Amazon Echo Spot review: Visually appealing but expensive foray into smart speakers

Amazon Echo Spot review: Visually appealing but expensive foray into smart speakers

Amazon was the first company to enter a space that now has many competitors — dedicated digital assistant sporting speakers. The Echo line of products heralded a category that is now leading to cutting-edge technology in the fields of artificial intelligence when it comes to conversing with machines. Google with its Home series of products and Apple with the HomePod are competitors for sure, but Amazon still has an upper hand over the other two, thanks to the early mover advantage.

After having launched the Echo, Echo Plus and Echo Dot in India around the Diwali season last year, Amazon, after a hiatus, has now brought its most portable speaker with a display to India. The Echo Spot differs from any other Echo product launched in India thanks to the presence of a display on the device. The Echo Spot comes in an almost spherical form factor with a circular display. The idea behind the Echo is to not just aurally but to also visually provide you with the needed assistance.

So should you get this over the Echo or the Echo Dot? Well, if you want visual cues, then the Echo Spot makes a lot of sense. If you are paranoid about the front-facing camera on the Echo Spot getting hacked and recording your activities, or maybe you just don’t trust Amazon, you’d be much better off with the non-display Echo products.

Regardless of your motivations, it’s pertinent to know that these smart speakers aren’t really solving any issue apart from maybe playing music in an easier manner, answering basic queries and maybe helping you in the kitchen with recipes. Let’s find out if the Echo Spot is worth the Rs 12,999 asking price.  

Build and Design: 8/10

Amazon Echo Spot gives a visual cue, but is voice controlled just like other Echo products. Image: Amazon

Amazon Echo Spot gives a visual cue but is voice controlled just like other Echo products. Image: Amazon

Echo Spot is visually different from all the other Echo devices we have seen till date. The cylindrical form factor makes way for the more alarm-clock like aesthetic on the Echo Spot, thereby making it an instantly familiar design language. The front has a flat display with a significant bezel. The transition from the glass to the plastic housing edge is smooth. The easiest way to describe the Echo Spot’s shape is to think of any cricket or tennis ball that’s cut from the bottom and on the side at an angle. The spherical shape has three buttons on top which are flush with the rest of the body, four perforations for the microphones, and on the rear side, you have a groove which houses the power port and the 3.5 mm audio jack. The base has a nice rubber finish which gives that added grip when you place the Echo Spot on any flat surface. You also get an Echo Spot adjustable stand to allow you to direct the display towards you. 

The build quality on the Echo Spot is indeed spot on and there’s little to complain here. The buttons have enough tactility, the display is quite responsive. My only concern was with the grooves present on the base for the speaker section, which could serve as an excellent place for dust collection, so you will need to be wary of that and ensure it’s clean.

The Amazon Echo Spot just merges with the background wherever you place it. Image: tech2/Nimish Sawant

The Amazon Echo Spot just merges with the background wherever you place it. Image: tech2/Nimish Sawant

I just wish the Echo Spot had an inbuilt battery so that it could just be put anywhere conveniently without bothering about the wire. Maybe we will see the second generation Spot with that feature, who knows?

Features: 7/10

The Echo Spot sports a 1.4-inch speaker and a 2.5-inch display with a 480 x 480-pixel resolution. The display is circular and although not the sharpest, it does get the work done by giving you the necessary visual cues. The longer messages though aren’t formatted for the circular display as you see the left-aligned block of text being cut in parts. After the Echo Dot, the Spot is the lightest Echo device around, weighing in at 419 grams.

Amazon Echo Spot could be considered to be a smart alarm clock. Image: Amazon

Amazon Echo Spot could be considered to be a smart alarm clock. Image: Amazon

There’s a front-facing camera, the resolution of which is not known. Just like the other Echo devices, the Echo Spot also has physical buttons to mute the device. On pressing the mute button, the red backlight behind that button lights up and you see a red-coloured border around the display, just like the red halo around the Echo devices to indicate that the Echo is on mute mode. With the Echo Spot, this mute button also turns off the front-facing camera. Beside the mute button, you have the volume up and down buttons.

There are four far-field microphones that you can see around the top buttons. It supports dual-band Wi-Fi with 802.11 b/g/n/ standard for 2.4 GHz as well as 5 GHz networks. You cannot connect to ad-hoc networks though. Thanks to A2DP Bluetooth support, you can connect your Echo Spot to a Bluetooth speaker or headphones. Thanks to the display, it will showcase the text and you can also play videos on the display if you so wish. You can also make video calls using the inbuilt camera.

