After the avalanche of smart speakers, a new generation of more powerful digital assistants has come: the smart display.
The Lenovo Smart Display is the first Google-powered appliance that combines the convenience of voice commands with the clarity of having visual and interactive information.
This 10-inch model is slated to become the tip of the spear for the holiday season. Let’s see how good it is in the real world.
What is a Smart Display?
The Lenovo Smart Display is the first of several Google-powered smart displays for 2018, many of which were announced at CES of this year. These devices are themselves part of the Google Assistant home appliances that feature the smart speakers with voice assistant. Check the official teaser from Lenovo below to get a quick idea.
Smart displays can do nearly everything the smart speakers do, with the added benefit of having visual content, and a touch interface. This expands their capabilities significantly as we will see later when we look at some use cases.
Unlike smartphones, the various OEMs will not try to customize the software platform (Android Thing), and Google will maintain and update the software directly, and that means one thing: software updates will be deployed out faster.
The review unit we have is the 10” Lenovo Smart Display (~249 MSRP and already $50-OFF at Costco), but there is also a $199 8” version as well.
JBL and LG have also pledged to release their own smart displays, but we have already seen their designs, and Lenovo’s is the best looking of all, which is probably why it is the first to launch.
The 10” version has a bamboo backside and a base with three contact points that make it look slimmer when seen the right side. Yet, it is very stable and can’t be toppled over.
There are even gum pads on the left side to allow for the device to be used in Portrait mode. I can be useful if someone video-calls you from a phone in vertical mode I suppose.
Unfortunately, this is not supported by the rest of the software (yet?), but might be a sign of things to come. A portrait mode could save some space on a table/counter, although the videos would ultimately appear a little bit smaller. We’ll see if/when the time comes
Although the Lenovo Smart Display is not IP-Rated, it does have some water resistance and is well-sealed and should resist the occasional splash. Even the power connector is surprisingly well sealed, probably for that reason.
Because this is a simple appliance, the hardware specs don’t matter much, but if you are curious, it is as powerful as a mid-range smartphone since it is equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 624, 2GB of RAM, 4GB of internal storage.
The 10” 1920×1080 display has a brightness of 480 NITs (measured), which is about where the best laptops computers stand today. The screen is always readable, even in direct sunlight, near a bright window, or close to a light source."A LARGER SCREEN IS A MASSIVE ADVANTAGE"
The auto-brightness will adapt the screen’s brightness to match the current lighting conditions, and if you have it in your bedroom, the screen will go as dark as it can, but it won’t actually shut down. Fortunately, in that case, the screen gets dark enough that it should not be a distraction.
Because of the highly visual nature of the content, the larger 10 inches screen is a massive advantage for the Lenovo Smart Display when compared to competitors (running with Google software or not). For example, the Amazon Echo Show has a 7-inch display and an arguably much less attractive design.
There’s a 5 Megapixel webcam near the upper-right corner of the screen. It can be used for conference call via Google Duo. Privacy-conscious people will appreciate the fact that Lenovo has included a physical shutter to prevent any unwanted camera spying. It is probably essential if one expects people to use it in bedrooms and places where total privacy is expected under any circumstances.
The sound is generated by two speaker (10-Watt) + two tweeters. The sound quality is very decent, although one could argue that the Google Home Speaker is better. For reference, it is undoubtedly more powerful than most laptops and quite loud. If we want to be picky, perhaps there are two sound-quality criticisms that most people could perceive:
- The sound is coming distinctly from the speaker and lacks “body” or “volume.”
- At maximum sound (10/10), there is some distortion, but at 8/10 things are fine
For a smart display in this price range, I have not heard any better sound, for now. Smart speakers like the Apple HomePod ($349) are much more expensive, and even the more affordable Sonos One does not have nearly the same capabilities as a smart display. Yet, it is useful to keep those two in mind as legitimately excellent sound references.
There are two microphones to record/listen to your voice, and they seem undoubtedly good enough to get the job done. If you intend to listen to music, the voice commands may become challenging for the microphones to record, because of the speaker sound interference. This is a classic problem, and even my first Kinect had this exact issue (and never got over it). Since there’s a volume rocker, you always have manual control.
The setup is straightforward as it happens on the smartphone Google Home app (iOS/Android). The app will detect the nearby smart display and will ask if it’s okay to use the same WiFi network+password on it.
If you say “yes,” the configuration will be copied. After a few easy setup screens, you’re good to go. You won’t even have to type your WiFi password!
If for some reason you want to reset the Lenovo Smart Display, you can merely hold the UP and Down volume button for ~7-8 seconds and the hard-reset sequence will start. As part of the setup, you will be asked what kind of background you want (your photos, a selection of Google pictures or a clock) and a few simple preferences settings such as music source, etc.
If you have never used a smart assistant before, it is essential to understand that this is not a tablet or computer, and it is not running Android nor Chrome, but Android Things, a unique OS for IoT devices (Internet of Things) and home appliances.
