Reviews

An Alexa newbie and veteran review Amazon’s Echo Show 15

Reviewers Ian Carlos Campbell and Raymond Wong agree the Echo Show 15 has polished hardware and Alexa support, but the software is too barebones and janky.

Amazon Echo Show 15 review: Alexa beginner and veteran comparison
Ian Carlos Campbell / Input

Late last year, Amazon revealed its latest range of products with Alexa support, including its first smart robot called Astro. This review is focused on a more conventional entry in Amazon’s Echo line but not necessarily a less important one, the Echo Show 15, the company’s largest smart display, and what it suggests could be the best vision of what a smart home and life built around an Amazon ecosystem could be like.

To better understand the Alexa experience and Amazon’s new Echo Show, we’re tackling this review from two perspectives: someone new to Alexa and smart home tech in general (Ian Carlos Campbell), and someone who’s had an Echo and Alexa smart home for more than half a decade (Ray Wong). A large-format Echo Show feels like a no-brainer, but does it meaningfully improve on the Alexa experience?

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Echo newb

I wasn’t expecting to be impressed with Alexa. I’ve had more than my fair share of exposure to digital assistants. From the early days of Siri to Google’s first forays into dedicated hardware for Google Assistant, I’ve gotten comfortable with asking trillion-dollar companies to set cookie timers for me.

But beyond smart speakers, I’ve never attempted to dip my toe into the wider world of smart home tech. No smart displays, no connected lights, and nothing close to a camera that wasn’t attached to my laptop, tablet, or phone. For all of those reasons, Amazon’s Echo Show 15 ($250) and Alexa were exciting. Not only had I heard Alexa made building out a smart home easy in comparison to other options, but the Echo Show 15 fit neatly into my childhood vision of a smart home where giant touchscreen displays supply contextual information (for some reason this was always calendar events and the weather) everywhere around the house.

Amazon’s largest Echo Show is a pretty alright example of how that can work in 2021: equal parts great evidence for why Alexa is so popular, and annoying issues that shouldn’t still be around in 2021, especially for someone just starting to dabble with connected devices.

Full frame — Amazon decided the Echo Show 15 should look like a traditional picture frame, and for that I’m grateful. Not that there’s anything wrong with an alternative approach; I really enjoy the pastels, curves, and soft textures of Google’s Nest products. They’re an aesthetic all their own. But Amazon is clearly trying to have something to appeal to everyone (yes, even with that swiveling Echo Show 10) and the Show 15, as a device meant to serve multiple people in a public part of the home, works best in a familiar shape and form.

The 15.6-inch touchscreen display is plenty big and bright. There was definitely glare placing my Show 15 near a window, but nothing that rendered the display unreadable. The white border/bezel around the touchscreen and slightly raised dark black frame also help lend to the picture frame illusion. That fades some when you see how thick the Echo Show 15 is (1.4 inches), but mounted on a stand (sold separately), or on the wall (with the included wall brackets) the smart display fits in well.

On the top of the Show 15, there’s a switch to cover the 5-megapixel front-facing camera (it’s pretty meh), a button to electronically disable the microphone, and volume controls. On the back of the device, the Show 15 has two speakers, a cavity for a wall mounting bracket, and the port for connecting the (surprisingly) short five-foot power cord. Overall, the Show 15 is a slick device. I’d love a bit more customizability in terms of color and finish, but I liked how the Show 15 could fade into the background until I needed it.

Buttons are on the top of the Echo Show 15.Ian Carlos Campbell / Input
Camera cover open.Ian Carlos Campbell / Input
The physical cover slides over the camera lens and electronically disables the camera. Ian Carlos Campbell / Input

Smart home chops — Alexa is surprisingly delightful. I’ve long held that the Google Assistant was the “smartest” digital assistant you could have in a speaker or display, but for basic questions and requests Alexa is pretty great, and for the functionality I’m specifically interested in — integrating with smart home devices — it’s arguably the best.

Amazon makes it ridiculously easy to add devices to Alexa. You can say “Alexa, discover devices” and any new plugs, bulbs, or cameras you plug in can be added, provided your Show 15 is connected to Wi-Fi. You can also do all of this through actual menus on the Show 15. Annoyingly, everything you add is automatically labeled as “first bulb, plug, etc.” rather than allowing you to immediately rename your device when you first set them up, but otherwise, I loved how seamless it is.

Once everything is set up, Alexa commands work as expected. If you’ve shouted at one digital assistant to turn off your lights, you’ve shouted at them all. Things become a bit more disappointing when you try and do anything with the Show 15 that isn’t voice-activated.

Software cracks — It starts with just the slightest bit of lag across the Show 15’s interface. It’s not disorientingly bad, you’ll still know what you’re tapping and dragging, but it’s somewhat disappointing on a $250 device. It continues with the load times anytime you try to tap into a new section of the menu. Again, no dramatic freezes here, but I shouldn’t have to wait longer to do something with my fingers than I do with my voice. They should at least be equal. The disappointment culminates in the actual layout of the touch UI for the Show 15.

