Everyone’s relationship with their parents is complicated. But since I had a kid, I decided I liked the idea of my daughter having an open line to call her grandparents, even if I didn’t necessarily want one for myself. Granted, my daughter is only 16 months, but she knows there’s someone in the box talking to her. And with more camera-enabled smart displays aimed at kids these days, it seems like an inevitable use case once she starts talking.
Amazon’s latest smart speaker, the second-generation Echo Show 8, is one such smart display aimed at getting folks to chat more often. It’s a $130 device with all the extensive functionality of Alexa, plus a kids mode if you don’t opt for the smaller $85 Echo Show 5 for Kids. However, the most exciting feature is the camera’s ability to follow you within the camera frame. It also doubles as a security camera for inside your home, in case you want to drop in and check on things, making its price point seem like a deal.
I tested the Amazon Echo Show 8 for a few days, as did my mom, who used a review unit so we could try the video-calling feature. I’ll admit that my heart melted when I saw my daughter smile as she realized she was talking to her Grammy. These are precisely the sort of sentimental interactions that suck you into the fantasy of the smart home, where everyone gets along and video chats all the time. And it was almost enough to make me forget about the fact that the Echo Show 8 enables connectivity with Amazon’s controversial IoT service, Sidewalk.
Amazon adopted a curved, bulbous design for the second-gen Echo Show 8. It’s cute and modern, and though it mirrors a bit of the soft approach of Google’s Nest displays, it’s much less angular. However, I wish both companies would steer away from fabric trim, which the Echo Show 8 has across the entire backside. They’re hard to clean and nearly impossible to swap out if they sop up any liquid.
At 5.4 inches across and about four inches deep, the Echo Show 8 takes up a bit of shelf space to accommodate its dual 5-watt stereo speakers. There’s an octa-core processor fueling everything inside, which is immediately apparent as you’re touching and panning around the screen. The Echo Show’s 8-inch HD display is bright and vibrant enough that when I uploaded my edited photos to display as wallpaper, I could immediately tell they needed another run through Adobe Lightroom.
On the top of the device, there’s an easy-access hardware shutter for the camera, volume up and down buttons, and a button for muting the microphone. The power adapter plugs into the back, though the power brick is a little chunky, something to consider if you’re like me and live with crowded power strips. There’s also a microUSB port on the back to facilitate a wired internet connection.
I like the general look of the Echo Show 8. Amazon sent me the glacier white unit for review, which is delightful in person and matches with the general kawaii femme aesthetic I have going on in my office. There’s a darker charcoal variant available, too. You can purchase an optional adjustable stand for an extra $15.
Setting up the Amazon Echo Show 8 is relatively standard across the board. You can set up the device with the help of the Alexa app on your smartphone or type in your login credentials right on the screen.
After you link your account, you’ll bump up against a disclaimer for Amazon Sidewalk. Amazon describes it as a “shared network that helps devices work better.” You can choose whether to enable or disable the technology—we’ve already laid out why you might not want to, including the simple fact that the company has a dubious track record regarding privacy. If you do, Amazon says it will use the technology to “extend the coverage” for things like Ring smart lights and pet and object trackers. It also discloses that Sidewalk “uses a small portion of your internet bandwidth to provide these services to you and your neighbors.”
I was then met with another screen prompt to “Help find things with Sidewalk.” By agreeing to enable it, Amazon wrote, I’m helping my neighbors “find pets and important items connected to Sidewalk.” I want to be a team player; I live in the suburbs, and that’s how you form alliances out here. So I opted into Amazon Sidewalk, lest I keep my neighbor, who may or may not be using a compatible tracker, from finding her beloved kitty. But the privacy trade-offs may not be worth it for you.
As a speaker, the Echo Show 8 is quite boomy, and it packs a wallop of sound when you’re playing a bass-heavy genre like hip-hop. Once you set it to play music at too high a volume, the unit gets a little shaky, especially if it’s on a light surface. I tend to play music almost at ambient volumes while I’m working, however, and found that I could hear the sultry tones of my chill hop even at the lowest setting. I also like that you can pair an additional Echo device as a subwoofer.
