As Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant prepares to launch in Australia, Echo smart speakers are coming in all shapes and sizes.
Australians primarily think of Amazon as an online shopping behemoth, but in the US it’s also a smart home giant thanks to its Alexa-powered Echo smart speakers – with Google Home and Apple HomePod the upstart challengers.
With Amazon planning to expand its Australian operations in the next few months, it won’t be long until Echo speakers are officially on sale locally. While Google and Apple currently take a one-size-fits-all approach to smart speakers (we should see new Google speakers this week), Amazon offers a range of designs to suit every room in your home.
Hit the spot
The latest batch of Alexa-powered Echo smart speakers includes the Echo Spot, looking more like a talking magic eight ball than a speaker. It sells for US$130, which will likely work out about $199 in Australia including GST.
The Echo Spot is voice-activated and includes the Alexa assistant like Amazon’s other smart speakers, but it also has a built-in 2.5-inch display. While it’s unlikely to do streaming video justice, the screen is instead intended for displaying information and notifications – like an overgrown smart watch.
There’s also a built-in front-facing camera to allow for video calls between Echo Spots. The camera should also be available to other apps and the Echo Spot could potentially behave like the Echo Look camera, designed to help you make smart fashion choices when shopping online.
Don’t look back
With so many smart home vendors pushing a voice-controlled future, in some ways the idea of a smart screen seems like a step backwards. The Echo Spot feels like a throwback to the early days of smart home gadgets, like the Chumby smart screen which found its way into a few Aussie homes or those clunky Android-powered benchtop screens like the underwhelming Telstra T-Hub.
These smart screens came along before smartphones cemented their place as the primary screens in our lives. Since then voice-activation has seemed like the way forward in the home.
Having lived with the voice-activated Google Home smart speaker for a few months, I’d say its strength is that you don’t need to look up from what you’re doing in order to interact with it. If you need to cross the room to look at a screen then it’s just as easy to reach for the smartphone in your pocket or glance at the smart watch on your wrist.
Of course not everyone in your home might have smart gadget in their pocket or strapped to their wrist. A smart speaker in the living area can really democratise household tech if you’ve got young children. My two youngsters have quickly taken to the Google Home in our kitchen, because it puts more smart home technologies at their disposal. The kids also see more potential for a smart screen in the kitchen than my wife or I, who always have phones at hand.
The Echo Spot’s success will come down to how Alexa puts the screen to work. The speaker still needs to be fully functional without looking at the screen, although it would be great to see an accessibility mode for hearing-impaired users.
A smart screen might make a welcome addition to your living area if it behaves like a smart watch and offers glanceable preemptive notifications, so you need to talk to it less often. It could learn your habits and then silently display your daily appointments, commute times and weather forecasts when you walk into the room first thing in the morning.
There are a few other times when a screen on a smart speaker could come in handy, such as seeing how long remains on a timer or viewing track details when you’re listening to music.
In some homes the Echo Spot would seem to be a better fit for the bedside table as a smart alarm clock, although these days many people use their smartphone as their morning alarm. Considering you’d only spend a few minutes staring at the Echo Spot each day, it seems like an extravagance even if the screen could double as a digital photo frame. Of course there are also privacy concerns around having a camera on your bedside table.
Is there room for another smart screen in your home? How would you put Amazon’s Echo Spot to good use?