Amazon announced a bunch of hardware devices at its annual hardware event on 26 September, and the writing is on the wall: Amazon wants Alexa to be omnipresent.
We recently got the Amazon Echo Show 5 for review. Launched earlier this year, the Echo Show 5 is priced at Rs 8,999 and is just a small-screen variant of its larger-screen sibling, the Echo Show. In the ongoing Amazon Great Indian Festival, the Echo Show is also going for Rs 5,499.
Just like the original Echo series of smart speakers, the Echo Show also seems to have become another series of products unto itself. This line-up now includes a 10.1-inch display sporting Echo Show, an 8-inch display sporting the ‘new’ Echo Show and the 5.5-inch display sporting Echo Show 5, which we are testing. So without further ado, let’s jump right in.
Mere smart speakers don’t cut it any more
It was just a matter of time before smart speakers with displays would be seen in the market, creating a new category called smart displays. The first example of that was seen with the Echo Spot (Review), which looked like a table-side circular alarm clock but with Alexa chops built-in. Since then, we have seen the 10.1-inch Echo Show which was launched in India at a price of Rs 22,999. The Echo Show 5 with its relatively tinier footprint (although a weird naming convention — it’s not the 5th generation Echo Show but the 5 hints at the display size) can be at home in your bedroom or your kitchen. On the Android side of the fence, we now have the Google Nest Hub, Nest Hub Max and even third-party players such as Lenovo have begun releasing their smart displays.
Compact display that can fit in anywhere
The Amazon Echo Show 5 comes in a triangular shape which rests the display at a good inclined angle. Its 5.5-inch display is touch-sensitive and comes with a 960 x 480-pixel resolution. For most of us coming from the Full HD and Quad HD smartphone displays, the 960 x 480 pixel may sound like a low resolution, but be cognisant of the fact that the Echo Show 5 is just meant to act as a visual aid to the voice-focussed Alexa experience. Yes, you can watch movie trailers, music videos, news clips, Prime Video TV shows and movies on the Echo Show 5. But I wouldn’t recommend watching long duration video content such as movies or TV shows on this as it’s too tiny a display for that purpose. Considering you will be looking at the display from a distance, the low resolution isn’t that distracting. Most of the text panels are easily readable.
The build quality of the Echo Show 5 is sturdy. My review unit was enmeshed in a light grey mesh fabric cover. There is a rubber foot on the base which gives the Echo Show 5 a good grip when placed on a flat surface. Other hardware features involve three responsive buttons on top (two for volume control and one as a microphone mute button) Since the Echo Show 5 also has a 1 MP camera for video calls, there is a notch to physically cover the camera in case you are worried about your privacy. Apart from the power port, you have a 3.5 mm audio jack and a micro USB port in case you want to attach an external speaker to the Echo Show 5.
Standard Alexa experience
At the heart of all Amazon Echo products lies the voice assistant named Alexa. Just like Siri on the iOS, Cortana on Windows and Assistant on Android, Alexa is Amazon’s virtual assistant to help you get things done. Unlike all the other three voice assistants, which started off on a mobile interface where along with listening to the voice, you could also see the results on the display of your devices, Alexa trajectory has been the other way round. The Echo Show 5 provides a more mobile-like experience thanks to the display.
Over the years, Amazon’s Echo products have gotten better at understanding Indian accents. But Alexa will still not respond to certain commands which may sound fine to your ear. In such cases, you have no other option but to repeat the query. And repeat again.
Just like every other Echo product, you have to say the wake word, ‘Alexa’ before giving any command. You can change it in the settings to 'Computer', 'Amazon', 'Echo'. I kept it as 'Alexa' as that just sounds more humane than the others. There should be a way for Alexa to understand the context it’s operating in and then let you work within it without having to say the wake word every single time. Google has already done that in Home, where it understands the contextual conversations. This is a great way to ensure a smooth flow of conversation.
The far-field microphones on the Echo Show 5 are hit or miss. While using it at home, sometimes, I really had to shout out a command loudly if any song was already playing. I never faced this issue with the Echo Dot or the Echo Plus, both of which had four far-field microphones.
If you are new to the Echo ecosystem, it will take some learning curve to acquire the right skills. There are hundreds of thousands of skills, and you have to familiarise yourself with them. The best way to get started is Settings>Things to Try feature which will have you covered for the first few communication sessions with Alexa.
Off the bat, music is provided by Amazon Prime Music alongwith TuneIn, JioSaavn and Gaana support as well; Podcasts are played off TuneIn radio; Flash briefing will default to whichever news media organisation you have set in the Alexa app to and you can change this.
While Amazon has announced Hindi support for Alexa, I couldn't find a way to activate in the Alexa app. Will update this portion when I get that update.
User Experience: Hit and Miss
The news flash briefing experience has been a weak point with every Echo device I have tested to date. The flash briefing function works only with news organisations Amazon has a deal with, so there’s no way to change that. Even the way news is readout is in a rigid format. For instance, if a news flash briefing is speaking out Finance-related news when you would be interested in Sports or Technology news, there is no way to switch to a genre-based flash briefing. All you can do is say ‘Alexa...Stop...Next’ which will move on to the next news item. Some news organisations such as NDTV or Bloomberg Quint will also have an accompanying video which is taken from their TV news bulletins. So it’s a quick way to stay updated with news as you are getting ready in the morning.
