Amazon on a high as Alexa conquers the universe

Noel Campion looks at how Santa Claus has helped Amazon Echo Plus take centre stage in people’s homes.

Christmas 2018 will be remembered as the season of Alexa because it seemed like everyone I know bought an Amazon Echo.

It’s no wonder then that the Alexa servers struggled when everyone powered on their new AI-powered devices for the first time on Christmas morning.

Over the last month or so I’ve been testing two new Amazon Alexa enabled devices; the Amazon Echo Show (2nd gen) and the Amazon Echo Plus (2nd gen).

The original Amazon Echo Show was never officially sold here in Ireland, but the new Show is now readily available here for €219.

One of the main distinctions between the Show and the standard Echo is that it has a screen.

This isn’t the only Alexa with a screen, the Echo Spot also has a 2.5-inch screen.

However, the Show has a large 10.1-inch HD display with powerful speakers along with all of the same skills and features you’d expect from any other Amazon Echo.

The primary location for the Echo Show during my testing was in my kitchen where I mostly used it to listen to the radio and music, but I also tried it in my living room where it had to compete with the family TV.

So, crucially, one of the most important features in the Echo Show is the speakers — especially if you enjoy listening to music or watching videos on YouTube.

The Echo Show’s new speakers feature dual 2-inch premium drivers, a passive bass radiator and Dolby processing all of which produce a powerful sound with room-filling volume.

You can also adjust the treble, mid and bass levels, and set up multi-room music to play music across compatible Echo devices throughout your home.

For general listening to a broad spectrum of sounds including music, the Show is a massive upgrade from the much smaller Echo Spot.

It can get really loud and the bass is impressive for the size of the unit and the mids are warm while the highs don’t sound tinny like the Echo Dot.

Overall, the sound is excellent, and on par with a lot of decent mid-range Bluetooth speakers that you’d pay only a little less for.

The 10.1-inch display is also a touchscreen that offers some additional flexibility, but because this is an Alexa device I found I didn’t need to touch the screen too often.

The screen isn’t anything special, but it really doesn’t need to be.

Unfortunately, unlike our friends across the water, you can’t watch Amazon Prime videos on it or at least I couldn’t get it to work despite having a Prime account.

However, I preferred playing music videos and trailers from YouTube while working away in the kitchen anyway.

The screen features auto dimming by using motion detection, which helps conserve power during the night and when there’s nobody about.

Out of the box, the screen will display news headlines and shows, clock, pictogram of the weather, upcoming calendar entries and reminders.

It will even play RTÉ News video headline news if you choose and you can pick your news sources from local streams or around the world — from tech to sport.

You’ll also get lots of suggestions for the things you can ask Alexa.

I also set it up to show photos from my Prime Photo library as a slideshow in the background to make it more personal.

The touchscreen is responsive and works well, but there’s little reason to use it too often, which is not a downside.

You also get some physical controls for volume up, down and mute on the top to stop Alexa from listening to you.

As previously mentioned, there’s a front-facing camera on the Echo Show and I know that this will freak some people out.

If you’re one of those who has privacy concerns, then just ask Alexa to turn off the camera or simply put some tape over the camera to block it.

I really found it great for making video calls using the ‘Drop In’ feature.

With this, I was able to make video calls from my smartphone’s Alexa app.

By default, the Echo Show automatically answered the call.

This means you can use it as a security camera of sorts.

You can also ask Alexa to show you a video feed from your security camera, but unfortunately, this feature didn’t work with my Hive View camera.

The Echo Show features the Zigbee protocol meaning you don’t need an additional smart hub for things like Philips bulbs and other devices that support the standard.

Overall, I loved using the Echo Show, but I’m already a fan of Alexa and the addition of a screen made the experience more personable to me.

It’s nice to see the album art when playing music for example and I really enjoyed the quality of the speakers based on the type of music that I listened to.

The Echo Plus also supports The Zigbee standard and unlike the Echo Show, it does have a 3.5mm jack to allow you connect it to another speaker. Both the Show and Plus allow you to connect to a Bluetooth speaker.

The new Echo Plus looks more rounded than the original with fabric sounding it, a rubber base and the top has the ring of LEDs, seven far-field mics and the volume, Alexa and mute buttons.

Sound quality is much better than the Echo Dot, but not as good, or as powerful as the Echo Show.

Like the Show, however, the audio processing is thanks to Dolby Labs.

Compared to the Amazon Echo, I don’t see much of an improvement in sound quality, so only buy the Plus if you’re interested in the built-in Zigbee feature.

Amazon Echo Plus is available now for €169.


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