For a kid’s room or even a small office where you like to have something on in the background, the Echo Show 8 is enough to keep you honed in on action-packed narratives, like the revival of Sailor Moon Eternal, streaming on Netflix. It looked and sounded great on the Echo Show’s 8-inch display, though you’ll probably end up watching the English dub since subtitles look crammed in there on the smaller screen.
My biggest grievance with the Amazon Echo Show 8 is the disparity in content offerings compared to Google’s devices. Granted, the whole point of this rat race is that Google and Amazon are competing ecosystems, but it’s even more apparent when you’re approaching them side-by-side. I found myself shut out of things to watch since I’m deeply committed to a locked-in over-the-air cable service like YouTube TV. It’s hard to figure out how to stream other popular services, too, like Pluto TV and Discovery+, or even my newest obsession, Paramount+, which are all not currently offered on Echo Show devices. It’s the same situation for music and podcasts, though at least you can search for a skill if you use an app like Pocketcasts to sync your playtime in the cloud.
I much prefer Google’s open-to-all casting ability, which you can tell is available when you see the little Chromecast icon pop up on a video. It doesn’t require any Skill searching, and video is available regardless of platform.
The Echo Show 8's unique feature is its auto-framing abilities during video calls. It’s on by default, though you can disable it as you need. I tested it with my mom, and only with the default Alexa calling feature. The Echo Show 8 works with Skype and Zoom for video-calling, too. Reactions and AR effects were initially announced for the Echo Show 8, but those aren’t yet available.
My toddler doesn’t communicate the way you and I do, which is why the idea of a panning camera was so enticing. She wiggles and squirms her way around a conversation, and at this age, she responds best to play. My mom started to play peek-a-boo with her over video by running out of the frame and back in. The camera didn’t pan far enough to either the left or right side to give her away. It did follow her within the frame so that the focus was always on her body. It’s a subtle effect, either way, helped in part by the camera’s 110-degree wide-angle field of view. I noticed a bit of jittering on both our ends during our half-hour call, especially when my mom or my daughter’s head was the main focus of the shot. Amazon said it’s possible the camera’s “digital framing technique” interpreted each person for an object since they were so close to the frame.
The camera on the Echo Show 8 also functions as a security camera for peaking inside your home when you’re not there. It takes about four taps in the Alexa app before you can get to the feed. By default, the Echo Show will display a notification as you’re dropping so that no one at home can accuse you of spying. Unlike a standalone security camera, you can’t integrate with other services. But it’s nice to have, and it loads a bit faster than other traditional security cameras.
I only had the Amazon Echo Show 8 for a short period before penning this review, but it was enough to understand why folks prefer Alexa for the smart home over the Google Assistant. Even though the Alexa app is overwhelming to look at, skills and routines are easy to access. What’s more is that you can set it all up from the device itself, which you can’t do on a Google Nest smart speaker. Alexa will also actively surface new gadgets as you add them to the network, as I discovered while re-linking smart bulbs as part of my usual maintenance.
The key to interaction with Alexa is through the skills you enable, making it frustrating to use if you’re not trained in the voice assistant functions. With the Google Assistant, I understand that I have to program it on my smartphone before uttering a complex command. With a device like the Echo Show, the goal is to program the assistant as you go along. It’s a boon for folks who want low-maintenance interaction with a digital entity, but it can be more trouble than it’s worth if you’re married to using specific third-party services.
If you’ve been paying attention to the headlines, you already know the myriad of concerns there are about using an Amazon product. Then again, if surveillance is genuinely a concern, you probably wouldn’t be in the market for a device with an accessible camera and open microphone.
If you’re already living with the first-generation Echo Show 8 smart display, you don’t need to upgrade unless you’re keen on the new camera features. The video-panning features are minor enough they’re not immediately noticeable. However, upgrading from 1 megapixel in the original Echo Show 8 to 13 megapixels in this model makes a big difference—the higher resolution video makes for much clearer video calls. Since we never got into using Google Duo, much to my chagrin, it’ll be interesting to see if Grammy takes advantage of her new direct line to the kid. And at the very least, the Echo Show 8 is a solid way to squeeze in a quick game of peek-a-boo.
Updated 6/8/21, 12:30 p.m.: Added comment from Amazon about jittery camera issues.