Amazon's Echo Spot is the blueprint for all future smart speakers


Amazon’s not declaring it a redo, but the Echo Spot, the company’s latest Alexa-powered smart speaker — smart alarm clock is probably more accurate — might as well be one.

The Spot is everything the clunky and expensive Echo Show released this past summer should have been. I’m the happy owner of two Echo devices (the original Echo and an Echo Dot), and thought I couldn’t possibly have room for another, but the Spot proved me wrong.

As a longtime Echo user, I was excited to hear Amazon was launching an a new smart speaker with a built-in screen. Using Alexa voice controls is still as intuitive as ever, but there are times when having a screen is useful for displaying visual information. Like when you want to see your to-do or reminders list, or watch a movie trailer, or see, not hear, the weekly weather forecast.

But the device Amazon gave us was far from what I, and I think many people, had hoped for. I enjoyed the Show for its easy-peasy video calling feature, but its hefty $230 price tag, lack of “real” apps or even simplified versions of apps, and ugly retro design were big turn-offs. The $130 Echo Spot, however, is irresistible right out of the box.

Friendly and inviting

Slick design isn’t usually Amazon’s forte, but holy moly, the Spot is mighty fine-looking. Whichever Amazon team created this adorable device should be put in charge of industrial design for all of the company’s devices.

I don’t think I’ve ever said this about any Amazon gadget, but the Spot looks like something Apple would come up with. The white one is particularly sleek and reminded me a little of EVE, the fictional robot in WALL-E (which Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive had a hand in designing). 

You can definitely play videos like full episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on the Spot, but you probably won't do it. It's good for watching short movie trailers, though.

You can definitely play videos like full episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on the Spot, but you probably won’t do it. It’s good for watching short movie trailers, though.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

The Spot’s round body is inviting in all the ways the Show, the regular Echo, and the Dot aren’t. I mean, it needed to be because Amazon designed it to resemble an alarm clock and be placed on a bedside table (of course, you can put it wherever you want). The last thing you want to put next to your bed is a camera-equipped mini kiosk — that would be the Echo Show, in case that wasn’t clear — that you’re trusting to not spy on you.

Having set up the Spot on my own bedside table for about a week, I can confidently tell you this cute little guy isn’t threatening at all.

Smaller screen is actually better

Kinda dig these clock faces.

Kinda dig these clock faces.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

The Spot has a 2.5-inch round display. It’s neither the sharpest nor the brightest, but it gets the job done showing you the time, weather, song lyrics, or any other nugget-sized information fitting for a smart alarm clock. It’s not like you’re going to be watching feature-length movies on it. You can — Amazon Video plays just fine — but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Its main standby screen always displays the time, so it makes sense Amazon lets you customize the clock face. There are options for analog and digital clock faces, and you can even make your own custom one using photos uploaded to your Amazon Photos. It’s really neat having a clock that also doubles as a digital picture frame.

The Spot’s smaller display didn’t tempt me with desire for fuller app experiences. 

And don’t worry, there’s also a “Nighttime Clock” mode that dims the screen and swaps out the clock face’s colors for black so it doesn’t blind you when you’re trying to sleep. You also won’t need to manually turn this mode on every night; a simple setting lets you schedule when you want the Nighttime Clock to start and stop.

In addition to the clock screen, you can customize the Spot with various home screens, accessed by swiping left. I had mine set to show the weather and trending news headlines.

Having used the Show before, I was a little concerned the screen would be too small, but I actually preferred the tinier display. Unlike the Show, which has a 7-inch touchscreen and practically begged me to touch it even though it doesn’t have any native apps (not even a web browser), the Spot’s smaller display didn’t tempt me with desire for fuller app experiences. 

Looking at its small and round display is a constant reminder of what the screen is intended for. It’s like using a smartwatch. The screen’s small and poking it isn’t a great input method, so you’re not going to want to do it that often. The same idea applies for the Spot. The design informs the input, instead of the other way around. The Spot’s an Echo so it’s ultimately all about voice control; the touchscreen is secondary.

Same Alexa voice controls you love

Say "Alexa" and the screen will display a blue ring of light to show you it's listening.

Say “Alexa” and the screen will display a blue ring of light to show you it’s listening.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

The Spot may be the prettiest Echo Amazon’s ever made (with or without a screen), but it’s Alexa that makes it, well, an Echo.

I’ll save you some reading time and just tell you that Alexa voice controls work exactly like they do on any other Echo device.

That means you can use an Alexa voice command to play music; add items to your shopping list; tell you the weather, latest sports scores, or simple facts; read you news briefings; control all your connected smart home devices; make phone calls; and more. With over 20,000 Alexa skills available to install, there’s a lot you can do.

I’m also really glad Amazon didn’t scrimp on the far-field mics. The four microphones on top of the Spot are second-generation mics, and they’re way better than the Dot’s. In my testing, it had no issues picking up my voice from across the room. At closer range, I could even whisper and Alexa would activate. 

I love seeing lyrics on the screen. They scroll up as the song goes on. Karoke, anyone?

