The most important thing to know about the new $229.99 Echo Show, an Alexa speaker with a screen, is what it doesn't do. You basically never need to tap the screen for anything, unless you really want to. There is not an "app store" where you hunt around for new things to add to your screen. It sits on your counter, answers your questions, sets your timers, and occasionally displays useful information. That's it, and that's great.
Adding a screen to the speaker must have created a sore temptation for the product people at Amazon to ladle on more features and apps on top of what the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, and Tap can already accomplish. Instead of doing all that, Amazon appears to have focused on getting the stuff that already works on the Echo to work with a screen. Alexa is a platform now, and the Show is an attempt to build out that platform rather than glom another one onto it.
The Echo Show is a character study in gadget restraint.
The restraint extends to the physical design of the Show itself, which straddles the line between "unassuming" and "plain." The 7-inch touchscreen sits atop a flat speaker grille on a flat angle, all set inside a wedge-shaped casing. I suspect Amazon was going for something inoffensive, something that could become invisible in your kitchen. It very nearly accomplished that, but the looks are a little too utilitarian for my tastes.
Inside there are two 2-inch speakers that are capable of producing sound that's both louder and richer than what you'll get from a regular Echo or a Google Home. But, of course, the Show doesn't sound nearly as good as a high-end speaker like a Sonos Play:1. For basic listening — having something on in the background while you're cooking, for example — it's more than fine. For $230, I think Amazon could have done a little better here, though.
The key difference between this and other smart speakers is, of course, the screen. My colleague Dan Seifert likens it to the tiny kitchen television / radio boxes that once hung underneath many of our cabinets. The Show can serve a similar purpose: giving you easy access to music or TV that's just on in the background as you go about cooking or doing the dishes.
For a grizzled gadget head like me, however, the Echo Show reminds me of the old dream of the "Information Appliance," which Walt Mossberg wrote about back in March. If you look at early attempts at kitchen gadgets that provide ambient information — like the 3Com Audrey and the Chumby gadget that came later — they're pretty easy to make fun of. I mean, just look at this amazing video from a local news station in 2006: