Amazon was keeping close guard over its new Echo Hub smart controller in the demo room at today’s big hardware event. But I managed to get a few seconds of hands-on with a working tabletop unit before it was whisked away. I also put it through its paces on the wall-mounted version, and while it responded to touches promptly in some cases, it’s no iPad — or even Fire tablet.
Maybe it’s asking too much to have a powerful tablet that controls your whole smart home, mounted on your wall, for under $180. The Echo Hub did promptly turn on a nearby lamp when I tapped “on.” It swiftly activated a Baby Crying Routine that started lullabies playing on an Echo Show 5. It accepted swipes and presses with good response times — faster than the current Echo Show 15, the closest comparable smart display. But when I tried to tap, swipe, tap again, and interact with it like you would a smartphone or tablet, it started to get very confused the faster I moved.
But for the smart home control use case, my first impressions are this is a compelling device, especially at this price.
The new smart home-focused widgets make it easy to interact with to do things like view a camera live view, adjust a light, or run a routine with a tap. These three new widgets can be added to the Home screen: one is specific to the room the device is in, one is for any connected cameras (it can show a recent snapshot from Ring cameras at launch), and one mirrors the favorites in the Alexa app. A sidebar opens up widgets for controlling devices in other rooms (also called Groups in the Alexa app) and for running Routines; plus shortcut buttons along the bottom provide access to device categories (cameras, climate, lights, locks, and active media).
The widgets are interactive; you can tap on them to turn off a light, adjust a thermostat temperature, etc. And that’s one tap, not two or three, making this usable as a smart home controller. You don’t need to wake it up to get to the controls; they (should) appear as you approach so you can tap and go.
I didn’t get to try this shift from ambient mode (showing a clock or pictures) to the widgets, as there were always too many people crowded around the thing, but I did try the new Adaptive Content feature on a nearby Echo Show 8 (which wasn’t as popular!). This has a similar function, showing different content when you are further away, and then adapting that when you are up close. It adjusted reasonably quickly as I approached.
The Echo Hub is very small and lightweight. Its profile is slim enough to look unobtrusive on your wall, but you can still easily access a mute button and volume up / down controls. Cable management for a wall mount is likely to be the biggest challenge here, unless you have ethernet wired into your walls and can take advantage of PoE.
While it’s clearly designed to be wall-mounted, using it on a tabletop feels like a good alternative, although you have to pay $29.99 for a Sanus stand (the same company that makes the Show 15 accessories).
Outside of the new smart home widgets, the rest of the software is all Echo Show. You can add any Echo Show widget here, but the smart home widgets are for the Hub only (for now). The swipe down from the top action brings up the Show menu, and when you tap on a camera, you get the same live view screen you’ll be familiar with on the Show devices.
Tapping on some of the smart home devices in the widgets does bring up a side screen for deeper controls, though. So, if you’re using it for smart home control, you can do so all from the main screen, making the process quicker. Echo Show devices don’t traditionally do transitions all that well, so this is a good UI implementation.
While I want to spend some time with this device in my home and put it through its paces with my over 100 devices connected to Alexa, my first impressions are that this will be a useful addition to the Echo lineup for smart home users. It will be available for preorder soon and shipping later this year. We’ve got more details on the Echo Hub in this post.
Correction, Friday, September, 22nd, 8:45AM: A previous version of this article said the camera widget can only show Ring cameras. After publication, Amazon reached out to clarify that the camera widget can include any camera compatible with Alexa, but can only show recent snapshots from Ring cameras at launch.