If you plan on buying a smart display this year, go with Lenovo's stylish option.
At CES 2018, Google announced a new product line in the form of smart displays powered by Google Assistant, and at the same time a select few companies announced they were planning on bringing to market their versions of a smart display. One of those companies was Lenovo with the aptly named Lenovo Smart Display. Since then the Lenovo Smart Display has been readied for market and it's now set for release this week. For reference, the Lenovo Smart Display pricing starts at $199.99.
The Lenovo Smart Display comes in two versions – an 8-inch model along with a 1280 x 800 resolution, and a 10-inch model boasting a 1920 x 1200 resolution. Both versions provide an 86-degree viewing angle. The 8-inch version features a 1.75-inch 10-watt speaker along with two passive tweeters, while the 10-inch version includes a slightly larger 2-inch speaker as well as the same passive tweeters. Otherwise, the rest of the specs remain common to both models and include 2GB RAM and 4GB storage, with the Qualcomm 624 Home Hub platform designed for Android Things powering everything. A 5-megapixel wide-angle camera is included, as is support for Bluetooth 4.2 and 2 x 2 WiFi 802.11ac. The Lenovo Smart Display 8-inch model measures 263.21 mm by 142.21 mm and weighs in at 2.2 lbs. The 10-inch model measures 311.37 mm by 173.87 mm and weighs in at 2.6 lbs.
The unboxing experience is fairly straightforward with just the main unit, the power cable, and minimal paperwork included.
Hardware & Design
The Lenovo Smart Display feels like it is built for the home with an overall design that fits well with its surroundings, although color choices are a little limited at the moment. Basically, the Lenovo Smart Display is available in only a "Grey" or "Bamboo" color and even this is not necessarily something the buyer has control over – as the color is directly related to the size. So those looking to save on space by opting for the 8-inch model will automatically only be able to buy the display in grey. Likewise, those looking for an enriched viewing experience with the 10-inch model will have no choice but to go for the Bamboo color. What's more, the color only relates to the back of the device with all the user-facing elements comprised of the same generic white color.
Colors aside, the build quality feels very good with this product. Yes, it is largely a molded plastic unit, but it's well built and sturdy. The downside, however, is that it's a fairly heavy unit for what it is. Not unwieldy, but certainly heavy enough, and those who opt for the 10-inch model in particular will find the unit a little on the large side in all respects. This is not a small unit by any measure and this takes us to the first main criticism of the design.
The thing with the Lenovo Smart Display is that it's very far away from being a tablet. To the point where if you have been viewing these displays as more of a tablet-like product, then you should stop. Some may say, well this is why a tablet is a tablet and a Smart Display is a Smart Display, but that would be missing the point. New-age TVs are like tablets now in terms of their design, and while they are not portable like tablets, they are effectively a slate. One that is thin, and that largely only differs in size. You shrink a TV down to a tablet size and both will look a lot alike. Smart Displays on the other hand are trying to bridge the gap between a smart speaker and a smart TV, and so what you end up with is a unit that is far less usable in situations other than when it is laid flat on a surface. In other words, it's meant to be a stationary product. In terms of Lenovo's interpretation, Lenovo has opted to go down the route where the Display's design is lopsided where one side of the device is much larger (in width) and heavier than the other – something else that further impacts on the usability of the device.
For comparison, this is highly different to JBL's interpretation which is far more centered in terms of the weight with a more oval and bowl-shaped feel than Lenovo's. While this might seem just a matter of stylistics, these choices will likely impact on functionality to some degree. As one could argue the JBL version is more portable and usable in a greater number of situations/environments due to its design, with the Lenovo version almost impossible to hold, be placed on the lap, and so on. This is not to say the JBL display is a better designed display, as the differences here clearly represent that the smart display form is going to differ quite widely, and therefore will likely directly impact on a buyer's decision more than it maybe should. For example, where the Lenovo Smart Display lacks in manageability, it more than makes up in style with a far more contemporary look compared to JBL's.
A good way to view the Lenovo Smart Display is to look at its fat side as sort of a kickstand (without the ability to retract the stand again), where the heavy-sided design acts as an adequate counterbalance for the display in general. Although that is likely to be more of a by-product than anything else as the larger side is larger due to its inclusion of the main speaker and most of the underlying tech. One of the added benefit is that the thin side, is very thin, and much more towards the thinness one might expect from a slate. Resulting in some weird hybrid design that starts off like a tablet but then quickly becomes something entirely different. The takeaway is the design matters and you will likely want to eyeball the Lenovo Smart Display before you buy it, and especially if you opt for the 10-inch model as it is a lot larger than what might be initially expected.
It's also worth pointing out this Smart Display is not resigned to use in landscape mode as the fatter side is also able to adopt the position of a base when used in portrait. However, this mode is not greatly supported at the software level as it only currently works with Google Duo for video calls. This is in part due to the device's inability to change the orientation. Therefore, regardless of which content is shown on the screen, the orientation does not change with the exception of Duo which accommodates the display change.