The top portion of the Amazon Echo Spot shows the four far-field microphones. Image: tech2/Nimish Sawant

The top portion of the Amazon Echo Spot shows the four far-field microphones. Image: tech2/Nimish Sawant

Now, while the Echo Spot can communicate and control smart home devices, you will need to get a separate electrical hub to act as a passthrough. Unlike the Echo Plus which comes with the ZigBee controller built in, the Echo Spot does not have any such controller.

Software and Usability: 7.5/10

Also Read  Apple iPhone sales may hit 41.6 mn by Q3 2018 as product becomes stable business

Setting up the Echo Spot is orders of magnitude easier than setting up the other, non-display Echo devices. Thanks to the display, the steps to set up the Spot are easily visible in front on you. And you do not require an Alexa app on your device for that. Of course, eventually, you will need to download it to adjust the finer settings and enable/disable skills. Any smartphone user would feel right at home while working with the Echo Spot and its touch-sensitive display.

Swiping from the top will pull up the three main menus, namely Home, Night mode and Settings, followed by the brightness slider. The Home menu shows up the clock by default on the home screen, but you can swipe left to see other screens such as the date and weather card, a ‘Things to try’ card and Trending news card and the Spot keeps toggling between these screens.  

The Settings menu is where you are presented with all the nuts and bolts of the Spot. Now with the Echo devices, you generally change the settings on the Alexa app, available on Android and iOS. With the Spot, you can do it on the device itself by heading over to the Settings menu and toggling or selecting things according to your preferences.

Major settings

So let us look at each of the settings in the said menu. First off, you have the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi pairing options which are straightforward. The Home and Clock lets you customise the clock faces, select the order of Home Cards and toggle which ones you want to see on the home screen or whether you want to keep the toggle on repeat mode. Night mode lets you dim the display from the time you’ve set. You can set different sounds for alarms and notifications, or also your favourite songs.

Alexa Skills

Listening to Music is what I used the Echo Spot for 90 percent of the time. Image: tech2/Nimish Sawant

Listening to Music is what I used the Echo Spot for 90 percent of the time. Image: tech2/Nimish Sawant

Alexa Skills is the bedrock of any Echo device. And thanks to Echo Spot’s display, the skills can also be programmed to give a visual cue. For instance, when listening to the morning briefing, I can also watch the news on the display. I didn’t find watching the news on this display particularly appealing, but the option is there. When I am playing songs from Prime Music, I get to see the album art on the screen. I could also interact with the tracks on screen (only previous track, next track and play/pause).

For instance, a skill like “Alexa what’s the weather?” will trigger Alexa to read out the weather; “Alexa play Porcupine Tree”, will make the Echo Spot playback a Porcupine Tree playlist from Amazon Prime Music and so on.

Thanks to the display, shopping on Amazon is a lot easier as you get to see what you are about to buy and maybe change the quantities. I am still not convinced of the use case of shopping using Alexa, as I still find it cumbersome and would much rather do it quickly on my phone. Plus there is the added security when I am making the payments on the phone.

If you are an app developer and want to be present on the Echo devices, you can set up an Alexa Skill for your app or service and then test it and submit it.

Also Read  Facebook admits it was 'too slow' to solve the hate speech issue in Myanmar

Video calling

Amazon Echo Spot's front camera can be used to make video calls. Image: Amazon

Amazon Echo Spot’s front camera can be used to make video calls. Image: Amazon

This is easily one of the unique features of the Echo Spot. Thanks to the front-facing camera and the display, you can make calls to anyone from your contact list. So long as the contact shows up in the list and have the Alexa app installed on their device, you can make and receive video calls from the Spot. A feature called Drop In has to be enabled for a contact to be able to communicate with you on Echo Spot. This feature is a double-edged sword. Yes, I would like to make calls using the front camera on my Echo Spot, but I don’t want a friend or relative making calls or dropping in directly via my Echo Spot. Familiarising yourself with this process is not that time-consuming. Depending on your internet speeds, you can get a clear feed. Echo Spot’s far-field microphones may make those video calls with distant relatives a bit less painful.

Performance: 7/10

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 Spot provides a more mobile like experience thanks to the display.

But first things first, does Alexa understand Indian accents?

During my testing, I realised that there wasn’t an issue for Alexa to recognise my Indian accent, so long as my queries included proper English. According to Amazon, the Echo line of products has been selling all over India since its launch, which has ensured that Alexa understands the accents correctly. But there were definitely instances when Alexa would not return anything, especially when my queries involved regional language words. For instance, when I asked Alexa to play some of my favourite Marathi songs, barring the popular ‘Zingaat’ it returned no results. Having seen the first generation of voice assistants such as Siri and Assistant, I feel Alexa is much better prepared.

