Monday, Nov 19, 2018 | Last Update : 08:18 AM IST
The Amazon Echo Spot brings the convenience of smart voice assistant in a familiar alarm clock form factor.
“A smart speaker is a type of wireless speaker and voice command device with an integrated virtual assistant that offers interactive actions and handsfree activation with the help of one hotword”— that’s how Wikipedia describes a smart speaker.
In an age where manufacturers are going gaga over embedding artificial intelligence into their products, going for a smart speaker empowered with a voice assistant feels the right way to go for keeping up with the latest in technology. The Google Home recently visited our desk and impressed us with its abilities, despite representing the first generation of smart devices. However, Amazon takes the credit for rolling out the first smart speaker on a commercial scale with Echo. Later, they rolled out the Echo Show and Echo Spot, which are essentially smart speakers with displays.
The idea of adding a display to a smart speaker takes the smart speaker concept to the next level. The Echo Spot has recently made it to the Indian shores for an affordable price tag of just Rs 12,199.
While this is the first Amazon Echo smart speaker with a display, this seems primarily like a smart voice-assisted alarm clock aimed to sit on the desk all day, albeit with a lot of brains. Should you then have one accompanying you on your desk or bedside table?
“Alexa, how do you look in the Echo Spot?”
The Echo Spot is supposed to be your desk assistant without hogging as much space as your laptop or anything else that has a display. Keeping that in mind, Amazon has succeeded in giving the Echo Spot one of cutest designs ever seen in the segment, even surpassing the tiny Google Home Mini’s cutesy aesthetics.
It’s shaped in the form of a circular desk clock with a round touchscreen display surrounded by thick bezels. The Echo Spot is as big as a cricket ball, with the flat display sitting at the front. Amazon doesn't specify the type of glass that the display sits beneath, but it should be fairly resistant to scratches. Look closely and you will notice a front-facing camera sitting above the display. There are three physical buttons on top — one for disabling the microphone and/or the camera, and the other two to adjust the volume levels manually. The body is mostly made of plastics, with the base made out of rubber to enahnce grip on most surfaces. The bottom-firing speakers, which are also omnidirectional, are placed around the base. You will also see a set of four omnidirectional microphones sitting on top, hearing out for one of its four hotwords that Alexa can understand. Yes, the Echo Spot lets you choose from four names to call the assistant — Alexa, Echo, Amazon and Computer (why would someone call a smart speaker by the name 'computer' in 2018!).
However, if you were a fan of the blue LED ‘ring’ indicator on the Echo and Echo Dot, you would be disappointed — it’s gone. In its place is a virtual coloured ring that’s rendered on the edge of the display with similar animations — the ring will be brighter towards the direction from which it detects the master's voice. When the Echo Spot loses Internet connectivity, a yellow ring indicates the same with a small ‘Wi-Fi disconnected’ icon. If you disable the microphone and the camera, then the ring glows orange along with an orange backlit button. The virtual ring on the LCD display doesn’t have the imposing presence of the physical LED from the Echo speakers. We hope that Amazon embeds the LED ring in the next generation Echo Spot — it would bring the ‘cool factor’ back to the Spot.
“Alexa, tell me about yourself”
The Echo Spot would simply be a digital clock with a display had Alexa not existed. If you have installed the Alexa app on your smartphone, then Alexa wouldn’t need an introduction — it’s a universal cloud-based smart voice assistant that powers all of Amazon’s smart devices as well as does voice assistant’s duty on Android smartphones. You ask Alexa a query and she will happily answer back. Sadly, Amazon has limited Alexa's skills for the Indian market at this point and will open it up over the course of time.
Alexa’s capabilities are limited at present, but you will find her useful for most of your daily tasks on the desk. You can ask Alexa to schedule a reminder and she will happily do that for you. You can ask her to play your playlist from Saavn or Gaana and she will oblige. If you have smart home appliances such as smart lighting solutions from Philips’ Hue range, then you can even ask Alexa to control the lights. But if you wonder that the more affordable Echo Dot can do these tasks as well, then hold on — there’s more to Echo Spot, thanks to its display.
The 2.5-inch circular display is what separates the Echo Spot from the other regular Echo speakers. With the luxury of a display, Alexa can show you a lot of information that she can’t deliver through a speaker — she can show you weather and time along with the latest trending topics on the Internet. If you prefer keeping up with the news, then Alexa can even play snippets of breaking news feeds from TV channels such as NDTV, India Today, ESPN Info and more (although, the viewing experience isn’t certainly the most pleasant as videos are mostly streamed in a 16:9 format and here you would see them round.