Another design issue — although it may not be an issue for everyone — is the lack of a power button. By all accounts, this is designed as an always-on device and while that is fine for a product like Google Home or Amazon Echo, the addition of the display means the display is always on with no obvious way to permanently dim it. Yes, this is an ambient display and the user is afforded the option to choose what is displayed during the activation of the screensaver, but some may feel the always-on nature of the display is a little overkill for what this product is. As in reality, it is debatable how often you will be visually use the display. While some might use it daily, they will likely only use it for a limited amount of time each day. This also does also mean the unit always runs a little hot on its fatter side, although not hot to the point where it is a concern. So, yes, it would have been nice if the display could be turned off when not in use while still keeping the rest of the smart and voice-related features active. Speaking of which, this is a product that does come with a camera (for video calls) and a microphone, and both of these elements can be switched off.
Lenovo has integrated these off switches as a means to offer the user a greater degree of privacy. So during times when the owner does not want a situation where the camera or the microphone could be automatically or accidentally activated by the system, owners have the ability to manually switch one or both off. Which once again highlights the design flaw of the lack of an off switch for the display. As during times when the camera and mic are both off, the system is in effect just a screen – which still can't be turned off. That is, unless you pull the plug on the unit – which would also turn off the mic and the camera anyway. In spite of an inherent purpose of always having Google Assistant ready and running, an off or standby-like button for the display is needed.
The setting up process has been made very simple and is even easier for those who are already entrenched in the Google and Assistant ecosystem. As getting the Smart Display up and running is as simple as downloading the Google Home Android app. This is the app that controls many of the Android and Assistant-related devices in the home and therefore there is a good chance buyers will already have the app installed.
Once the Smart Display is switched on, it will direct new owners to the Home app and once the Home app is opened the Smart Display will already be listed as a nearby and ready-to-use device. On-screen prompts will then guide the user through the process including linking a Google account, advising of the security risks associated with this sort of product (for example, anyone using the display will be able to see and engage with personal recommendations), and setting up the Assistant voice support.
Again, setting up the voice assistant is an example of the wider Google ecosystem support, as those who have already set up a voice profile with Assistant on any other device will find the setup literally takes seconds as the Assistant voice profile is pulled from the existing Google account. Likewise, for those in a multi-person household, once the initial account has been set up, others can also connect their accounts via the Home app on their devices, which then lets the Smart Display recognize different people and provide an individual experience to all family members – much like Google Home in general.
Software & User Experience
This is not a tablet. A point that needs to be reiterated as the functionality and the software is incredible limited compared to a tablet, a smartphone, or a smart TV for that matter. The upside, there is little in terms of a learning curve involved here and regardless of an individual's proficiency with tech products in general, it should not take too long to master the interface. For example, there are next to no controls as this product is largely aimed at Google Assistant integration so you will need to voice command pretty much everything. The display is a touch-based display and you can swipe to navigate a little, but this is also not the same as a tablet. YouTube is a good example of this, as while you can launch YouTube by touching the display, you cannot really navigate much within the YouTube experience. Instead, you will be presented with very few personalized recommendations which you can click on or swipe between, but that's about it.
Everything else will require the user to voice command. So searching for specific video content needs to be voice searched, looking for a specific recipe needs to be voice searched, and so on. Which means the process in general is a lot slower than it is on other products. Things take time with a smart display. One way in which you can circumvent the slowness of the user experience is by using your actual phone. As in reality, everything that is going on, is happening through your phone anyway. Firing up a YouTube video is actually done on your phone with the content is then automatically cast from the phone to the display. So by the same token, the user can do the same by opening up the YouTube app on their phone, finding the exact video they want to watch and then manually casting it to the display. Although this then takes away from much of the Smart Display experience, and reverts the product to more of a TV or monitor-like experience. In either case, it is good to have the option for those who want to speed up the process a little.
Where the Smart Display can really add value is in the continuous feedback and the best example of this is when cooking. If you often follow recipes then not only can the Smart Display show you the recipe, with images and step-by-step instructions, but it can also audibly feed those instructions to you allowing you to focus on what you are doing instead of having to constantly refer back to the display to read the next instruction. With this being Google Assistant, this is dynamic as well so the user can go forwards or have instructions repeated as and when needed. Beyond cooking, the same use case can be applied to when doing virtually anything else that is accompanied by how-to instructions. Although, the usefulness of this feature will be highly dependent on how often these situations will arise on an individual basis. For example, how often do you actually use how-to videos?
The Lenovo Smart Display is also able to provide daily feedback on Calendar synced information as well as create new entries on the fly, update shopping lists, buy products through Google, and more. Which again while adding value, does represent fairly specific use cases for the device. If you are not someone that relies on Google Calendar, uses phone-based shopping lists, or often purchase through a voice assistant, then you might find these additional features fairly useless.
