The pandemic has made clear that low-resolution webcams are only the tip of the video calling iceberg: in an ideal world we’d all have our own cameraperson to make sure the angles were perfect. That’s what Amazon’s Echo Show 8 (2nd Generation) promises, turning Alexa into your personal videographer but – to keep the new smart display to $130 – with no moving parts involved.
No aesthetic leaps have been made here; indeed you’d be forgiven for mistaking this new Echo Show 8 for its predecessor. The front has an 8-inch HD touchscreen that adjusts its colors automatically to the conditions of the room, while the back is covered in a fabric mesh. Behind that are a pair of 2-inch speakers.
At the top there are volume buttons and a dedicated microphone mute button – it lights up red, and a matching red bar appears along the bottom of the display, to make doubly clear that Alexa isn’t listening – plus a physical switch to cover the camera. That has a new 13-megapixel sensor with a 110-degree wide-angle lens, but if you’re feeling coy you can slide the privacy shutter across to block it. Hitting the microphone button also shuts off the camera, too.
Day to day, this is Alexa on a smart display as we’ve seen and generally enjoyed. There’s a simple interface for your smart home devices, like lights and thermostats; the ability to view certain brands of home security camera and video doorbell; and of course all of Alexa’s trivia, game, and other content. Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, and other video streaming works on the screen, and you can you access music from various providers like Apple Music and Spotify. There’s no 3.5mm aux-in option, but you can directly pair a phone or other device via Bluetooth.
Audio quality is solid, though a dedicated speaker at the same price is going to sound a little better still. Nonetheless the usual pratfalls – like absent bass – are avoided, and there’s room-filling sound without needing to crank up to the very top of the volume slider. There’s definitely enough punch to hear things over the clatter of a busy kitchen, or indeed deal with video calls.
The latter is arguably the smart display’s big selling point here, or specifically the auto-follow feature. There are no moving parts in the new Echo Show 8. Instead, Amazon relies on subject-tracking and a mixture of digital crop and zoom to keep you centered in the frame. Turn auto-framing on, and as you move around the video will track to keep you centered. It’s only possibly because of the huge improvement in resolution over the first-generation Echo Show 8, which had a mere 1-megapixel camera.
An Echo Show 10 (3rd Gen) has a larger, 10-inch display, plus of course it has Amazon’s trick rotating base. That means that, in theory, it can keep you in frame more effectively. The reality, though, depends very much on where your Echo Show is located.
Positioned on my desk, for example, there wasn’t really much further than I’d want to go to the left or right that the Echo Show 8 couldn’t keep me centered. Yes, if I moved all the way around to the side, the Echo Show 10 could follow me better then, but that’s not really reflective of how I’d practically use either smart display.
The same goes for in the kitchen. While I could, in theory, put the Echo Show 10 on an island in the middle, it would still need power and it’s more than a little obtrusive as it spins around there. An Echo Show 8 in the corner was just as happy keeping me in the shot, plus I didn’t have to worry about it fitting under the cabinets.
It’s also silent in operation – unlike the moving display’s faint motor hum as it turns – and the tracking itself is pretty solid, too. Sure, if you race across the frame you can outpace the auto-follow, but if you’re not actively trying to fool the system then it’s pretty resilient. Unlike talking to someone using Apple’s Center Stage on the latest iPad Pro, where the zooms and pans can be a little twitchy, Amazon’s system is a touch more laid back. Shifting around just slightly doesn’t instantly send it jostling to adjust. It’s not perfect, but after a short while you stop noticing the system in action and just get on with chatting, which is kind of the point after all.
If you need a little more adjustment, Amazon also offers an optional stand that helps tilt the Echo Show 8 around a little more. It’s $24.99 and could be useful if the smart display is on a lower shelf but you want to make video calls while standing up in front of it. Or, for that matter, if you’re using Alexa Guard to get notifications about the sound of breaking glass or smoke alarms, and want to make sure the Echo Show 8’s facing areas of particular interest. It’s worth noting that auto-framing doesn’t work when you access the smart display as a camera from the Alexa app: instead you just see the full view.
Amazon Echo Show 8 (2nd Gen) Verdict
The biggest frustration with Amazon’s auto-framing is where you can actually use it. Right now that’s Amazon’s own video calling – which works between Echo Show smart displays as well as with the Alexa smartphone app – and on Zoom. Problem is, most of my friends and family use other services.
That’s mainly annoying because I like how well it works generally, and it doesn’t send the Echo Show 8 (2nd Gen)’s price spiraling sky-high. At $129.99 you could almost get two for the price of a single Echo Show 10, and the Alexa experience is basically the same across both.
That balance of functionality, performance, and price is enough to make the new Echo Show 8 my first recommendation for those looking for an Alexa-powered smart display. In the broader scheme of smart home screens, Google’s Nest Hub (2nd Gen) is a little cheaper, but also smaller: you get its clever sleep tracking system, but music playback isn’t as robust as on Amazon’s model, and it feels more sluggish in use than the Alexa display.
There’s a pretty solid chance that you’ve already decided whether you’re an Alexa house or a Google Assistant one, which may make this decision a whole lot easier. Still, if your family and friends are already Echo Show users, then the Echo Show 8 (2nd Gen)’s camera talents are legitimately useful – just as long as you have someone to actually talk to.
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