The smart display assistant is designed for short interactions, where you ask something, and you get a (hopefully) pertinent answer, with perhaps one more interaction after that. In any case, it’s not really designed to have you sit in front of it for a long time, but nothing prevents you to.
The touchscreen provides a great way of getting some actions done, without spending too much time with voice commands. Changing the temperature, the sound volume or tapping to select an item is much easier done with the screen than it is with voice commands.
Videos and why size does matter
Some people watch YouTube movies for a while with devices like this and would like to have Netflix as well. It is a legitimate request, but maybe not exactly how a smart display was intended to be used (after all, the device can cast video to your cast-enabled TV for example). It just depends on where you put it, and how you want to use it. Nothing prevents one from using it as a Kids TV while you cook.
In my mind, watching videos on the Lenovo Smart Display might feel more like leaving your TV on with the news cycling in the background. For that, smart displays are great, and the size of this 10-inch Lenovo one matters because if you want to glance at the image from a distance, every extra inch of diagonal makes it that much more comfortable. Smaller size screens are better suited for standing in front of the device to query some information.
The other advantage of using the smart display to run background video is that it consumes much less power than your full-blown TV set in the kitchen or living room… because lighting up a 50” TV requires more power than a 10” one.
Right now, it is not possible to “read” the news on a smart display. By default, news items will be video-based, even if you ask to “read the news”.
What can you do with it?
Google Assistant can answer factual or straightforward questions such as unit conversions, celebrity facts, and other things that it can find in Google’s Knowledge Graph. If you are not familiar with Google’s Voice Search, you can try on any computer by clicking on the Microphone in the search box and ask a question. We recommend reading looking at our selection of essential commands for Google Assistant.
Google Assistant uses a similar interface but is more adapted to be autonomous. It also tried to scan your Google calendar, photos, and other data to pre-emptively help you (the user must authorize the access). Android phone or tablet owners can try the voice assistant on their handset. Google’s smart speakers are a self-contained version of that.
As we said earlier, smart displays are a superset of smart speakers. They add the ability to have visual and interactive answers, with a touch-screen for tactile commands. Having a display enables many new experiences not previously possible with voice. Check this video overview that Google put together:
For example, consider searching for photos: browsing your Google Photos albums is very easy, and you search with queries such as “show my photos from Paris,” “show me photos with people” and anything you can think of. Google can manage many common requests like this.
You can try asking for information that Google would know about based on the photo metadata: location, time. If you don’t ask specifically for your pictures, Google might reply with a mix of public photos, and your own.
Searching for, and using, cooking recipes is very convenient. First, you don’t need to unlock your handset with potentially wet fingers. Second, the screen is not going to turn off and lock the device again while you are busy (this happens to me all the time with my phone!). Third: the UI is much bigger and comfortable, especially if you hold utensils. I’m a bit of a cooking hobbyist and you can check my instagram account, look for posts tagged with #homecooking.
Visual feedback is critical when you are looking for a recipe because you can easily spot something attractive, or something that is using ingredients compatible with what you have on hand. Images are vital to selecting one of the many possible search results."WATCHING A YOUTUBE VIDEO IS MY FAVORITE WAY OF LEARNING HOW SOMETHING IS PREPARED"
Watching a YouTube video is my favorite way of learning how something is prepared. There is a lot of information that is not said in a text/audio recipe such as the color when something has caramelized enough. Also, you can understand a lot from seeing how something is seared or broiled. It’s just not practical to try explaining all of that with text
For recipes, Smart displays also have a unique step-by-step mode, in which you can follow a list of actions to complete. Google worked with content providers to get this one working, but I think that videos work better.
It is also possible to ask Google for directions, and it works the way you expect, except that you won’t get step by step directions since you won’t go there using the smart display. Still, you can get an estimated time of arrival and see what the potential route looks like. The Assistant will automatically send the directions to your phone.
The Lenovo Smart Display is today’s best implementation of smart displays, regardless of the platform (Google vs. Amazon) and that’s probably why Google worked with Lenovo to launch his one first. Digital assistant enthusiasts should love the addition of the large display which makes the concept much more efficient, versatile and pertinent.
There are just so many topics that are better answered when information is visual in nature, or when the user interface allows for a quick follow-up after the initial response. Changing volume with voice commands or following a recipe without visuals just doesn’t work for me."TODAY’S BEST IMPLEMENTATION OF SMART DISPLAYS"
It is true that the sound quality of the speaker could be better, but with prices of $199-$249, it is also unlikely that you will find much better alternatives in this smart display space. More likely, people who really want great sound, already have such a speaker on hand and I’d love if it was possible to have an audio output connector (or reliable wireless connectivity) to use when streaming music or watching media. The default speaker is fine for regular interactions.
The only caveat right now is that users who are already very invested in Google’s ecosystem will profit the most out of it. If you don’t use Google Calendar, Google Photos, Google Music, you are leaving something substantial out, even if that’s not an absolute requirement.
My favorite spot for this is in the Kitchen. What would yours be?