I love seeing lyrics on the screen. They scroll up as the song goes on. Karoke, anyone?

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Oh yeah...visual news briefings.

Oh yeah…visual news briefings.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Music is a probably the feature Echo owners use the most. On the Spot, there’s a 1.4-inch speaker inside that blasts sound downwards. This is by design and by directing sound downwards, the audio’s actually reflected off the surface it’s on and dispersed outwards. 

The Spot’s speaker can get pretty loud — enough to fill a small apartment — but it doesn’t sound as good as the second-generation Echo (that’s the “all-new” one) or even Echo Plus. However, it definitely sounds better than the tinny Echo Dot. 

Want better sound? Plug a speaker right into the Spot.

Want better sound? Plug a speaker right into the Spot.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

But if you’re really concerned about sound or want to feel the bass, there is hope. You can either connect the Spot to a beefier Bluetooth speaker or plug it into a regular speaker that has an aux port (you’ll need an aux cable, sold separately, of course).

Out of all the things the Spot does, making video calls is probably my favorite. It works just like on the Show and they’re easily initiated with an “Alexa, video call ____” command. Similarly, you can tell Alexa to hang up the call, or “drop in” (you appeared blurred out for a few seconds before the video call is picked up) on another Spot or Show’s screen, or Alexa phone app. For Drop In, the person you’re calling will need to have given your account permission ahead of time, though.

Video calling is dead simple.

Video calling is dead simple.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

I tried this at work with Mashable Tech Editor Pete Pachal and at home with a sibling and it couldn’t have been simpler. Like on the Show, the video call’s image quality is okay — it’s not super crispy or anything — and the audio quality could have been clearer (we noticed a little choppiness at times), but it’s good enough. 

Some colleagues noted the camera’s narrow field of view. Frankly, I didn’t mind it at all. There’s just enough coverage for your head so don’t expect to do any group video calling, but that’s what makes it feel more personal. I don’t need to see a person’s body when we’re video calling.

The alarm clock, reinvented

Smartphones killed the alarm clock and now Amazon’s dragging it back from the graveyard, turbo-charged with all the intelligence and convenience of Alexa voice controls in the adorable Echo Spot.

I know some people aren’t going to feel comfortable putting a device with a microphone and a built-in camera in their bedroom, but I’m not worried. The spot comes with a switch that turns off the mic and electronically disables the camera, and if you’re really paranoid, you can always buy a webcam cover with a slider to physically shield the camera when you need to.

In addition to physical volume buttons, there's a mute switch that turns off the mic and electronically disables the camera.

In addition to physical volume buttons, there’s a mute switch that turns off the mic and electronically disables the camera.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

I’ve got nothing to hide and only more to gain with the Spot’s screen and camera. In a week, I’ve already become used to waking up and looking at a clock instead of my phone again, turning off morning alarms with an “Alexa, stop” command, seeing lyrics scroll by while a song’s playing, and checking in with my family more with video calling.

The biggest change I noticed while using the Spot was how it’s influenced my mornings and nights. Before the Spot, I’d frequently wake up, turn the alarm off on my phone, and then start checking things on my phone. I’d sit in bed for a few minutes just wasting time catching up to things that happened while I was sleeping. And then right before bed, I’d also grab my phone and check a bunch of things, often staying up late because I got distracted.

The Spot is the Echo with a little of everything at a very reasonable price.

Studies have shown that looking at your phone right before bed can negatively impact your sleep, partly because of the blue light emitted from your device and partly because staying connected and scrolling through updates often means you’ll fall asleep later. I can only speak for myself, but I already feel the Echo Spot has had a positively affected my sleep habits. I’m sleeping earlier and feel less inclined to look at my phone right before sleep and right after waking up. It’s a good thing. 

Yes, I’m aware that I’m trading one screen for another, but even so I’d rather look at a screen that I know only does a few things briefly instead of one with a million distractions for who knows how long.

I don’t blame you if you look at Amazon’s Echo device lineup and want to ram your head against a wall. There’s a lot of choice and it can be overwhelming especially if it’s your first time buying an Echo.

Picking an Echo really comes down to your own usage. What do you need and what do you not? If you want the best audio, the All-new Echo is the one you want. Get the Echo Plus if you’re really into smart home automation and wanna purge your place of the handful of hubs and bridges that are plugged into your router. The Echo Dot is for anyone who only wants Alexa voice controls and wants them as cheap as possible. Get the Echo Show if money isn’t a big deal and you want a bigger screen. 

Which leaves the Echo Spot somewhere in the middle. It’s the Echo with a little of everything at a very reasonable price. The Spot is what the future of Amazon’s Echo looks like, where Alexa voice controls are complemented by a touchscreen that doesn’t demand your constant attention.

Amazon Echo Spot

The Good

Sleek Apple-esque design Does everything Alexa does on other Echo devices The small, round screen is purposeful Handy physical volume control buttons and mute switch Speaker sounds good

The Bad

Video call and sound quality could be better

The Bottom Line

Amazon’s Echo Spot is everything the Echo Show should have been, and it’s easily our favorite Echo yet.

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