Echo Show 15 with Fire TV hands-on: Amazon’s largest smart display can now double as a TV

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The Echo Show 15 now ships with the Fire TV interface, thanks to a software update that rolled out last week. Amazon’s largest smart display already offered a few streaming apps, but the update brings more streaming services, more live TV options and a native YouTube app to an Echo device for the first time since 2017. It makes the Echo Show 15 a better television, but a slightly worse smart display.

If your main issue with the Show 15 was the limited video options, this is a great update. But it does remove some touch functionality from the Show 15 and make it more reliant on Alexa voice control, a new physical remote or a really baffling on-screen remote.

$185

With Fire TV, Amazon’s big screen now has a lot more streaming content than before, including native apps for YouTube and YouTubeTV. But the software is slow compared to a dedicated Fire TV, and the update removes some touch features from this smart touchscreen display.

When Amazon launched its big-screen Echo Show last year, it was touted as an ideal kitchen-TV-slash-home hub: a digital bulletin board for grocery lists and notes, a family calendar, and more that can also keep you entertained while munching on Cheerios or mopping the floor.

But with all those features crammed into one device, none of them did particularly well. The wall-mountable smart display fits easily into a kitchen without taking up counter space, and I liked the portability of using it with the tilt stand (sold separately). But watching TV on the Echo Show 15 just wasn’t a great experience, mainly due to the limited number of video apps.

It’s frustrating that Amazon hasn’t bothered to tweak the Fire TV interface to account for being on a touchscreen device

At launch, Show 15 had full HD streaming from Netflix, Prime Video, and Hulu Live. Sling TV came a little later. But there was no YouTube TV, no Disney Plus, no HBO Max or Paramount or Peacock.

Sure, I could binge-watch Ozark on Netflix while cooking dinner or past my tween for Naruto while eating her breakfast. Still, overall it wasn’t convincing enough to remove the nearly equally capable Echo Show 10, with its smaller but handy rotating screen, from my kitchen counter.

But with Fire TV on board, the Show 15 becomes a bona fide streaming device. That’s in addition to a smart speaker, a digital photo frame (an update to the photo frame has vastly improved this feature), a video calling device, and a bulletin board. As a YouTubeTV subscriber, I can now watch TV in my kitchen on a larger screen than the Nest Hub Max I’m currently using.

Using a tilt stand (sold separately), I was able to watch the World Cup on YouTubeTV while working in the kitchen.

Using a tilt stand (sold separately), I was able to watch the World Cup on YouTubeTV while working in the kitchen.

It’s also refreshing to have access to almost all of my streaming subscriptions on one device. There are a few notable exceptions: there’s no BBC app, and the Apple TV app is missing, even though it’s on the regular Fire TV interface. Luna, Amazon’s cloud gaming service, is also missing. Sideloading apps is also not supported, according to Amazon, though some have found a workaround.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t going to replace your living room TV, and it’s hardly the best picture quality money can buy. But for a second (or third or fourth) screen in a kitchen or office or as a multifunctional single-screen slash smart speaker in a guest room, it is a good option.

The interface is similar to the one you're used to on standard Fire TVs.

The interface is similar to the one you’re used to on standard Fire TVs.

Fire TV on the Echo Show 15 is a free – but mandatory – update that brings the standard Fire TV interface to the smart display. It comes with almost all of the same apps and content as on a Fire TV streaming stick (other than those mentioned above) and adds the ability to use an Alexa remote – a new experience that I really liked.

The downside is that the Fire TV interface is the same as the one on Amazon’s streaming sticks, and isn’t designed for touch: you’ll need to use a Fire TV remote or a new on-screen remote to navigate it.

Amazon says this is because those apps were initially developed for a TV interface. Sure, but the Echo Show 15 already had native touch-enabled apps for Netflix, Hulu, and Sling TV, but those have been replaced with remote-only apps in the Fire TV interface. Prime Video remains a touch experience, just like Fire TV’s main screen. Amazon hasn’t said if the Fire TV capability is coming to Show 10 or 8, so as of now those still support touch with the existing apps.

While you can still interact with the touchscreen in Fire TV mode – swipe from the top for quick access to the default Show Shortcuts and right to left to reveal widgets – it’s frustrating that Amazon hasn’t bothered to include the Fire TV interface adaptable to account for being on a touchscreen device.

This is primarily a smart screen and I’m used to tapping and swiping to access my shopping list, turn on my smart lights and check my calendar. It takes some getting used to using an on-screen virtual remote to interact with menus on a different part of the same screen. It works reliably and is easy to navigate, but my brain has to readjust every time. It’s like switching from using an iPad to a MacBook.

You'll need to use a physical Alexa remote or on-screen remote to control most of the Echo Show 15's Fire TV interface.

You’ll need to use a physical Alexa remote or on-screen remote to control most of the Echo Show 15’s Fire TV interface.

The interface works much better with a physical remote, of course, especially in a sit-back-and-watch environment. I tested with a third-generation Fire TV Alexa voice remote ($29.99). You can use other Alexa remotes, but functionality varies. Amazon says the third generation is the most complete experience, offering the remote for $9.99 if you order it through the Echo Show 15. You can also use the Fire TV mobile app on a smartphone. But in the show’s own environment – the kitchen – voice control is even more useful.

The third-generation remote has a TV button that takes you straight to a program guide for all the live channels you have available, plus four dedicated buttons to launch Prime Video, Netflix, Disney Plus and Hulu. You can also launch any Fire TV app or a specific show, movie, or live TV channel with your voice. This includes YouTube and YouTube Kids. Yes, for the first time since 2017, there are native YouTube apps on an Echo Show. For some, that alone is worth the price of admission.

Another thing you lose is the ability to play some content in portrait mode. The Show 15 can be mounted horizontally or vertically, but once you’ve enabled Fire TV, the only services that play video in portrait orientation are the apps from YouTube, HBO Max, Disney Plus, and Prime Video. Everything else just doesn’t work. Amazon says it’s working on adding more portrait video support.

The almost 16-inch screen won't replace your regular television, but it works fine as a second screen or for a guest room.

The almost 16-inch screen won’t replace your regular television, but it works fine as a second screen or for a guest room.

I am a television addict: I always have a screen showing a sporting event – usually tennis, currently football [Ed note: soccer] – or other chatter in the background. I work from home so it keeps me company. The Echo Show 15 now fills that need nicely and also offers more functionality than most standard TVs.

Of course, TVs are on their way to becoming full-fledged smart displays – capable of much more than just streaming your favorite shows. Samsung is turning all of its TVs into SmartThings hubs that support Matter (the Echo Show 15 will also be a Matter controller), and many TV brands can be controlled with both voice and remotes (but not touch!)

Today, the Show allows me to stream live views from my connected smart home cameras – even picture-in-picture while watching TV – and can pop up a live feed from compatible video doorbells when someone knocks. I can also use voice or touch to control smart home devices and anything else Alexa offers.

Many smart TVs can do all of this too, often with additional hardware. But we are clearly moving towards a combined world here, and this is a small step in that direction. Whether that’s a direction we want is a little too early to say though.

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