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 to Alexa as that just sounds more humane than the others. Unless you say the trigger word, the Echo Spot will not respond to you and this can get annoying when you are within a playlist and want to move to the next track. 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 four far-field microphones are on constantly and so is the camera. Now, some may find this a bit unnerving. If you belong to that category, then simply add a sticker on the camera to block it. Amazon has come on record and said that it does not record any audio unless the trigger word is spoken. I liked how the blue circular border tends to become a different shade in the direction from where the sound is coming, when you are giving a command, indicating Alexa listening to you. It is a very smart visual indicator. But unlike the Echo Plus, I found the microphones to be average especially when you tried to give the speaker commands while it was playing some music. I found myself repeating the trigger word in many instances, which isn’t ideal.

Amazon Echo Spot Settings menu. Image: tech2/Nimish Sawant

Amazon Echo Spot Settings menu. Image: tech2/Nimish Sawant

If you are someone 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.

As you use the Spot more, you can discover more Skills related to the apps and services you are interested in. Off the bat, music is provided by Amazon Prime Music along with TuneIn and Saavn 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.

The news flash briefing experience is the worst I should say, in the sense that there is no granularity here. For instance, when I ask for the daily briefing, I have no option to select which category of news I am interested in. There is also no way to say trigger category specific briefings. This problem existed when I was testing the Echo Plus as well, and something that needs to be fixed by Amazon. I don’t want to know what’s happening in world politics first thing in the morning but would rather have more local news. I have no way to skip it to the news that interests me. More often than not, I have gone back to scrolling the news I want on my phone. For a journalist, this Alexa skill is critical and no Echo devices have an optimal solution here.

The Amazon Echo Spot has a power power and an audio-out on the rear. Image: tech2/Nimish Sawant

The Amazon Echo Spot has a power power and an audio-out on the rear. Image: tech2/Nimish Sawant

The music experience is the only one that is worth talking home 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. The regional language music understanding is nowhere close to a seamless experience. But thanks to support for apps such as Saavn, a lot of music need is taken care of. But I still found it a task to play my playlists on Echo Spot and after a lot of back and forth, I just gave up trying to make Alexa understand which playlist I wanted to be played. This does not speak too well on Amazon as its skills are sometimes its own downfall.

A lot of the times I noticed that even when I said ‘Alexa, Stop’ while a song was playing, the song would continue playing at a lower volume unless I said Stop again. I found it to be quite strange, and maybe it’s a bug that can be fixed in future updates.

The smart home support is not present out of the box. Unlike the in-built hub seen on the Echo Plus, the Echo Spot will need to connect to an external controller in order to be able to communicate with smart home devices. We tested it out with the Philips LED Hue smart bulb and it worked fine. But this is a very niche use case scenario in most homes in India, so while this feature is good to have, it isn’t critical.

Verdict and Price in India

Also Read  WhatsApp and EC to work to stop spread of fake news: That's easier said than done

If you are in the market to dip your feet into this whole digital assistant speaker universe, I would suggest you go with the Echo Dot. It’s portable, supports all the major Alexa skills and has a very low entry barrier when it comes to the price point. Of course, the speaker on the Dot isn’t as powerful as it is on other Echo products. The Echo Spot makes sense for you only if you really want the assurance that a display will offer in addition to the voice assistant supporting speaker. The display is certainly valuable for making those video calls, but the inbuilt camera can be anxiety-inducing.

At Rs 12,999, it is tough to recommend the Echo Spot. If you really are interested in a display spouting Echo device, I would advise waiting for the Echo Show which has a much larger display. Of course, thanks to the cold war between Amazon and Google, YouTube is not supported on the Echo Spot, so the video experience is severely limited. It works wonderfully as a smart alarm clock.

If you want a powerful speaker, you are much better off with the Echo Plus which costs Rs 2,000 more and gives you not just a more powerful speaker, more sensitive microphones, but also an inbuilt smart home control hub.

Having said that, I would like to reiterate that the Echo line of products, or the Google Home series, isn’t really solving any critical problem as such. Apart from playing music, listening to podcasts and have my Kindle ebooks read out to me, I didn’t really use the Echo Spot for many other things as I found using my smartphone to get those things done was much easier. I never see myself using any Echo device to do my shopping, as the process is just too cumbersome and I am much better off doing that on my mobile device. There were many instances where I felt that “I could do this faster on my mobile phone”. And as far as that sentiment stays, the challenges for any smart speaker, not just Echo Spot, will be immense.

So invest in an Echo Spot, only if you want to be an early adopter of this voice-powered speaker technology. Else, you are better off with the Echo Dot or the Google Home Mini, if you are invested heavily in the Google ecosystem.

Leave a Comment