Smart speakers gained a display a few years ago and they have been a match made in heaven. To add visual context to your smart assistant enquiries seems like a no brainer now that we have it but obviously took a while to get there.

Amazon have just released their second generation smart displays with the new Echo Show 5 and the Echo Show 8.  The main changes are in the Echo Show 8 so we will focus on that one with this review and touching on the smaller one at the end — just in case that is the one you prefer.

What is it?

The Echo Show 8 sports, as you may have suspected, an 8-inch HD (1280×800) display and has had its camera updated to a 13MP with some pretty cool new smart features included.  Supplementing the 8-inch display are dual stereo speakers powered by a new octacore CPU.

The smart speaker houses a front facing camera, multiple far field microphones, hardware buttons for volume control and to switch the camera on and off and the mics on and off. The setup of the Echo Show 8 and 5 was super easy, although it was done all on-device.

How is it different?

It is smarter and possibly creepier — that depends on how you feel about a camera following you around the room.  The new camera uses built in AI to power its new features, similar to how Google’s speakers do the same.  

The camera can detect a human in the room as well as automatically zoom  and follow you (within reason) around the room while on a video call.  Not only is it possible to call using Amazon’s services but there is now also support for Zoom calls.

The new speakers also have more oomph than the previous generation, pumping out a much better quality sound.  OF course, all of these features work even better if you are within the Amazon ecosystem and are a Prime member.

How does it perform?

Alexa is still the main use for a smart display and given your use may or may not be better than other digital assistants for you.  For smart home control I find that Alexa is able to control device much more consistently and faster than Google Assistant.  It helps that Alexa also has a heap of “skills” that can not only be added for each device you incorporate but also to add on games, apps etc.

Amazon Photos provides a way for you to easily display photos on your Echo Show with Prime members getting unlimited cloud photo storage.  These photos can be chosen as the slideshow on the Echo Show and they looked great in all lighting conditions I tested them out on.

So what else can you do with an Echo Show other than ask for the weather and control your home?  You can use it as a Bluetooth speaker, you can stream Netflix, Prime Movies on it easily with built in apps.  YouTube though requires a bit of a workaround — it is not that difficult though to use the Amazon Silk browser to access YouTube on the display.  Obviously, the YouTube experience isn’t as good as that for Google/Nest smart displays, but it is a workaround that was good enough.

The video calling function worked extremely well — it does take a few seconds for the display to become clear but once clear the person in front of the Echo Show 8 is well displayed on your device and you on theirs.  Testing it showed that the ability of the Echo Show 8 camera to follow you around the room was a bit limited but still was good enough due to its wide angled lens.

That front-facing 13MP camera can also be used as a security camera which can be viewed within the Alexa app — you can also add your Ring cameras to the Alexa app but unfortunately you cannot add the Echo Show 8 camera to the Ring app.  It would be nice to have that option as I like the ability to quickly see all of my cameras’ view in one app — maybe that is the next step for Amazon, adding the ability for it to operate as it does for a Ring app and record a timeline of video which can be stored and viewed at any time later.

As for music, your Amazon Prime account will get you access to Amazon Prime Music — but not to Amazon Prime Unlimited.  Spotify though is also incorporated into the Alexa environment using Skills.  Other music apps included are Australia’s RadioApp and funnily enough Apple Music.  Seems the only one missing is YouTube Music — can’t we all just get along.  Given the very slowly softening of the war between Amazon and Google hopefully this is also available in the future.  If you use YouTube Music you could always just connect to the Echo Show as a Bluetooth speaker and stream it from your phone — no Alexa control though.

What about the Echo Show 5??

The Echo Show 5 is a cute little smart display and as such has its uses.  It can sit in a smaller space as it has a much smaller footprint than the Echo Show 8.  The Echo Show 5 makes a great bedside clock given its small size.

The 5 comes with an upgraded camera compared with the last generation making it ideal for basic video calls and can do pretty much everything the 8-inch version can do.  There is less smart functionality though with the camera also not following you around the room but for typical use it is a great little device offering all the same smart home and digital assistant functionality as the larger 8-inch version.

Privacy

Although both speakers can provide a live camera feed for you without having to make a call you can also prevent it with a camera shield — it is a physical, albeit a bit clunky, plastic shutter that is slid over the top of the camera using the slide on top of the display.  Once this is slid over there is obviously no way the camera can view anything at all except the back of the shield.

For those who want the microphone not able to access what you say to it at times, or don’t trust it to not record normal everyday conversations there is a physical button to also turn off the microphones.  Using the Alexa Privacy Hub you can also view and delete your voice recordings.

Should you buy it?

The second generation Amazon Echo Show 8 and 5 are both improvements over the first generation with the 8 offering more enhancements and thus greater value over the first generation. New cameras and new software features give them an enticing value.

If you are already in the Alexa / Amazon ecosystem then buying an Alexa-powered smart display is a no brainer. If you are already locked into one of the other ecosystems it is a harder sell. If you are not locked into any ecosystem at the moment then I would suggest you consider the Alexa-powered smart displays. Alexa may not be as useful for conversational information but is better for smart home control.

The Amazon Echo Show 8 is available now for $199 in Charcoal and Glacier White while the Echo Show 5 second generation is available for $119 in Charcoal, Glacier White and Deep Sea Blue.