There often comes a time while using a smart speaker, when your brain quietly asks you whether the same task could not be more easily accomplished on a phone. Truth be told, there is some point to this line of thought. Besides quickly pulling up a song of choice or dishing out random trivia to impress guests, smart speakers, though quite capable in theory, have always been handicapped by the lack of a visual interface.
Thankfully, manufacturers have woken up to this fact, and 2018 has seen an influx of devices that feature the core of a smart speaker with a screen thrown in. Amazon, who have the Alexa-powered Echo line of devices, started off with the Echo Show, which did not officially make it to India, and Google is soon launching its own smart display.
Amazon has not been twiddling its thumbs however, and further work down the display-speaker path has brought us to the device featured here — the Echo Spot. This one, unlike the larger Show, has made it to our shores. But is it worth buying?
On the outside
The Echo Spot is an innocuous little device that would not look out of place on the bedside table of a character from Black Mirror. It looks roughly like a smooth sphere with a side sliced off to accommodate a 2.5-inch circular touchscreen with a camera placed above it on the substantial bezel. Yes, the Spot comes with a camera, more on that later.
The back of the device gets a power input and an aux out to connect the Spot to a more powerful speaker set-up, while the top features three buttons — volume up and down, and a mic-mute switch.
What does it do?
The Echo Spot is an Alexa device through and through, but the touchscreen adds a whole new dimension. Setting it up is a breeze, as the screen allows easy selection of WiFi networks and allows users to enter passwords on it. The circular screen is not the most intuitive way to display a keyboard, and people with big fingers will not enjoy the experience, but it works.
Once up and running, the Spot displays a cool clock that takes advantage of the circular screen. The style of the clock can also be customised, from minimalist to jazzy backgrounds, and it even allows personal photos to be used. The screen is useful in other areas as well, especially when Alexa’s Skills are taken into account. Whether ordering items on Amazon, getting dinner using Zomato or booking an Uber or Ola, the visual aid makes a big difference. Sure, Alexa still reads out a massive amount of information about the restaurant’s best-selling chicken butter masala or the nicest cold-brew coffees , but the touchscreen lets you quickly select an option and move on to the next stage of the process. We are still not sold that this beats the experience on a smartphone, but the screen on this device does add value to what was otherwise a cumbersome process.
While on the topic of the screen, it can also play videos from YouTube and Amazon Prime Video, as well as content from news providers as part of the flash bulletin feature. While we enjoyed a quick video accompanying the news while making a cup of coffee, there is no justifiable reason to watch Suits season 3 on a circular 2.5-inch screen.
The interface on the Spot, however, is relatively easy to navigate, and reminds one of a smart watch in many ways. Swiping to the right of the clock shows reminders and alarms, messages left by other Alexa-owners and trending topics according to Amazon. A swipe from the top offers brightness control — which the Spot does not seem to like adjusting via voice input for some reason — a home button, settings and night-mode options. The night mode can be configured to display a dim version of the clock at pre-set times, which is a godsend.
Coming back to that camera, the Spot supports a feature called Drop In, which allows selected contacts to directly initiate a voice or video chat through their own Echo devices or the Alexa app on a smartphone. The clarity and sound are serviceable here, and individual contacts must be given drop-in access separately. Users can also quickly snap a picture by requesting Alexa to do so. The camera can be disabled in the settings, though the privacy-concerned users can still opt to tape it up, as this device, unlike the upcoming Google-powered offering, does not have a physical hood for the lens.
What about sound?
In a word, it’s decent. The Spot is better than a lot of bargain Bluetooth speakers, and the output is what one would expect from a device this size, better than the Dot but not as good as the larger Echo Plus, which we cannot complain about. The music services on offer are Amazon Music, Saavn and TuneIn, which have a pretty sizeable collection between them, and the Spot can also play your favourite tunes over Bluetooth, and connect to larger speakers the same way. Streaming content to a TV is still a no-go, even if you own a Fire TV Stick, but Amazon can always add support via future updates.
Should I get it?
If you’re looking to get an Alexa-powered speaker, the Spot’s visual interface makes it the best bet in the line-up for anyone, except the hardcore audiophile. Its design is suited for most home surfaces, it plays well with other Echo devices, and Alexa is still marginally better at natural recognition and optimisation for Indian accents than competing offerings.
Its ₹12,999 price tag, which sometimes drops even lower, also keeps it within range of most similarly-equipped devices. All said and done, the Spot makes the strongest case for a stand-alone voice assistant yet.