This Smart Display Needs Work

A photo of the Echo Show 15

The Echo Show 15 is Amazon’s biggest smart display to date.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

How much do you love and/or rely on Amazon? Is it enough to put a giant Alexa screen on your wall?

The Echo Show 15 is officially the biggest of Amazon’s Alexa-powered displays. It’s the size of a laptop, an external monitor, or a really, really small TV. You can hang it vertically or horizontally, or you can buy a $30 stand to prop it up on the table. The question is: How much do you use Amazon services that you’d be willing to devote a display this size to them?

The Echo Show 15 isn’t a wild idea. It’s essentially a giant hub for the rest of your smart home, much like Google’s Nest Hub display and Samsung’s forthcoming Home Hub. The big Echo Show has the same energy for a home built around Alexa, and it would be a solid device—if only the software would get its act together.

A Big-Ass Smart Screen

If you’re having trouble visualizing how the Amazon Echo Show 15 would fit into your life, try thinking of it as a giant digital photo frame. The Echo Show 15 is nearly 16 inches across and about 1.4 inches thick. Like anything else that big, it’s going to have a big impact wherever you place it in your home. I felt that when I installed it in my entryway. I ended up moving a brass antler candelabra to make room for Amazon’s big-ass smart display.

You can mount the Echo Show 15 on the wall horizontally or vertically, depending on your use case. The current available mounting hardware doesn’t let you switch between layouts while it’s in use.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t test the Echo Show 15 on the wall because I’m not allowed to put holes in them without permission (I did not have permission). The device weighs almost five pounds, and it’s too dense for a row of Command strips. Instead, I used the Echo Show 15 propped on the sold-separately Sanus tilt stand, which Amazon sent over with the review unit.

A photo of the Echo Show 15's tilt stand

If you don’t want to put holes in your walls, you can buy a tilt stand for the Echo Show 15.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

If you do mount the Echo Show 15, make sure you place it at eye level so that you’re not hunching or straining to interact with the screen. Note that the cable for this device is a mere five feet long unless you buy the additional extension, so it’ll need to be close to an outlet. You will also need a level and a drill to get it up on the wall, but the rest of the process is no different than hanging a framed photo.

The process of setting up the software for the Echo Show 15 is similar to that of Amazon’s other smart displays, including last year’s Echo Show 8. Once you turn it on, the Echo Show 15 will ask you to connect to your wifi network and log you into your Amazon account. If you don’t already have them, you’ll be prompted to set up profiles for each member of your household, and this is to facilitate the use of Visual ID, which is new to the Echo Show 15. (More on this feature later on.)

Amazon will also ask if you want to turn the Echo Show 15’s 5-megapixel camera into a surveillance device for quick check-ins while you’re away. And it’ll ask you to opt in to Amazon Sidewalk, which adds your device to the company’s massive (and passive) wireless mesh network. In both cases, you can decline.

A photo of the Echo Show 15's side corner

Physically mute or adjust the volume on the Echo Show 15.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

The Echo Show 15 also has some physical buttons. There are three on the top of the device (or on the side if you install it vertically) for volume control and quick mute, as well as a slider for blocking off the camera. The Echo Show 15 also has 1.6-inch embedded speakers on each side that are fine for video chat and softly listening to music.

Widgets Need Work

A photo of the widget gallery on the Echo Show 15

Welcome to the widget gallery.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

I’ve been deeply entrenched in Google’s smart home ecosystem for years, primarily because I use Nest security devices and so it’s just easier. But I’m not happy with how many taps it takes me to get to the smart home controls on Google’s smart displays, and most of them remain untouched because it’s too much of a hassle to get to the thing I need.

This is why I was intrigued by the Echo Show 15. The giant smart display uses widgets to help you organize the screen into a useful home hub. The first widget I set up was the smart home controller, which I used almost every day on my way downstairs as I remembered I left the closet light on in my bedroom. (Since everyone in my house is still sleeping when I’m up, voice commands are not an option.) I can shut it off with a quick tap on the Echo Show 15, which surfaces the widget as I approach it.

A photo of the widgets being edited on the Echo Show 15

Oh, how I wish these widgets would do so much more.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

Currently, there are less than 20 widgets available and you’re limited to using a total of six at a time. I hope this will expand down the line as Amazon has opened up widgets to app developers. Most of what’s available now links directly to Amazon’s services—useful, but not comprehensive.

