I was extremely excited when Lenovo first showed off the Smart Clock Essential. As a simpler, cheaper version of the Smart Clock, one of our favorite smart home gadgets, it seemed like an easy winner. Alas, that’s not the case: a combination of poor user interface choices and flaky, undependable software makes the Smart Clock Essential a dud at best.
The Essential is both less capable and harder to use than the original Smart Clock. Its easy-to-read clock display is undermined by an inability to easily set brightness—ditto for its one new feature, the built-in night light.
Between that and a relatively high price, which is higher than the Smart Clock often goes for on sale, there’s very little to recommend the Essential over the original … or even a standard LCD alarm clock.
The Smart Clock Essential looks like a copy of the Smart Clock, except that the touchscreen has been replaced with an old-fashioned non-interactive LCD, like I’ve seen in most alarm clocks since I was born. And that’s pretty much all it is: the clock can display the local weather (provided via Google), and you can manually set an alarm via its top buttons. That’s about it in terms of its physical features.
There’s one new feature for the Essential: a built-in night light. On the rear of the device, circling the back of the speaker section in off-white plastic, is an LED light. You can activate this via voice or with a long-press of one of the hardware buttons.
Aside from all that, this gadget is a Google Assistant smart speaker, with capabilities more or less identical to the Nest Home Mini. There’s a manual switch for the microphone on the back if you want to disable its voice features, and a USB-A port for charging your phone (still apparently limited to the standard 5V-1.5A output). You set it up with the Google Home app on your phone.
It’s covered in a neutral grey mesh fabric, about the size of a soda can, and includes four rubberized buttons on the top: volume up and down, play/pause, and alarm. Speaking to the clock with the “Hey Google” activation phrase unlocks pretty much all of the same features as the Nest Home Mini or Google Home Mini, with the associated information delivery and music streaming.
No Sleep Tonight
I set up the Smart Clock Essential next to my original model, hoping to replace it fully. While I love the original model, the LCD screen has to go to extremely minimum brightness at night to avoid disturbing me or my significant other. With my poor eyesight, it’s sometimes hard to see the time on the screen at a glance.
The Essential solves this problem with its old-fashioned clock display. Unfortunately, it creates a new problem: it’s insanely bright. Like, “I don’t think an actual candle could put out as much light as this crazy-bright clock” bright. This is an issue if you intend to use the Smart Clock Essential in your bedroom … where it’s explicitly designed to be used.
This is a problem that’s easily solved with an auto-brightness feature. And the Smart Clock Essential has one … but on this review unit, it doesn’t work. For the first hour or so that I used the clock, I could see it cut the brightness about 10 seconds after the room lights went out. But this behavior wasn’t consistent, and it would often fail to adjust the brightness automatically. Lenovo’s user guide says there’s a voice command for manually adjusting the brightness … but doesn’t actually say what it is. I tried several, but they only occasionally worked for the night light or other lights accessible via Google Assistant, not the display light.
After three different occasions of either myself or my girlfriend being woken up by the super-bright clock display, I had to take it out of the bedroom. That’s a massive failure for the core design of this gadget.
There are other issues with the clock as well. You can set an alarm with a voice command, but if you want to set one manually, you have to use a confusing combination of the four buttons on the clock itself. It’s not obvious when you’re merely checking the alarm versus setting it, and managing multiple alarms on multiple days is an exercise in frustration.
Lenovo has made this process much more complex than it ever was on an old-fashioned alarm clock. This might be because they tried to add the ability to set multiple alarms, which can trigger on different days of the week. But I was hoping to be able to set one alarm quickly without using a voice command. No such luck.
The night light feature is similarly frustrating. While Lenovo smartly included the ability to activate it without a voice command (long-press the volume down button), it has the same inconsistent brightness as the screen, and adjusting the brightness with a voice command is a crapshoot.
It’s possible that Lenovo could fix these issues with a software update. But based on my experience with the Smart Clock Essential as it is, it’s nowhere near polished enough of a recommendation. For every single one of its functions, I soon reached for my phone instead of relying on a passive interaction.
Here’s the nail in the coffin for the Smart Clock Essential: it’s too expensive. Or perhaps I should say, the original Lenovo Smart Clock is too cheap. The Essential is $50, the original is $80 … but you can find it on sale for $40 about half of the time.
On top of that, you can get an easy-to-read alarm clock with Bluetooth for music playback and a charging port for your phone for $20-30. It won’t have smart speaker functionality or weather display, but it won’t come with the headaches of this connected design, either.
The Smart Clock Essential is cheaper than similar solutions, like the Echo Dot with Clock or iHome’s Smart Home Alarm Clock. But despite a higher price, I can’t recommend Lenovo’s solution over those, at least if you’re looking for something specifically to go next to your bed.
The smaller, cheaper Smart Clock Essential is far from Essential. It’s a disappointing follow-up to the lovely original, with features that work against its own hardware and make it a chore to use. Go for the Smart Clock, or a regular alarm clock, instead.
Here’s What We Like
- Easy-to-read display
- Built-in USB charging port
And What We Don't
- Auto-brightness is unreliable
- Inconsistent voice commands
- Manual alarms are awful
- Poor value