The JBL Link View strikes the perfect balance between speakers and display
You have smart speakers. You have tablets. For those looking for something that offers a little bit of this and a little bit of that, you have smart displays. These are essentially a smart speaker but one which comes with a display to accommodate a limited number of features. Generally speaking, smart displays are a very new thing which means the choice of which smart display you buy is very limited at the moment. Thankfully, JBL offers a very good smart display with its Link View. For reference, the JBL Link View is now available to buy and costs $249.95 in the US.
Specs & In the box
The JBL Link View comes in one color, black and one version which sports an 8-inch HD touch screen. On the audio side, the JBL Link View is equipped with two 2-inch full range drivers resulting in a frequency range of 60 Hz - 20k Hz and a 2 x 10-watt (RMS) output. This is a unit which also includes a 5-megapixel front-facing camera, as well as a microphone enabling voice calls and the use of Google Assistant. The JBL Link View utilizes Bluetooth version 4.2 and supports both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz Wi-Fi connections. In terms of the physical dimensions, the Link View measures 332 mm in width, 152 mm in height and 100 mm in depth, while weighing in at 1.3 kg.
The unboxing experience is not a majorly noteworthy event which is a little atypical of JBL who usually spends a lot of time and puts a lot of thought into the packaging and the ‘first impressions’ of its products. Although it should be said the JBL Link View comes extremely well-packed and protected, resulting in a greatly reduced likelihood of any issues with damage arising due to transit. Other than the actual JBL Link View smart display, buyers can expect to find the mains power cable, as well as the usual degree of paperwork. Nothing more, nothing less.
Hardware & Design
While there are very few smart display choices available with the choice mainly boiling down to JBL’s Link View and Lenovo’s Smart Display, the two are very different in terms of design which should make the overall choice of which to go for a little easier for consumers. It also means that for now the best way to evaluate one is to compare it to the other. For example, the Link View adopts a design stance that is much more in keeping with speakers in general. Therefore, if you like the darker colors, and speaker cloth style, the Link View is certainly going to appeal more than Lenovo’s lighter-colored and avant-garde option. That’s not to say the Link View looks old or dated as it doesn’t. In fact, the opposite is true with the Link View looking like a real tech-focused product. It’s just the company has adopted design cues which are more synonymous with traditional speakers which helps to further add to the identity of the product.
For example, one might be forgiven for thinking Lenovo’s option was something other than what it is. This is unlikely to be an issue with the Link View which proudly displays its speakers on either side of the display. Interestingly, the overall style of the Link View is very much in line with products that came through a couple of years ago, paving the way for the arrival of smart display. For example, like the Zettaly Avy. Although comparing this smart display to the Zettaly Avy highlights just how modern-looking and functioning the Link View really is. Either way, the Link View's design will certainly fit in better with those who prefer tech products that are typically black in color. For example, if your home is kitted-out with white and chrome-colored tech products and furniture, the Link View will likely stick out like a sore thumb thanks to its more retro slant. Likewise, the room where the device is stationed might also play a part with the Link View more in keeping with the living room while the Lenovo Smart Display a better fit for most default-looking (read, white counter tops and appliances) kitchens.
Another clear difference between the two main smart displays is the size. This is in part due to Lenovo offering two size options while JBL only offers one, but also due to the actual design. As the Link View appears to be much more of a compact unit. It’s arguable roughly the same size overall when compared to the smaller Lenovo option -- after all, both sport an 8-inch display -- but the Link View’s form itself results in a more compact look and feel. This is not just an appearance-based benefit either with the Link View more portable, with its design lending itself better for occasions when someone wants to take the Link View with them, or just quickly move the device from one room to another. Lenovo's smart display is very awkward in this respect. In spite of its easier to move design, the Link View is primarily a stationary unit due to the lack of an on-the-go battery and its reliance on continually being connected to the wall - an issue with smart displays as a whole.
Combining the new with the old, the Link View features a front-facing camera which is centrally-positioned on the top portion of the frame. And with this being a device that can see you, JBL has included a “Privacy Switch” which allows the user the option to turn off the camera’s ability to see altogether. This feature has been padded out with an orange slider which not only covers the camera but is bright enough to be a clearly visible indicator that the camera has been deactivated. Lenovo uses a similar approach with a red indicator but on balance the orange is far more prominent and eye-catching.