The current widget choices include a calendar that imports from Google, Apple, and Microsoft accounts; a trio of lists accessible through the Alexa app, including sticky notes, a to-do list, a shopping list; and a maps widget with current traffic conditions. There’s also a weather widget and one that displays your Amazon package tracking information. If you plan to place the Echo Show 15 in the kitchen, Amazon offers Blue Apron’s recipes as well as suggestions for where to order from based on your location.

A photo of the Echo Show 15

The “home screen” of the Echo Show 15, with widgets!
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

But the Echo Show 15’s widgets feel like wasted potential. The smart home widget, for instance, is limited to six smart home controls at a time. That means I have to prioritize which cameras and lights around the house deserve a spot on the Echo Show 15. The package-tracking widget doesn’t do much else if you tap on it. If the seller hasn’t marked your item as arrived, it stays stuck there on the screen. And the ability to order food delivery pushes a link to the Yelp app on your smartphone, so you’ll still need to have it nearby.

Overall, most of the widgets are limited in their customization and can be tedious to use. Setting them up is much less fluid than dropping a widget on an Android home screen. I would have preferred an additional way to configure widgets through my phone’s Alexa app.

Essentially a Small TV

A photo of the video page on the Echo Show 15

The Echo Show 15’s video playback page looks like the home menu of a smart TV’s interface.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

This is the first device in the massive Echo Show lineup to support full 1080p HD resolution streaming from apps like Prime Video, Hulu, and Netflix. There is no Disney+ or HBO Max, and Hulu Live and Sling TV support aren’t available yet. However, I managed to get some of my other favorites going through the included browser app, including Pluto TV and YouTube TV, which I use for live programming. My daughter was also able to watch PBS Kids through the web app. It’s the same workaround I use on Facebook’s Portal Go when there isn’t a native version of the app.

The audio sounds fine on the Echo Show 15, though it’s a bit soft and lacks any bass. And while you can hear audiobooks and podcasts over screaming children and crackling stovetops, I wouldn’t bother including this device in an audio group even for the relative sound “boost.”

If you’re using the Echo Show 15 for surveillance purposes, you can use Alexa to call up picture-in-picture to keep the camera feed on-screen while you use the rest of the device’s features. This is useful for watching over kids in another room or waiting for guests to approach the door.

Don’t Forget The Camera

A photo of a person using the physical camera shutter switch on the Echo Show 15

Feel free to physically shut off the camera when it’s not in use.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

The Echo Show 15 has a 5-megapixel camera, which is decent enough for video calls through Alexa or Skype, but it’s pretty low-res compared to the Echo Show 8, which has a 13-megapixel camera with auto-framing. As a security camera, it’s fine when the lights are on, but I couldn’t see a thing at night.

The other bummer is that the Echo Show 15’s camera has no tracking or panning technology like the Echo Show 8 or Portal Go, which means it can’t follow you as you move around a room. I rely on that feature on the Portal Go, which I also prefer because it’s a mobile device that can travel with my kid as she moves around the house.

The camera also uses Visual ID, a new feature for the Echo Show lineup that determines who is near the device using faces that you scan (which are then stored on the display itself, not the cloud). I added my husband and kid, and it sometimes worked, but other times, the Echo Show 15 thought I was my daughter and would block me out of some widgets since she has an Amazon Kids profile, which means sometimes I couldn’t use the smart home controls. Not ideal!

Not Quite There Yet

A photo of the Echo Show 15's photo frame feature

Family photos look awfully good on the Echo Show 15.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

As a smart home controller, the Echo Show 15 is pretty barebones. It doesn’t have Zigbee, so it can’t work as a hub, and you can’t make the main interface into a giant remote control for your smart home. If you want complete control over your home’s gadgets, you’ll have to swipe down on the top of the interface to bring down the menu, then select the option for the smart home. You’re taken to a reel of controls that’s too long to sift through if you have a bunch of stuff. It’s so much easier to whip out the phone or call out to Alexa.

The Echo Show 15 has potential as a giant smart display for your home’s common area. It’s excellent for showing off photos—my family’s pandemic-era photos are so beautiful on it that I’m not so mad about having to move my brass antlers. However, the widgets are grossly underutilized in their current iteration, making the Echo Show 15 feel like it’s essentially a glorified digital photo album or another screen for watching videos—and I have plenty of devices for that already.

If you’re seriously into Amazon’s ecosystem—you’re all in with Alexa and all of Amazon’s other services—I’d still wait for a sale before splurging on the Echo Show 15. For everyone else, this feels like it could use another generation before it’s truly worth its $250 price tag. At the very least, Amazon could stand to bump up that camera resolution.

Nigarai M Grusio

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