echo Spot up – is suited for helping you to cook, with timers you can see.

Amazon is really invested in getting you to use Alexa too, emailing you once a week to suggest new – and to be honest, really neat things you can do with Alexa.

At $199 the Echo Spot isn’t really for the audiophile, but it’s great for people who like more visual aspects – like me – and if you want, you can also pair a Bluetooth speaker or spare speaker to it to improve the sound quality.

The Echo Spot on its own is worth it – but it’s also pumped me up to see what Google’s Smart Displays can do, as there seems to have been concurrent development of features over the past couple of years. Until Google – or more correctly JBL and Lenovo (LG isn’t releasing theirs here) release their Smart Displays, the Echo Spot is definitely worth your dollars.

Disclosure Statement:
Amazon has allowed Ausdroid to retain the Echo Spot - I'll be working on the video conferencing and will update if it improves
Source: Echo Spot.

Daniel Tyson   Editor

Dan is a die-hard Android fan. Some might even call him a lunatic. He's been an Android user since Android was a thing, and if there's a phone that's run Android, chances are he owns it (his Nexus collection is second-to-none) or has used it.

Dan's dedication to Ausdroid is without question, and he has represented us at some of the biggest international events in our industry including Google I/O, Mobile World Congress, CES and IFA.

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Curious
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Curious

Does it support the English (Australian) language, or just US / UK?

Fred
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Fred

Seems to me they would need to get the price and the use cases right before something like this could fly. I’d suggest that $99 is about the maximum you could get away with, and I agree that making it a tablet makes much more sense. Given the Fire HD 8 is about that price and can now seemingly do everything this can do, why would you go for worse, but costing double?

Oldmike
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Oldmike

Looks pretty handy , I wouldn’t mind a bigger screen though ,
Imagine what you could do with a tablet sized screen .

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