In addition to the ability to deactivate the camera, the Link View also features a similar switch for the microphone so users are able to deactivate both the camera and mic for ultimate privacy, or more simply, one or the other depending on the needs of a given situation. Moving to the rear of the device and the main visible element is the protruding part of the bass reflex system (further highlighting this unit is as much about sound as it is display), which not only sports the JBL branding but also takes some of the attention away from the messier aspect - the connection board. Although in reality this is a lot less messier than typical connection boards as the rear-positioned panel largely only features the figure 8 port for the mains lead, and a small microUSB port. Due to the position of the board, and the unit in general, one criticism is that it does require a little force and precision to actually plug the mains power lead in. Although with this being a stationary solution, that is less of an issue due to the infrequency of actually having to connect and disconnect the unit.
Technically speaking, if you want as much display as possible from a smart display then you are better off going with Lenovo due to the company offering two display size options, one of which is greater than JBL’s single size option. However, that would be a mistake as the JBL Link View’s 8-inch display is a great size without resulting in too big of a device. While most of the JBL Link View is the display, the overall design with the surrounding speakers, centralized front-facing camera, results in a better-balanced design overall. Based on design alone, the JBL option feels like a more rounded-out and robust product.
One of the benefits (and disadvantages) of smart displays is the use of an identical user interface. This proves beneficial at the ‘getting started’ level as the setting up of a smart display like the Link View is a breeze. New users just need to download the Google Home Android app (most Android phone owners will probably already have the app installed) and from this point the app will do most of the heavy lifting. In fact, the app will likely immediately identify the new smart display and prompt the user to start the setup process. From here, the app will step-by-step guide the user through the entire process, such as linking to a Google account and providing warnings on the known security risks associated with using the product. The setting up will also include the adding of voice support for control of Google Assistant, and once again, this will prove extremely easy for those who are already invested in Google Assistant. For example, if you have already saved a voice profile to your Google account, the app will draw that profile and link it with the Link View, requiring no further action from the user. The entire setting up process takes seconds to complete.
Software & User Experience
If you are familiar with smart display already, there is literally nothing to report on with the Link View, as unlike the phone industry, the Assistant-based and Android Things-powered smart display industry offers no room for customization. The interface is what is is on all smart displays and this means the Link View does not really offer anything new in this respect. It offers exactly the same benefits while also falling foul of the exact same limitations.
For those new to smart displays, these, including the Link View are a bit of a mixed bag. Yes, this is first-gen technology and this does mean that it will improve over time. As of now, however, what a smart display can do is not a lot more than what a traditional smart speaker can do. Which should not be that surprising considering both product lines are powered by the same underlying voice assistant technology. Of course, their difference is the inclusion of the display and this is where the main added benefit come from, such as the ability to watch videos, and receive visual feedback to questions in general. Although this is where the first of the imitations also become evident. As in spite of this being a display-focused product, the actual support for video platforms is largely limited to the likes of YouTube, YouTube TV (if you have a subscription) and some other options. So, for example, there is no option at present to watch Netflix. This limitation also extends to casting - as in spite of coming equipped with Cast support, most services, including Netflix cannot be cast to smart displays as of yet, and even those that can be cast to a smart display struggle at times to establish or maintain a connection. For instance, the AMC app identifies smart display and makes the initial connection but proves extremely unreliable when actually trying to play any content. An additional point to note about casting, although the smart display interface allows the user to open the likes of YouTube and search for content using just your voice, casting still remains the best and quickest way to find and play exact YouTube content, with the Assistant-based interface proving to cumbersome, long-winded and reliant on content it thinks you want to watch.
Likewise, the visual feedback element is also a little rudimentary, and arguably not as productive as it should be. The big example always used when highlighting was a smart display can do is the option to utilize a more visually robust recipe when cooking, with the user able to see ingredients and instructions easier, and navigate through the recipe with the use of voice commands. While this is possible, it is also a little slow in delivery and will not suit those who are in need of a more intuitive and flowing experience. Which is arguably the same point made with the natural YouTube experience, as the two issues are not unrelated but symptomatic of the user interface as a whole - while it is capable of being controlled by the user’s voice, almost everything visually-related can be done quicker and easier using your smartphone.
It’s worth reiterating that the software faults mentioned here, are faults with the user interface experience on smart displays in general. These are not issues specific to the Link View or any other smart display for that matter, but instead, ALL smart displays. In addition, the experience is not terrible by any measure, it’s just easier to highlight the limitations than it is the benefits. For example, the more connected a home is, the more useful a smart display becomes due to the Assistant's ability to control compatible smart home products, and make use of routines. Although, in fairness, these are features that are relevant to the Assistant, and not smart displays. In other words, they are features just as easily accessible and useful on smart speakers, or even your phone.