Some bits I like. While I wish the customizable widgets that dominate a majority of the Show 15’s display had a bit more visual pizazz and functionality, they work well enough in their simple form. It’s the other menus (and there are many) that start to annoy me. With a swipe down from the top, you can access the Show 15’s extended menu. On the top row: Home, Settings, Do Not Disturb, Alarm, Brightness, Notifications, and the Widget Gallery. On the bottom row: Discovery, Communicate, Music, Smart Home, Video, Routines, and Photo Frame. Why are these ordered this way? I’m not entirely sure.

If you’ve shouted at one digital assistant to turn off your lights, you’ve shouted at them all.

Start with another Echo — Overall, I wish more of the core functionality of the Show 15 and Alexa were surfaced more easily. You can fix most of this by adding more widgets to the main screen. With the Smart Home Favorites I could easily turn on smart lights and plugs I had placed around the house, but I couldn’t access more granular adjustments like levels of brightness. Not the end of the world when I can just vocally order Alexa to make those changes, but I can’t say it didn’t bother me.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon has data to back up the fact that most people just use their voice rather than touch its screens. But I don’t think that’s an excuse to push something out with a little less polish than the rest of the Alexa experience. Especially when it has a visual aesthetic (Amazon has not grown much past those first Fire tablets) that at least to my eye doesn’t live up to the rest of the device. I look forward to Amazon making improvements and redesigning the touch interface over time — something that’ll be especially important on a device with a large screen — but for now, I’m sticking to voice commands.

All in all, the Show 15 has left me more intrigued than anything else. As someone early in their smart home “journey” (or is it more of a lifestyle?) I think Alexa and the gigantic ecosystem of Alexa-enabled smart home devices are perfect for someone just getting up to speed. I’m just not sure the Show 15 is how I’d personally start. A regular Echo or Echo Dot is still the easier and more affordable way to get started with building out an Alexa-compatible smart home.

Echo vet

Unlike Ian who is new to smart homes and Alexa, I was one of the first people outside of Amazon to use the Echo. Since early 2015, I have spoken, shouted, and even whispered (yes, there's a whisper mode) at Alexa every day; I own more Echo devices than is necessary for a single person. I also have the Google Assistant in my beloved Nest Hub. And I've got an original HomePod for the rare HomeKit device I have. Needless to say, I'm deeply entrenched in multiple smart home platforms — an impressive feat considering my apartment is only around 500 square feet. Then again, it is my job to stay on top of the latest smart home platforms.

I've tested just about every Echo Show smart display ever released (including the discontinued orb-shaped Echo Spot and the Echo Show 10), and I have to say, Google's Nest Hubs are still the better digital picture frames. If you're a Prime subscriber you get unlimited photo storage, which makes an Echo Show more appealing. But objectively, Google Photos is the superior photo storage service; Nest Hubs do a better job displaying photos — specifically, pairing similar vertical photos side-by-side — and the sharing integration is easier with multiple family members.

The Nest Hub has been my recommendation whenever anyone asks me which smart picture frame to get. I went on vacation over the summer and when I returned home I bought three Nest Hubs (not even the second-generation Hub 2 that came out this year) on sale for $50 each. Fifty bucks! My two sisters now have an easy way to view photos uploaded to a shared Google Photos album and my parents have a picture frame that is always updating new photos from us kids.

If your Wi-Fi drops, be prepared to see busted widgets when it goes back online.Raymond Wong / Input

Smart display competition — But the Nest Hub's 7-inch screen is on the small side. Google's Nest Hub Max has a larger 10 inch display — larger, but not something you can see from across the room. The Echo Show has a 10.1-inch screen, but it's bolted to a chunky cylinder that houses the speaker. People want a larger smart display! The Lenovo Smart Frame has a large 21.5-inch display and works with Google Photos, but it lacks a touchscreen and doesn't have a digital assistant or any intelligence of any kind. Its features are barebones for $250.

The Echo Show 15 costs the same as Lenovo’s frame, but comes with a smaller 15.6-inch touchscreen, Alexa voice controls and smart home support, and a built-in camera for video calls. It’s objectively more feature-packed and the better value. But more power to you if you prefer a digital picture frame that has as little chance at listening or recording you. (The physical camera cover and electronic microphone mute switch are good safeguards on the Show 15. Unlikely as it is that anyone would wanna hack us normals, no device that can hear or see you is impenetrable.)

Installation — Like Ian, my first impression was that the Show 15, which really resembles a 2nd-gen Portal, is thicker than in pictures. The short cable makes it less than ideal for wall-mounting unless you cut a hole in your wall and snake the cable through (something I can't do in a rental apartment). But then you're looking at a more costly home installation for what is supposed to literally be plug and play. Amazon sent along a tilt stand from Sanus ($30) that you can attach to the Show 15 with a few screws. I think it's ugly and it only looks acceptable with the Show 15 tilted all the way down; at 90 degrees the base of the stand is exposed. Amazon should have included a kickstand kind of like the one on the Surface Pro 8 or the Nintendo Switch (OLED model); it would have likely interfered with wall-mounting, but maybe make the kickstand detachable? Amazon's got hundreds of billions of dollars — I'm sure R&D could engineer a clever built-in kickstand mechanism.