Alexa can even book cabs through popular ride-hailing services such as Uber and Ola. Users can also ask Alexa to help find the desired product from Amazon's shopping website. And, it will supply with all the necessary information in colourful interfaces with vibrant graphics and stylised-yet-legible fonts. The lack of YouTube’s support is sorely missed, but we can’t do anything unless Amazon resolves its dispute with Google or rolls out its Prime Video service for the Echo Spot.
However, most of these functions aren’t available out-of-the-box. To enable all the available Alexa skills, you will need to download the Alexa app on your smartphone. The Alexa app lets you browse through all the skills available in India presently and enable them according to your needs. However, unlike the Echo speakers, the Echo Spot only requires the app for enabling and adding new skills. After all, Amazon isn't dumb to waste the touchscreen display — the Echo Spot can be set up from the device itself. Whether you are setting it up for the first time or switching between the preloaded clock faces, the Echo Spot’s UI lets you control most of the device's parameters.
In fact, the Echo Spot is one of the easiest, smart voice-assisted devices we have encountered so far — plug in the device, configure the Wi-Fi password, log into your Amazon account and you are ready. You can adjust the display brightness or change Alexa’s hot words from the settings. Even while switching between different Wi-Fi networks, the Echo Spot will throw up an onscreen QWERTY keyboard for input.
You can also utilise the Echo Spot as an individual Bluetooth speaker for your smartphone — simply turn on the Bluetooth connection from Settings. You can even dim the display after you retire for the day — thanks to an inbuilt Night Mode. And if you don’t feel like talking to Alexa for diving into the Settings, there are a host of intuitive touch-based gestures available at your disposal.
And since there’s a front camera, you can now make video calls on the Echo Spot, provided the receiver has an Echo Spot or is using the Alexa app on his/her smartphone. The video call quality is pretty good, making it one of the most practical features of the device. The Drop-in feature, which directly connects a call without asking, is also supported here, provided your contacts enable it on their devices as well. Simply say "Alexa, drop-in on Ramesh" and Alexa will make a video call instantly.
However, do remember that this is the first generation of smart voice-assisted devices. Therefore, the Echo Spot isn't the most flawless smart speaker-cum-desk clock you will encounter anytime soon. Most of Alexa's abilities depend on Alexa Skills, all of which need to be requested via voice commands individually. For example, if you want to go through ESPN's sports briefing, then this is what you will have to command, " Alexa, what's my news briefing?" Note that this will only work if you have ESPN's Alexa Skill enabled — if other news service skills are enabled, Alexa will go through all of them in a consecutive order — you can't skip to the one you want on demand, but you can switch to the next segment through voice commands or on-screen controls. Additionally, despite Amazon optimising Alexa for Indian accents, Alexa's speech detection still needs a lot of work, especially while requesting for Hindi songs.
“Alexa, how do you sound?”
To be honest, the Echo Spot doesn’t sound as good as the Echo or Google Home. The tiny speakers within are to be blamed. However, you can connect the Spot to an external speaker kit via Bluetooth or use the 3.5mm audio out jack on the rear. The speaker sounds good enough for hearing out Alexa’s voice and the news briefing clearly, especially when you are in reasonably close proximity. You can also enjoy casual music on them. However, Amazon understands that audiophiles wouldn’t be satisfied with the lack of appreciable bass, which is why they have provided an AUX port for connecting it to more capable speakers. That’s neat.
That said, the audio quality is still decent, clear and loud enough for a small room. Larger rooms will make Alexa almost useless as neither will she be able to hear clearly, and you would be screaming your guts off for commands. All the best with your neighbours then.
“Alexa, Should I consider you for my study room or kitchen?”
If you have a Wi-Fi connection at home or office and want to entertain the presence of a smart voice assistant on your bedside or on your kitchen top or even on your office desk, then the Echo Spot is a must-have smart gadget. The addition of a display to Alexa provides with a galore of opportunities that will appeal to the curious consumer looking to sort most of the life activities. The video calling capability makes it a great recommendation for a desk-based ‘video-calling’ service. The device is also pretty easy to set up when compared to the existing array of smart speakers without a display. If you are into home automation, then the Echo Spot is a great starting point. Presently though, the lack of a variety of smart devices means that your Echo Spot is limited in its capabilities in the automation department.
To sum it up, if you are looking for a smart desk assistant and don’t like going through the complicated interfaces of your smartphone’s app for implementing simpler daily activities such as setting a reminder or going through your daily news briefings, then the Echo Spot will certainly appeal to you. There’s nothing in the Indian market to rival the Echo Spot yet, thereby making it a highly recommendable purchase for those looking to integrate Alexa into their home.
Also read: Google Home review
Also published on Deccan Chronicle