But, if I want to listen to news from international publications, I’ll have to enable the skills for the concerned organisations and know the right trigger command. It is far from intuitive. And it’s not like this issue is new. I have been facing this issue since the first Echo device I reviewed, have passed on the feedback to Amazon India product representatives, but it’s like Amazon just doesn’t want to change the status quo or experiment in any manner. With a display, if your favourite news app isn't there as a skill, maybe a visual cue would help instead of the "Sorry, I can't find this" audio message. I had to go back to the Alexa app on my phone to search for news organisations to add.
For the life of me, I can't get why I have to interact with the Alexa app on my smartphone when the Echo Show 5 has a touch-sensitive display. I get the operating systems are different. But surely Amazon could add a way to make searching skills and enabling them easily from the Echo Show 5 display a seamless experience.
Shopping is frustrating to say the least. With a display, one good thing is you can view the product before placing the order, so in that aspect, it’s better than the Echo and Echo Plus. But, I would rather have my shopping done on the Amazon app or online.
The music experience is the only one that is worth talking about. The Amazon Prime selection is still has a lot of scope for improvement. For instance, it does not get many songs that are requested of it, but instead of saying it didn’t understand, Alexa triggers some random songs. For instance, I asked it to play Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven and it would play some random remixed version of it. Or if I asked for a Hindi track, unless it was a popular song there would be instances of asking Alexa to stop and try again. The good thing is if a song is on Prime Music, you also get lyrics which highlight the section of the song being sung. So if you are planning to have a pseudo-Karaoke party, the Echo Show 5 would make for a great companion.
The regional language music understanding is nowhere close to a seamless experience. But thanks to support for apps such as JioSaavn, Gaana, Hungama, a lot of the regional music is also taken care of. You will just have to be a lot more patient. But all the best trying to find any video you want from YouTube. For starters, it showed me the Amazon Silk browser when I asked it to ‘open YouTube’. If you’re a Netflix fan, forget it, the Echo Show 5 doesn’t support Netflix.
Echo Show 5 supports smart home devices which can be set up on the Alexa app on your phone.
Sound quality strictly OK; Video experience severely limited
Having tested the Echo Dot (Review) and Echo Spot (Review), I’d say the sound quality on the Echo Show 5 was quite average. It is rated for 4 Watts and while it does get loud, it does not retain the richness one would expect from the output. The downward-firing speaker will make the texture of the sound different depending on the surface it’s placed on ever so slightly.
The Echo, Echo Plus, Echo Dot would also play music quite loud but while retaining the range of frequencies. The Echo Show 5 can work as an ambient speaker while you are getting work done or if you just want to catch up on news or get answers to some questions. But it certainly isn’t a device that would appeal to the discerning music lover.
While the mids played well, the bass wasn’t as defined. A majority of the Bollywood and pop songs sounded great, but go into prog-rock territory and you can feel the difference in the sound quality. Instrument separation isn’t its strongest suit.
The video quality is passable too. This all comes down to the resolution of the Echo Show 5 which isn’t great, so while it works great as a smart display for watching news bulletins, it is not a display to consume movies on.
Thanks to the far-field microphones, it makes for a great case for group calling that cousin staying abroad using Alexa Drop In feature, as opposed to a Skype or any other video calling app on your phone (which is a mess when you have too many people on one side of the call.
Amazon’s choice to go with a Mediatek MT 8163 doesn’t really deliver the quickest experience. The user interface is slow to the touch response. Also with certain voice commands, it takes a bit too long to respond or to switch tasks. The user interface should be a lot more responsive in future updates. As it uses Microsoft Bing to conduct searches, looking up information isn't as good an experience as it is on the Nest Hub for instance.
Go for the new Echo Show instead... if you really really want to buy a smart display
It’s difficult to put a finger on the kind of buyer interested in this category of Echo Show. It is a jack of all trades but master of none.
The Echo Show 5 is nowhere close to the large smart screen experience you get on the Echo Show (10.1-inch). The Echo Show 5 is also not as cute as the Echo Dot which makes for a perfect case for an alarm clock replacement by your nightstand. With Amazon having released the new Echo Show 8 which comes with an 8-inch display, I’d wish you rather wait for that to launch in India. The 5.5-inch display isn’t all that great for watching anything more than a movie trailer or news bulletin.
At the on-going Amazon Great Indian Festival, the Echo Show 5 is selling at a discount and makes for a compelling proposition at Rs 5,499. But there is no way I can justify spending Rs 8,999 on this, which is the original price. If you have used Echo products in the past, you are not missing out on much by skipping this upgrade. If you want to get into the Echo ecosystem, go for the Echo Dot to get your feet wet before deciding to spend on smart displays.
The Nest Hub at a 7-inch display offers a lot more screen real estate to play around with and with the Google Photos integration, it works as a great digital photo frame when not in use. The new Echo Show 8 which offers an HD display would make for a much better visual experience along with the Alexa experience.
Bottom line: The Amazon Echo Show 5 is one confusing product, that can be avoided.