The Echo Show 15’s barebones UI.Raymond Wong / Input

Barebones UI — Alexa is, well, Alexa. It works exactly like any Echo. I muted all my Echos and did several voice assistant tests, and as far as I could tell, Alexa heard me the same, and with the same accuracy as my 2nd-gen Echo Plus, Echo Studio, and beloved Echo Dot with Clock. I had no issues at all setting the Echo Show 15 up and using the voice and touchscreen to immediately control my existing Alexa-based smart home setup of smart lights, plugs, and speakers. Everything just worked.

What didn't work so great: the Show 15's interface. Like Ian, I found the Show 15's home screen and widget support extremely barebones. And buggy at first! Several times during my first days of use, my T-Mobile Home Internet Wi-Fi dropped and the Show 15 borked itself; widgets failed to update, showing blank rectangles instead. The only way to reset the widgets was to unplug the Show 15 and plug it back in, and even then sometimes I had to do it a few times. The widgets themselves are pretty limited. I, too, found the settings to be arranged randomly, and returning to the home screen wasn't a simple swipe from the edge like you'd expect it to be; you swipe down from the top then tap the "home" button.

Passable picture frame — As a digital picture frame, the Show 15 does the job — it displays your photos stored in Amazon Photos in 1080p. The screen is large, bright, and viewing angles are good. The Show 15's cropping bothers me the most. There's no intelligence for pairing two vertical photos together the way the Nest Hubs do; vertical photos are shown with blurred pillarboxing. And all 3:2 or 4:3 photos are cropped in to fill the 16:9 display, which means parts of a photo are cut off. Amazon Photos is fine, but it's no Google Photos. The Show 15 can also display photos from a Facebook album; I’m very anti-Facebook account, but if you’re not, then that’s another option.

Photos are cropped in for the Echo Show 15’s 16:9 aspect ratio, cutting off some of the picture.Raymond Wong / Input
The original un-zoomed in photo.Raymond Wong

Low-res video calls — The speakers and video call quality are average at best. Bass isn't as good as on Echo speakers and songs can sound distorted at high volumes. Even with two 1.6-inch full-range speakers, these are punier than the dual 2-inch speakers in the 2nd-gen Echo Show 8 to my ears. The 5-megapixel camera (why is this lower resolution than the 13-megapixel cameras in the 2nd-gen Show 8 and Show 10?) is not exactly crystal clear; video is hazy and grainy, especially in low-light. The Show 15 is not a device that will make you look your best. And for some reason, there's also no auto-framing, which is present on the Show 8 and 10 and even smart displays like the Meta Portal Go and Portal+.

Yeah... this really happened.

The one feature video feature that is entertaining — effects and filters — is just also super laggy. Ian and I tried the various effects, which do everything from put virtual sunglasses on your face to dressing you up like a hot dog, and the video quality slowed so much it resembled a slow-motion video. Whatever chip in the Show 15 simply can't handle real-time effects, and I have to wonder why Amazon even shipped this feature considering how much latency there is.

Amazon should have done more with the software.

So much missed potential — It's clear that people want larger smart displays, especially for displaying photos. The Echo Show 15 is just good enough at the basics. The skeletal software actually brings to mind the pared-back "smart" interfaces you find in Samsung and LG fridges with integrated touchscreens. It's fine for displaying the weather, a note, a to-do list, and maybe a few controls for your smart home devices, but it leaves you wanting more. There's no widget to launch YouTube — something you'd want to do if you put the Show 15 in your kitchen. Ditto for Prime Videos and Netflix. Instead, you have to use Alexa voice controls to "open YouTube" which doesn't launch a YouTube app but instead opens the Amazon Silk browser and goes to youtube.com. The Silk browser is also still hidden for some reason. There's no widget to launch it either; Silk is a fully functional mobile web browser and you can use it to visit any website, but you'll have to say "Alexa, open YouTube.com" to access it every time. Simply saying "Alexa, go to inputmag.com" or any website doesn't work.

It's all very weird and highlights where the Echo/Alexa teams' priorities are. Every time I test a new Echo Show, I can't help but wonder if you'd be better off just wall-mounting the largest Fire Tablet available and keeping it plugged in; you can put it into Alexa, hands-free mode and you get proper apps. I've actually stayed at a few Airbnbs where hosts have done this and I thought it ingenious (though I'm not sure how safe it is to keep a tablet plugged in 24/7).

With the addition of the Echo Show 15, Amazon now sells smart displays in four sizes with several form factors: 5.5, 8, 10.1, and 15.6 inches. The two smaller ones can fit anywhere. The Show 10 is mostly for large kitchens and the Show 15 is clearly designed to be wall-mounted. Confusingly, the Show 10 and Show 15 both cost $250. The Show 10 has a better speaker system and higher resolution camera, but also a smaller and lower resolution touchscreen. Picking one over the other is not as cut and dry as it should be. I like the concept of the Echo Show 15 — the form factor makes sense — but Amazon should have done more with the software. The Show 15 has a huge touchscreen. Why doesn't it take advantage of that?