As this is a Google Assistant-powered device, it is also more than capable of controlling other smart home products that are also compatible with Google Assistant, including lights, sensors, and more. Which is where the argument for a Smart Display extends to areas of the home other than the one it's stationed in. This is exactly the sort of product you would want to find in a hotel room nowadays where all of the room's amenities and features can be controlled by a singular panel, and in this scenario the Lenovo Smart Display reverts from being a video-focused device to a smart home hub – an aspect that does highlight how versatile of a product it can be with its focus somewhat shifting depending on the room it is in.
Adding to its home hub nature, the Lenovo Smart Display can also make use of "routines" which tells the Assistant to do a number of things based on a keyword prompt. So for example, you could program lights to come on, the TV to start up, and coffee to start brewing just by saying "Good Morning," or closing down all of these connected devices by setting a routine to "Goodnight." Though again, the usefulness of these features will highly depend on how involved someone already is with the smart home revolution. The more involved, the more value they will get from this product. The less involved, the less value.
Overall, the experience with the Lenovo Smart Display was a little lacking although this is more of a result of the platform at large. As while it can do a number of things for you, those things are often done better and quicker through other means. There are some situations where the display is helpful, but these were found to be few and far between, and very quickly the display ended up being just a display – used to watch YouTube videos when in the kitchen. There is no doubt that as time goes on and the interface evolves it will start to become more integral to the connected home experience, but in its current guise, the limitations were more obvious than the benefits. A problem often encountered with a first-generation product.
With this being a product that is named after its display, one might be forgiven for forgetting that it's actually a smart speaker, and therefore the sound quality does need to be addressed as this is one of the most common issues with smart speakers due to their size. Of course, the Lenovo Smart Display is not bound by the same size restrictions as the Echo Dot or the Google Home Mini and this has resulted in an increase in the quality of the sound you can expect. Lenovo has packed this display out with a 10-watt speaker and this results in a very clean and loud sound by comparison. Yes, it is not the most frequency clean sound ever and in particular the bass suffers a little when playing bass-heavy tracks, but otherwise, the sound quality is very good and more than suitable for the level of product this is. If you have yet to buy a smart speaker, for example, the fact this is a display-focused product should not take away from the fact that it's arguably a better sounding unit than most of the major Assistant-powered speakers currently on the market. For what it is, it sounds good. For a $200 speaker, not so much.
General Performance & Connectivity
A lot of the issues that have been raised here are issues with the smart display platform in general and not specific to the Lenovo Smart Display, However, as Lenovo's is the first to properly arrive to the market, it is the first to highlight some of the more fundamental platform issues. So for example, it is just not highly tuned to the Google ecosystem, but for the most part is dependent on it. While you can make video calls, you can only — at the moment — use Google Duo for those calls. Video content is mainly resigned to the likes of YouTube with some big-hitting third-party services still not supported, like Netflix. Or the fact this is a wall-connected unit and does not feature any portable battery benefits, so this is not the type of display that can be used 'off the charge' as it does need to be constantly powered by a suitable wall connection.
Taking these issues away and the Lenovo Smart Display works exactly as intended and proved to be a viable option for those in the market for a product like this. The setup is a breeze, the resolution of the display is great for the size and the software is smooth. Generally speaking, there were no obvious Lenovo-related issues to note and overall, it works well and exactly as one would expect. While the Smart Display is highly dependent on your phone for most of the content it shows, the display does connect over Wi-Fi and therefore there are no immediate distance issues in effect. You can have your phone in any room in the house and the display in any other room and there will be no issues with the connection between the two.
When Google first announced Smart Displays, it was thought these could be the sensible evolution of the tablet, but that is far from the case as these are definitely more smart speaker-related than tablet-based. Yes, they do come with a display and that really is a useful addition to the product, but that is providing you need a display in the first place. More to the point, if you already own a smart speaker or a home hub, then all you are getting is a display – and one that cannot be used as a portable device and one that almost always requires your phone to do anything display-related. It also seems likely this is a unit which is better for some people than others. Specifically, more useful in some rooms than others with the kitchen being one of the most obvious examples. If this was marketed as a "kitchen display" then it would fulfill that brief and then some, with the unit literally acting as the missing smart link for the kitchen. In the living or family room, this seems less likely to be a device that adds video-related benefits to the environment but may prove to be useful as a home hub with a visual reference point. Which sort of sums up smart displays in general. As whether you should buy one is highly dependent on whether you see the additional value in having a device like this. For example, it works far better in a more connected environment and so the question you need to ask yourself is – how connected is your home? Even if your home is very connected, the next question becomes – do you need a display? If the answer is yes, then chances are an Android or Chrome OS-powered tablet with a nice docking station or stand will probably be a better solution. Certainly, during the initial smart display generations.
Platform aside, of the options now announced, the Lenovo Smart Display is the best-looking due to its modern and stylish design. Therefore, if you are sold on the Smart Display form factor, there's no reason why you shouldn't opt for this one as its minimalist design will fit in nicely with most homes.