Lenovo’s Google-powered Smart Display tries to rival Amazon’s Echo Show as a screened countertop companion. But the software still needs work.
If the Google Assistant is primed to compete against Amazon’s Alexa in a game of show and tell, it has its work cut out for it.
Lenovo becomes the first of Google’s consumer tech partners to bring out a Google Smart Display smart speaker, which has a screen to visually complement whatever you ask the Google Assistant, woken up with a familiar “OK Google” or “Hey Google” voice command.
In so doing, Google (via Lenovo) is pitted against its most obvious direct competitor, the Echo Show from Amazon, which was the first of the Alexa-based smart speakers to add a display.
I was able to use the Lenovo Smart Display to surface my Google Calendar and Google Photos, watch news from CNN and Reuters, set timers, play music on Spotify, make a video call through the Google Duo app, and check out YouTube videos on such topics as making sushi.
As with the Google Home speakers without a screen, you can use Smart Displays to control such things as your Nest thermostats and Philips Hue light bulbs. You can combine the two to set up smart-home “routines” by stringing multiple requests into a single command, allowing you, for example, to lower the temperature and turn on the lights when you get home from work.
You also can train the system to recognize your voice as opposed to other voices in your household to prevent others from, say, seeing your appointments.
At the same time, though, I encountered serious glitches and a lack of navigational polish, which makes it difficult to recommend the Smart Display out of the gate.
Until now, Google has competed in the voice-activated smart-speaker space against Amazon’s various Echos with its own Google Home speakers, which lack a screen.
But rather than brand its own Smart Displays, Google is relying on other partners such as Lenovo, JBL and LG, the latter two of which plan to release devices in the future.
Google first announced the Smart Displays back in January at the CES trade show in Las Vegas, so they’ve taken a while to get here.
A faulty first effort
Are they worth the wait? There are certainly reasons why many of you will prefer the Lenovo Smart Display over the Echo Show, not least of which is the aesthetics. Lenovo’s design beats the antiseptic Echo Show by a mile, though keep in mind that it is wider than Echo Show, so it claimed more space than Amazon’s speaker on my kitchen countertop.
The Lenovo model I tested for several days is the full-HD 10-inch $249.99 version that has a white front and bamboo-colored rear. It has volume buttons on the top and a switch to manually shutter the front camera for privacy.
You can position the speaker horizontally or vertically, though for now that presumed advantage over the Echo Show is overrated because Google supports only vertical screen orientation with the Duo video chat app.
The Echo Show, which lists for $229.99 (for Amazon Prime members), has a 7-inch screen. Lenovo’s other new Smart Display is a soft gray model with an 8-inch screen. It goes for $199.99.
Arguably the biggest advantage Google has on the content side is the presence of YouTube videos which, because of an ongoing squabble between Amazon and Google, are nowhere to be found on the Echo devices.
New subscribers can get three months of YouTube Premium free, and the sound is pretty good for a speaker you might place in the kitchen or bedroom. It is comparable to the Echo Show.
Another plus: The dual-array microphones on the Smart Display were typically able to detect my voice even when music was playing loudly and I was not right on top of the speaker.
When you do a voice search, you’ll see suggestions appear on the bottom of the screen. After asking the Smart Display to “tell me about Montreal,” for example, I could tap buttons on the screen for “flights,” “weather,” “hotels” to presumably learn more.
Too many glitches
But here’s where everything went south.
When I asked Google to “tell me about hotels there,” the assistant mentioned that there were several hotels in Montreal but listed only one, with scant details at that. The assistant whiffed on my follow-up question to “tell me about another.”
Hoping for a better result, I tried my query again by tapping the “hotels” button. But instead of showing me Montreal hotels, the screen displayed hotels near where I was in New Jersey. Oops!
That wasn’t the only faux pas: When I asked the Smart Display to show me a map of Montreal, it did just that. But then the Google Assistant piped in and said, “Actually I can’t show you maps, I don’t have a screen.”
Is this some cruel joke?
Other glitches: While watching one YouTube video, the play controls and title of the video never disappeared from the screen, so they covered up the video.
In a game called “The Magic Door,” words on the screen with an apostrophe were replaced by a string of odd characters – so what should have been the word “That’s” appeared as “That's” instead.
The Smart Display has other shortcomings. Unlike the Echo Show, you cannot use the front camera on the Lenovo to snap a selfie.
Moreover, while the Echo Show can display song lyrics, at least when you’re listening to Amazon Music, the feature is not supported on the Smart Display (though you can find lyrics videos on YouTube). On the Smart Display, I set up Spotify as the default music provider. You also could choose from a list that includes Google Play Music, YouTube Music and Pandora or play radio through iHeartRadio and TuneIn.
Google says it will listen to feedback and deliver regular updates to address problems. Given the snags I’ve encountered, we hope they’re already cranking.
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