The battle for the smart home has moved to pastures new, with the Amazon Echo Show moving smart speakers in the direction of smart displays.
The Lenovo Smart Display doesn't have a hugely exciting name, but you can immediately tell what it is, picking up on the Google Assistant-based platform and providing an alternative to Amazon's device which had been the only smart display available for some time.
Google now has a couple of options, including the excellent Google Home Hub, so is the Lenovo offering a compelling alternative?
A design that will divide
- 10 or 8 inch display versions
- Grey or natural bamboo rear finish
- Designed for landscape or portrait use
The Lenovo Smart Display comes in two sizes: 8-inch or 10-inch. The 8-inch more or less rivals the Google Home Hub, while the 10-inch rivals the Amazon Echo Show. The design of the Lenovo isn't symmetrical like those other two devices, however, which might divide opinion.
Lenovo has chosen to push the speaker to one side – the left when in landscape orientation – and the back doesn't have a central foot, instead it swells at one end.
This means you can stand the screen up in portrait, if that's your preferred method of making video calls – but that's basically all you'll do in portrait orientation, as the apps and user interface don't rotate. And we're not sure if you will ever do that, because it uses Google Duo and you probably can't find anyone else who does.
The Smart Display's main body is plastic, with colour differentiation appearing around the rear, where there's the option of grey on the 8-inch, or a really nice bamboo finish on the 10-inch model. If you're looking for something that's a little more natural in look, the bamboo is the way to go as it looks great – assuming, of course, that you can see the back and are happy with the larger size.
Let's talk about that display
- 8-inch resolution: 1280 x 800 pixels
- 10-inch resolution: 1920 x 1200 pixels
The screen on the Lenovo Smart Display is probably the best you'll find on a smart display right now. It's a higher resolution than the Echo Show and with the 10-inch version you get a little more impact as a result. Photos, Google Assistant and video content all looks great.
You also get good viewing angles – which is important if you're trying to read a recipe list when standing at the fridge, viewing from an oblique angle.
From using the Cast function to watch BBC iPlayer, to accessing YouTube clips, the Lenovo Smart Display performs and makes a better show of things than the Echo Show. Supporting Google's casting protocol is a really smart move because it's been adopted by a number of entertainment platforms both across video and music, so you can just send things to the Lenovo Smart Display from your phone with very little hassle – Netflix, YouTube, BBC iPlayer, Spotify, Google Play Movies and Music, the list goes on.
There's also something to be said for Lenovo's slightly bigger size choice compared to Google's Home Hub. When it comes to visual information, 10 inches gives you a lot more space to work with and viewing across a kitchen makes more sense on this larger device.
Sound quality, music and microphones
- 2-inch 10W main driver
- 2x passive tweeters
- 4x mics
The other side to a smart display is sound. With the Amazon Echo basically kicking off the connected device revolution, we suspect many will be asking the Lenovo device to play music as it becomes a single point for all things.
It's here that the design of the Lenovo lets it down slightly. That arrangement of the speaker on one side doesn't really have the clarity that you might now want for music. For spoken word – like talk radio or the retorts from Google Assistant – it's perfectly fine, but if you want something to play music then it doesn't have the same kind of delivery as the new Echo Show, which sounds richer with more bass.
As we mentioned above, as the Smart Display is powered by Android software, it supports casting for a wide range of services. That's convenient as it's platform agnostic so you can cast from an Apple or Android device – be that phone or tablet – and have it play straight on your Smart Display instead. There's support for other services like Spotify Connect, also making it easy to control your music.
We've found the microphones on the Lenovo Smart Display capable at picking up voice from across the room, while Google can also recognise different user's voices. That can add a degree of personalisation as well as some security – if it doesn't recognise your voice, for example, it can't access and call your contacts. There's also a physical mute switch to turn off the mic, as well as a physical cover for the camera if you don't want it to be accessible.
Google Assistant steals the show
- Wide smart home compatibility
- Great visual presentation
- Deep language understanding and interpretation
While Amazon's Alexa had a huge head start, Google Assistant has made some stealthy gains, and this device is all about Google Assistant. Firstly, just to clarify, this isn't some sort of skewed version of Android (it's the Android Things platform) but Lenovo told us that the user experience will be the same as Google's own Home Hub and, indirectly, Google Assistant on your phone.
As a long-term user of Alexa, the advantages that Google offers are clear. Voice verification means that some of your information can be kept private in a shared household, there's the sense that Google is better tailoring the content to you, and the interplay with other devices through the Home app works nicely. Alexa's app is playing catch-up as these two platforms work to assimilate control of everything.
Google's new Home app is core to the experience as you can setup devices, make pairings in accounts and manage everything. On the whole it's a lot smoother and faster to navigate than the Alexa app – which is rather slow by comparison. If you're an Android user then having a Google-based device makes more sense.
That said, saying "Hey Google" or "Ok Google" never feels as natural as talking to Alexa. The personification of Amazon's device gives it a more accessible feel, whereas talking to Google just feels, well, odd. Again, Android users might have got over that already, but we still find it more natural to address Alexa.
However, the support for third-party devices is very much like-for-like whichever platform you choose. Either of these devices will play nice with things like Philips Hue bulbs, Arlo cameras or your Hive heating. The easy way to check what Google will support is download the Home app and take a look – you can easily link things up and then control your smart home through the Home app.
That's where this Smart Display really sits: at the heart of your home. Just as Google called its own device the Home Hub, that's really what the Lenovo Smart Display is all about. It offers great connectivity into services and the user interface means you can easily swipe to smart home controls and not use your voice if you prefer.
But the other thing that Google does really well on this Lenovo device is display information. It transcribes what you say, so there's a visual log – and you can instantly see mistakes – and it usually returns something more graphical than Alexa too. Head to head, in terms of how the information is presented, Google is the clear winner.
The Lenovo Smart Display offers a visual extension of Google Home, leveraging the aggressive advancement of Google Assistant to make it the hub of everything. Pitched as a kitchen assistant and information portal, the Lenovo Smart Display acquits itself well.
It's hard to ignore, however, the smart side of this is really coming from Google. While the display itself is good, the speakers are easily outclassed by its Alexa rival and the design lends itself to a function (portrait video) that you might feel you never want to use.
This is an interesting device and it makes a strong case for smart displays, but it's still an area to watch. If music is important or you want something more compact, you might be better looking elsewhere.
Alternatives to consider
Amazon Echo Show
The second-gen Amazon Echo Show offers better audio than the Lenovo, as well as a design that's more compact. Alexa is different to Google Assistant, however, and while both offer compatibility with a wide range of services, Google feels a little smarter. The Echo Show does have a Zigbee controller, however, so you can setup smart home devices without the need for a hub.
Google Home Hub
Google Home Hub puts a display into a Google Home. It's more compact with a smaller 7-inch display and it's surprisingly affordable at £130/$130. The user interface is the same as the Lenovo Smart Display and about the only feature that it doesn't have is a camera for video calling. Otherwise, it's a great little smart display.