by Michael Crider on
Trying to find a way to introduce someone to the internet and the digital world when it’s foreign to them (and they don’t like computers) is tough. But you can make that task easier by picking the right hardware.
Lenovo has introduced the first of the Google Assistant-enabled smart displays. Starting at $200, it’s a high premium over regular Google Home devices, but it brings some great new functions with it.
The Lenovo Smart Display clocks in at $200 for the 8″ model, or $250 for the 10″ model. Both feature the always-on Google Assistant that you can activate with a voice command, as well as a built-in display that gives Google a bit more flexibility to respond to your commands.
To be clear, this isn’t a tablet, or anything close to it. You won’t find a full operating system or even a collection of mini-apps on it. However, what you do get is all designed to be used with voice commands, and the occasional touch or swipe when possible.
The software on the Lenovo Smart Display is provided by Google and will be available on other displays, like the one from JBL. For clarity’s sake, when we discuss the hardware, we’ll address it as Lenovo’s Smart Display, but when we’re talking about the software, we’re referring to Google’s smart display platform.
It’s hard to examine the Lenovo Smart Display without comparing it to Amazon’s Echo Show ($229). When the Echo Show came out, it could do comparatively little. It could display lyrics to songs which was kind of neat. It could play YouTube videos until Google blocked it. It could guide you through recipes, but it wasn’t super great at it. The value of the display was questionable at best.
With Lenovo and Google’s version, however, the benefits are a lot clearer. For starters, the Smart Display can watch YouTube videos. Of course, this is due to unfair corporate bickering, but that hardly matters to the user who just wants to watch a video. Put simply, if you want YouTube, get a Google gadget.
More impressively, Google has implemented some clever smart home controls. When you ask Google to turn on your Philips Hue lights, for example, you’ll get touchscreen controls that let you adjust the brightness, change the color, or turn the lights on or off. This is particularly handy for making minor tweaks instead of using several follow-up voice commands. It would be nice if you could add these shortcuts to your home screen so you could use them without any voice commands at all, but for now it’s a good start.
Google also made a voice-controlled recipe search engine that I’d actually use. Which is impressive because most previous attempts have been abysmal. On both the Echo and Google Home, you can use a voice-only form of recipe search that will read ingredients and instructions to you out loud. This sucks because it’s tedious to get through lengthy search results to find a recipe you like, and even more tedious to follow the instructions. The Echo Show was a bit better, but it tended to drop back to the home screen if you took to long to, you know, cook.
Google’s smart display handles things a bit differently. For starters, you can scroll through search results, browsing much as you would on your phone or laptop. When you find something you like, you can tap it to open the page the recipe came from in a mini-browser. This is useful because many recipes come from blogs where there’s descriptions or more pictures you might want to explore before you get started.
Once you’re ready, there’s a Start Cooking button at the bottom of the screen. Google will first walk you through the ingredients, and then the instructions step by step. You can scroll through them at your own pace, or give a “Hey Google, next step” to move forward. No matter how long it takes, the recipe will stay on the screen. This is a huge usability benefit. It means if your hands are messy, you can control it with your voice, but otherwise it’s always there ready to be tapped or swiped at your leisure. Even if you do something else with your device, the recipe will wait as a card on your home screen, ready to be restarted with a tap. Google thought this one through and it shows. Notably, the screen also stays on if you set a timer, which is helpful if you’re working on a recipe but already know the steps.
When compared to other smart speakers or displays, Google’s new platform stands out. When judged against other smart speakers (or just on its own usefulness), there are some shortcomings. Most notably, for some reason, Google has not made Continued Conversation available on the smart display yet. This is especially noticeable when using recipes. It would be great if I could keep saying “Next step” when Google is going through a list of ingredients, but instead I have to say “Hey Google” every time. Or scroll with my finger. The latter is a fine substitute, assuming my hands are clean, but they won’t always be. This seems like a simple fix, so it would be nice if Google got on that.
Basic search questions also seemed to be a bit hit or miss. In general, the rule seems to be that if it’s something you’d get a card for while searching on a desktop, Google can respond to it on the smart display. When I asked who directed Thor: Ragnarok, Google gave me an attractive page that showed Taika Waititi’s face in a large, high-resolution photo. When I asked the same about Avengers: Infinity War, Google gave me two decidedly less-attractive tiles for both directors (because Google interprets Joe and Anthony Russo as two possible answers to this question). If I asked a question Google didn’t have a clear-cut answer for, it simply said it didn’t know how to respond. There are no search results as a fallback.
Also, and this is a minor nitpick, for some reason you can’t include a smart display as part of a speaker group. If I want to play audio on every Google Home speaker I have upstairs, I can add them to an audio group and ask Google to play on all of them at once. Yet, I can’t add the speaker in my living room to the smart display in my kitchen. In my particular case, it’s not a problem as they’re very close together, but it’s strange that these devices are treated differently when they can both play music pretty well.
There are also still some bugs that just plain don’t make sense. For example, I can ask Google to show me my calendar, at which point a follow up option will recommend trying “add an event to my calendar” if I either say or type this response, Google says it doesn’t know how to help with that yet. Well, you brought it up, Google.
The software that Google brings to the table is easily the most valuable part of the smart display approach. Since Google is providing software to multiple manufacturers including JBL, LG, and Sony, so does it really matter which one you get? In the future it might. Right now, it seems like the Lenovo version is the best option right out of the gate.
First, Lenovo’s Smart Display is gorgeous. The white front-facing speaker grill is nestled up to the left side of the black display creating a stark, asymmetrical face that immediately catches the eye. The rear of the 10″ model features an elegant, angled bamboo backing that wouldn’t look out of place in any modern decor scheme. The 8″ model is a more plain white plastic. While it’s hard to say that it’s worth upgrading just for the bamboo, it’s certainly a perk.
The audio quality also stands up nicely to the existing Google Home. We can’t say whether other models would have better sound quality until they arrive, but it seems likely that since JBL is known for its speakers, Lenovo is in for some competition. Still, this Smart Display will do your music plenty justice while you’re cooking.
Google didn’t design Lenovo’s hardware (as far as we know), but you almost wouldn’t know it by looking at this gadget. First effort hardware doesn’t general catch the eye the way Lenovo’s does here. Surely someone will come along and make a better one some day, but it’s impressive that Lenovo managed to make the first Google smart display as good-looking and powerful as it is.
The Lenovo Smart Display is anywhere from $70 to $120 more than a standard Google Home, and a whopping $150-200 more than a Google Home Mini. That’s a pretty huge price premium to put on top of existing smart speakers and, if we’re honest, you can probably do 80% of what a smart display can do with your voice. The screen is by no means necessary, and in fact Google has spent years making sure you can use its voice assistant without having to touch a display.
That being said, this is the first time I’ve ever used a smart display that felt like a genuine step up from a voice-only offering. The ability to tweak my Philips Hue lights with a single voice command—as opposed to multiple follow-up commands—is a delight. This is also the first voice-powered device of any kind that gets recipes right, and now I’ll actually use it.
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