This is a JBL product and therefore does come with an expectation of a good sound quality. Thankfully, it does live up to that expectation as the Link View is a very-good sounding product. At least, for a smart display as there are better sounding JBL speakers you can buy for half the cost of this unit. That distinction aside, and the sound quality is solid. JBL is packed the Link View with two 2-inch full range drivers which although do suffer a little with a more squeezed sound, perform well under the circumstances. The sound is punchy enough and the bass is relatively well accounted for - the Link View does suffer a little when the volume is running at maximum and bass-heavier songs are played. Distortion. Which is probably to be expected with a product like this as while it can connect to your smartphone and play your audio over Bluetooth, or directly play from the likes of Spotify and Google Play/YouTube Music, it’s stance as a home speaker is limited compared to other more speaker-centric products. For example, if someone is contemplating buying a smart display more to watch YouTube, engage with video calls, and control smart products while getting feedback from Google Assistant, then they will find the Link View a product rich in sound. And to be honest, this is a loud unit in general. While 2 x 10-watts sounds a little, it's more than most people will realize and especially considering this is an RMS rating - a lot of other companies rate their product's wattage at the "peak" or "total" level so 10-watts RMS equates to a decent enough volume. For most people, and certainly those who primarily use this as a stationary kitchen unit, the volume will be more than enough, which in turn means the likelihood of hitting a level that starts to add distortion will be diminished greatly.
If you are looking for a comparison between the bass response on the Link View and the Lenovo Smart Display, then there is no question the Link View is the better option - as long is your bass is the preference as in spite of the bass limitations noted here, the Link View leans more heavily on the lower frequencies in general. To sum up, it's a better-sounding unit than the Lenovo Smart Display but if sound is all you care about then then there are better smart speakers available for less money. An added caveat to that statement is how smart speakers typically allow you to just the sound through the use of an app-based EQ. As this is definitely what is missing from smart displays with the sound you get out of the box the only sound you have to play with. Let's face it, though, if you're buying this, or any, smart display you are buying it for the display. For anyone wanting a more advanced setup, the old adage has never been truer - separates are better.
General Performance & Connectivity
When addressing the general performance it’s important to separate the product from the interface as unlike other products, smart displays are very different in this respect. For example, the user interface is slow and better-used when wanting quick/easy responses and/or actions completed - much like they would be with a smart speaker. But when separating the product from the platform, there is very little to complain about. JBL has put together a very nice-looking and sounding product which performs extremely well and is only limited by the general limitations of the Assistant-powered interface. There is nothing JBL has added here which does not perform well. In fact, in aspects like the privacy switch, JBL has added to the experience by providing a clearer and cleaner way to immediately know when the camera is off. The same can be said for the speakers, which offer a better experience overall.
There were also no issues noted with the connectivity either. This is a device which is capable of connecting to both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz Wi-Fi networks and utilizes Bluetooth version 4.2 for additional connections. Which means it’s more than capable of connection to most networks and devices, and without issue. If a user finds one GHz network is not so stable where the Link View is positioned, the support of the additional GHz network makes it easier to connect to the other and bypass the network connection problem - in comparison to having to move the unit to accommodate the Wi-Fi connection. Likewise, as mentioned already this is a device which supports casting and this typically works great, and were real added value can be found with a user able to easily and quickly find the right video to watch and send it to the display - like they might with an Android TV device or a Chromecast dongle. Although, the lack of support for casting from many popular third-party apps remains an issue.
Arguably, the display is one of the major weaknesses as it's only a HD display, and so it's not quite as crisp as it could be or you might want. Especially considering the Lenovo option comes with an FHD resolution. However, that FHD resolution offered by Lenovo is only available on the 10-inch model, as the company's 8-inch version is also resigned to a HD level. Making the two size-for-size comparable on this point.
Smart Displays remain to be a very early product line and this means there are a number of limitations on what they can currently do. As well as a general limitation on the choice available to consumers. Both Lenovo and JBL should be praised for backing the technology so early, and both offer a unique proposition in spite of the software experience being identical. Of the two, JBL’s option is a better-designed product overall, due to it being more portable, and better balanced when it comes to the sound and video elements. Pound-for-pound JBL is charging more for its smart display but you are technically getting more for the money, albeit beneath an exterior which some might find a little too basic compared to Lenovo's more artistic interpretation.