Amazon kept a close eye on 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 practice with a functional tabletop unit before it was taken away. I also put it to the test in the wall-mounted version, and while it responded to touches quickly in some cases, it’s no iPad, or even a Fire tablet.
Maybe it’s asking too much to have a powerful tablet that controls your entire smart home, mounted on the wall, for less than $180. The Echo Hub quickly turned on a nearby lamp when I pressed “on.” He quickly activated a baby cry routine that began playing lullabies 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 tapping, swiping, tapping again, and interacting with it like I would with a smartphone or tablet, it started getting really confusing the faster I moved.
But for the smart home control use case, my first impression is that this is an attractive device, especially at this price.
New home-focused smart widgets make it easy to interact to do things like view a live camera, 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, another is for any connected camera (Ring only at launch) showing an updated live view, and the other reflects favorites on Alexa. application. An always-on sidebar opens a widget for controlling devices in other rooms (called Groups in the Alexa app), and there’s a screen for running Routines with a quick tap.
The widgets are interactive; You can touch them to turn off a light, adjust the thermostat temperature, etc. And that’s one tap, not two or three, making it usable as a smart home controller. You don’t need to wake it up to access the controls; They (should) appear as you get closer so you can tap and go.
I wasn’t able to test this switch from ambient mode (which displays a clock or images) to widgets, as there were always too many people around, but I did test the new adaptive content feature on a nearby Echo Show 8. which has a similar feature of displaying different content when you’re further away than when you’re close, and it adjusted reasonably quickly as I got closer.
The Echo Hub is very small and lightweight. Its profile is slim enough to look unobtrusive on the wall, but you still have easy access to a mute button and volume up/down controls. Cable management for a wall mount is probably the biggest challenge here, unless you have Ethernet connected to your walls and can take advantage of PoE.
While it’s clearly designed to be mounted on a wall, using it on a table seems like a good alternative, although you have to pay $29.99 for a Sanus stand (the same company that makes the Show 15 accessories).
Aside from the new smart home widgets, the rest of the software is all Echo Show. You can add any Echo Show widget here, but smart home widgets are only for the Hub (for now). Swiping down from the top action brings up the Show menu, and when you tap a camera, you get the same live view screen you’ll be familiar with on Show devices.
However, tapping some of the smart home devices on the widgets brings up a side screen for deeper controls. So if you’re using it for smart home control, you can do it all from the main screen, making the process quicker. Echo Show devices traditionally don’t transition as well, so this is a good UI implementation.
While I want to spend some time with this device in my home and put it to the test with my 100+ Alexa-connected devices, my first impression is that it will be a useful addition to the Echo line for smart home users. It will be available for pre-order soon and will ship later this year. We have more details about the Echo Hub in this post.