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Amazon Echo Spot review: an almost-perfect smart alarm clock

‘Alexa, are you watching me?’

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

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Amazon's new Echo Spot is the perfect smart alarm clock for your bedroom, except for one super annoying thing: it has a camera on it.

Alarm clocks haven't exactly been popular for a long time. Most people just use their phone as an alarm clock, since it’s often found charging overnight next to their bed. But studies have shown that using a smartphone right up until we go to sleep and looking at it first thing when we wake up is perhaps not a healthy lifestyle. A smart alarm clock provides a way to get your phone out of your bedroom, yet still maintain useful things like weather reports, smart home device control, and of course, telling the time, without including distractions like email, social media apps, or a web browser.

The $129.99 Echo Spot is taking another run at this problem, and it's the most promising attempt since, well, ever. The best way to put the Spot in context with Amazon's other Echo speakers is one of those SAT analogies: the Echo Spot is to the Echo Show what the Echo Dot is to the standard Echo. It’s a smaller, less expensive version of the Show with virtually all of the same capabilities. It’s basically a tiny Amazon Echo with an adorable circular screen.

The Echo Spot sets itself apart with its design: it’s by far the cutest-looking Echo device, in stark contrast to the angular, blocky, and rather unattractive design of the larger Echo Show. The Spot comes in white or black (I definitely prefer the white version), and its circular touchscreen can be used to display a clock, information, lists, videos, and more.

One of Amazon’s big selling points for the Spot is the ability to use it for video calling, just like the Echo Show. Calls can be made to other Echo devices with screens or phones via Amazon’s Alexa app. (Audio-only calls can be made to the Echo or Echo Dot, which lack screens.) In testing, this works well: the image is clear, the sound is good, and you can easily see the person you’re calling and your own image on the Spot’s display. You can also enable the creepy “drop in” feature that lets you connect to another Echo Spot or Show directly, without requiring the other person to answer the call.

A button on top of the Spot will disable both the microphones and camera. The camera can also be disabled independently in the device’s settings.
A button on top of the Spot will disable both the microphones and camera. The camera can also be disabled independently in the device’s settings.

In practice, video calling is a feature that’s better suited for the larger Show than the Spot. Not only is the Spot’s screen much smaller than the Show’s, making it hard to see multiple people in the frame, but I can’t ever imagine wanting to make video calls from my bedroom — nor do I want an always-watching camera in the most intimate and private room of my home.

A button on top of the device will disable both the camera and voice control, but you can disable the camera independently in the Spot’s settings menu. Given how often smart home devices have been hacked by malicious parties, turning off the camera in the settings app may not be the most reassuring thing. You might be tempted to then put a piece of tape over the Spot’s camera, like you might do on a laptop’s webcam. Amazon says the Spot’s auto brightness sensor is in the same place as the camera, so you might end up with a screen that’s way too bright or way too dim if you do that. I wish that Amazon just sold a version of the Spot without a camera, which would alleviate a lot of the privacy concerns here.

Since it’s an Echo, the main way you interact with the Spot is with your voice. You use voice commands to control it and talk to Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. Alexa on the Spot is capable of many things, most of which you are probably familiar with already: it can play music, answer questions, control smart home gadgets, set timers and alarms, and more.

It would be useful if Amazon had added more touch controls to the Spot, however. If you have this thing at your bedside, sometimes barking commands to just turn off a light or set tomorrow’s alarm can be awkward — especially if you are sharing a bed with somebody who is already asleep.

Watching video on the Spot isn’t the best experience.
Watching video on the Spot isn’t the best experience.

The Spot’s display measures 2.5 inches across and is 480 pixels wide, which makes it a bit too small to comfortably watch video on. You can do it if you want, but since Amazon and Google are in a big fight, YouTube isn’t supported, so the number of videos that are available is limited. Mostly it’s just movie trailers and Amazon Prime video content, though there are a couple of one-off third-party skills that can play video clips, such as the one for The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. Overall, though, the third-party support for the display is still disappointing, much like it is with the Echo Show. There may be thousands of third-party skills available in the Amazon Alexa app, but only a few dozen take advantage of the display on the Spot or Show.

The screen is great for displaying a clock — there are 16 different faces to choose from, with both analog and digital designs, four of which are customizable with your own photos — album art, to-do and shopping lists, and weather information at a glance. It can also display Alexa’s answers to questions with scrolling text, which is nicer than having to pay attention to Alexa’s entire audio readout of the answer. Amazon says it plans to release more clock designs in the future as well.

On top of the Spot are buttons for controlling volume and four far-field microphones, which in my tests are able to hear my voice commands just as well as the seven-microphone arrays on Amazon’s other Echo devices.

The Spot has a 1.4-inch speaker that sounds way better than the Dot’s tinny speaker when Alexa talks. It also sounds fine for casual music listening, though it obviously doesn’t work as well for that as larger speakers like the full-size Echo or a Sonos One. If you want better sound, you can link the Spot to a larger speaker with a cable or Bluetooth.

If you can get past those privacy issues with the camera, the Spot is actually quite great. I’ve been setting alarms with my voice, and now I can even ask Alexa to wake me up to a specific artist, song, or playlist. Then, I can snooze the alarm with a voice command or silently dismiss it with a swipe on the screen. The Spot will even display the current weather conditions when the alarm goes off so I know how to dress for the day. Unlike an Echo or Echo Dot, both of which support the voice-activated alarms and features, the Spot also displays the time, so if I wake up in the middle of the night I can roll over to see the time at a glance. It’s basically the perfect smart alarm clock, replacing both the Echo Dot and old Sony clock on my nightstand — if only it didn’t have that anxiety-inducing camera built into it.

All things considered, the Spot is a tough sell

Amazon thinks the Spot can work in other parts of your home, too, but I don’t feel it’s the best Echo for most other uses. The larger Show is better if you want a voice-controlled display in your kitchen for recipes and background video watching while you cook or do dishes, and the audio-only Echo devices are better for a living room or office where you probably already have other screens like a TV or computer.

That makes the Spot a tough sell. At $130, it’s not particularly cheap and has that pesky camera that most people will not want in their bedrooms. Despite that, I personally really like it: it looks cool, doesn’t take up a lot of space on my nightstand, and as mentioned, kills two birds with one stone in my bedroom.

Just give me one without a camera, Amazon.