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The Echo Show’s killer feature is next-level FaceTime

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The video phone is finally here

Echo Show video calling Photo: Amazon

Earlier today, Amazon made its long-rumored screen-based Echo device official. The Echo Show is basically a cuboid Echo with a touchscreen and camera attached to it. It supports all of the far-field voice commands as the original, so you can use it to play music, control smart home gadgets, add items to a shopping list, check the weather, and do thousands of other things.

The new screen provides a way for the Show to display its answers in addition to speaking them aloud. It will display cards for the weather, products to buy on Amazon, videos on YouTube, and whatever else developers think of.

But what’s most interesting to me is its ability to be used as a calling device, or, in more traditional terms, a video phone. Along with the Echo Show, Amazon is launching a new communications platform for Alexa devices, which allows for calling and messaging between Echo units and smartphones that have the Alexa app installed. A feature called Drop In lets the devices connect instantly, without requiring someone to “answer” the call. This allows the Echo Show to be an always-ready, internet-connected video intercom that I can call from anywhere in the world using my smartphone.

As a parent of two young children who takes a number of work trips per year, I make a lot of video calls back home to say good morning or wish them good night. Services such as Skype and FaceTime have completely changed how I can keep in touch with my family when I’m away, as a video call is always more intimate than text messages or a voice call, especially for young children.

But FaceTime and similar services have their own limitations: they need a smartphone, tablet, or computer open and available and for the other party to answer the call. A video intercom that’s always on and ready for a call has no such limitations. My two-year-old can just run over to the intercom that’s always set up in the kitchen when she hears my voice without needing my wife to get her iPad and “set up a call with Daddy” as we’ve done in the past.

I got a taste of this next-level video calling while testing the Nucleus, a similar device to the Echo Show that was released last year. The Nucleus has a screen, a camera, a companion smartphone app, and even includes support for Alexa for hands-free calling and voice commands. It also has a direct connection feature that lets me start a call between Nucleus devices or my phone and a Nucleus without needing anyone to pick up the other end.

The Nucleus video intercom device.
Photo: Nucleus

I used the Nucleus to call home from the other side of the world on recent business trips (literally the other side of the world — I was in South Korea and China) so I could say good night to my kids or wish them a good morning before I went to bed. The ability to directly connect without having to go through the back-and-forth messaging and setup beforehand is much quicker and easier than doing a FaceTime call. Since it is not a tablet or smartphone that is used for numerous other tasks, the Nucleus is just sitting on my kitchen counter, always on and connected and ready for a call.

The Nucleus can also be used as an in-home video intercom system, as well — I have a unit in my upstairs home office that my wife can call to remind me it’s time for dinner without having to send me a message from her phone or shout up the stairs. The Echo Show provides a similar function.

Both the Echo Show and the Nucleus are relatively affordable for what they provide, especially when you compare them to the cost of a traditional in-home intercom system that doesn’t even provide a way to connect from the outside. The Show sells for $229.99 for a single unit, or $359.98 if you get two; the Nucleus can be purchased for $249 for one or for $199 each when two or more are bought at the same time. An entire home can be outfitted for less than a thousand dollars with these devices, while a traditional intercom would cost far more than that.

These devices are fulfilling a science fiction fantasy that goes back decades: a video communications device that can sit in your home and let you make “in-person” calls to friends and family from miles away. Phone companies such as AT&T even created concept videos that attempted to predict such a future. What makes this possible today are the advances in home networking (Wi-Fi) and video calling protocols that weren’t even on the radar of science fiction dreamers half a century ago.

Scanning my Twitter timeline after Amazon’s announcement this morning, it appears that reactions to the Show are mixed — there are those like myself (typically parents) that are excited about it, and those that don’t seem to get what it’s for. But there was the same issue with the original Echo speaker, which has proven to be immensely popular and has only gotten better over time.

I’ve yet to personally test or use the Echo Show, but if it is able to work as well as the Nucleus, I’m very excited to try it out. I may not want a landline phone in my home anymore, but I’m sure ready for the video phone I’ve been promised for years.