The Amazon Fire HD tablet is great for streaming Netflix, playing games and reading e-books, but what if you want to use it as your go-to Alexa device? If you're in the market for a smart display and don't want to shell out $129.99 for the Echo Show, Amazon now has a cheaper option -- if you have a Fire HD tablet.
Amazon's Show Mode Dock (starting at $40) turns your tablet into an Echo Show with a larger and greatly enhanced display, which makes it ideal for watching movies and videos. However, a Show-moded Fire tablet still lacks several of the Echo Show's most important features, which may disappoint smart-home enthusiasts.
The Show Mode Dock comes in two sizes: The dock for the Fire HD 10 (itself a whopping 10.1 inches long) is 10.5 x 6.5 x 0.9 inches; the 8-inch Fire HD 8 has a Show Mode Dock of its own, which is 8.6 x 5.3 x 0.9 inches. Both setups are longer than the 7.4 x 7.4 x 3.5-inch Echo Show but are also significantly thinner.
The dock has two components: a black case that you snap your tablet into and the foldable stand itself, which connects to the case via two charging contact points.
The dock is fairly sturdy -- it kept my tablet at the right angle and the rubber pads on the bottom held it firm even when the table wobbled, or when my hand snagged its connector cable.
However, the case doesn't cover the tablet's top or bottom, and with two vulnerable edges, I was nervous about jostling the device around too much.
As its name suggests, Show Mode changes the tablet's interface to one that imitates the Echo Show's. You can activate this on the Fire HD at any time in Settings, or by saying "Alexa, switch to Show Mode," but the tablet switches automatically to Show Mode when it's connected to the dock.
Show Mode took a bit of getting used to. Because I was still using a tablet, I was often tempted to use my fingers to control it the way I habitually do. More than once, I found myself scrolling back and forth across the home screen looking for apps or a main menu, before realizing that I needed to use voice commands to pull up a skill.
Otherwise, Show Mode imitates the real Show pretty well. The Show-moded tablet displays song lyrics, recipes, tips for what you can do with it and the other tidbits that the Show offers. Within each skill that's optimized for touch screen, you can make your selections using either voice commands or your fingers. For example, after asking Alexa to pull up a pasta recipe, I was able to scroll through the options and select one on my screen.
My main frustration was that certain tasks would cause the tablet to pop out of Show Mode and back into tablet mode. For example, when I finished playing a few rounds of Jeopardy in Show Mode and told Alexa to "Stop," the tablet inexplicably returned to Tablet Mode, booting me to the Fire HD 10's main menu.
Saying "Alexa, open CNN" (which opened the CNN Alexa skill on the Echo Show) dumped me back into Tablet Mode on the Fire HD 10 instead and prompted me to install the CNN app from the app store. When I asked, an Amazon spokesperson explained that when opening a skill that has a corresponding tablet app, I'd need to clarify to Alexa that I was asking for the skill (e.g., "Alexa, open the CNN skill.") This isn't a huge nuisance, but for users who don't know which skills have corresponding tablet apps, it's an extra consideration you don't have to worry about when using the Echo Show itself.
Echo Show or Show Mode?
When it comes to watching videos, I'll take a Show-moded tablet over the Echo Show any day. The Fire HD 10 has a larger screen than the Show does, with 1920 x 1200 resolution to the Show's 1024 x 600, and that makes a big difference. (The Fire HD 8 also comes out on top at 1280 x 800.) While streaming the trailer to Avengers: Infinity War, I could see individual droplets of water as Spider-Man skidded across the river and make out each whisker on Rocket's snout. On the Echo Show's 7-inch screen, I couldn't get nearly as much detail without leaning in very closely. It feels very much like watching a movie on the screen of a small bus or one on an airplane.
If you're looking for quality audio, though, the Show is still a better choice. The Echo Show's dual speakers deliver audio on par with that of similarly priced Bluetooth speakers, while the Fire HD's audio doesn't get quite as much volume and lacks significant bass.
You can use Show Mode to video call friends, but the 0.3-megapixel front camera produced blurry and grainy video that made chatting unpleasant. The Show's 5-MP camera creates much clearer video.
Finally, those who already have a smart-home setup may still prefer the Show. Since it's not actually a smart speaker, the Fire HD 10 can't integrate locally with other Echo devices in your ecosystem the way an Echo Show can. This means that a few of Alexa's best features, including Drop In, Announcements and multiroom audio are not supported in Show Mode.
If you already have one of the Fire HD tablets, you can get the Fire HD 8 dock for $39.99 and the Fire HD 10 dock for $54.99 -- prices that are much less than the $129.99 Echo Show.
Amazon sells the Fire HD 10 and the Show Mode Dock (opens in new tab) together for $189.99, which is more expensive than the Echo Show, but still cheaper than buying the devices separately. You can also get the Fire HD 8 and a Show Mode Dock (opens in new tab) for $129.98. This is the same price as the Echo Show, but if you're looking to watch a lot of video -- plus enjoy the mobility of a tablet -- you may value the extra inch of screen.
If these prices seem a bit steep, just sit tight: Amazon discounts its Alexa devices on a regular basis.
Fire HD tablet owners will find the Show Mode dock a fairly inexpensive way to get some of the features of the Echo Show. It lets you do some things on your tablet you can't do in Tablet Mode, such as video calling, without needing to open the Alexa app and using the visual interface of various skills. At the same time, you also get the benefit of a larger and crisper screen than that of the 7-inch Show.
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Still, the Show Mode dock can't yet be part of multiroom audio and can't quickly communicate to other Echo devices with Announcements or Drop In. The tablet's tendency to switch back into Tablet mode without warning is also an annoyance. But if you just want more Alexa, or want to add some cool new features to your tablet, the Show Mode Dock could be all you need.
Credit: Laptop Mag