The basic idea behind the new Google-powered Smart Displays coming this summer is simple: Take a Google Home smart speaker and watch a screen like Amazon's Echo Show. Really if that's all you take away from this review, you have the basics.
Lenovo Smart Display is the first of these new devices on the market. LG, Sony and JBL have also signed on to make them. Lenovo's version goes on sale July 27, the price of $ 199 for a model with an 8-inch display and $ 249 for the model I tested, which has a 10-inch display.
Something more here than just a Google Assistant screen. These Smart Displays run Android Things, a new Android based operating system and developed for things of Things of Things. That means Google has a new canvas for its virtual assistant to work with, effortlessly with the need to support some of the crufts that would come along with running full Android or Chrome.
With the blank skider, an opportunity for Google to do exactly what you want to do. And the result is something I really did not expect: a Google device.
Works well with Google's ecosystem
Mediocre audio quality
Tied heavily to Google services
"Hello Google" wake up is still annoying as ever
As a piece of hardware, Lenovo's recording on Smart Display is elegant – especially in relation to the echo show. It has a large flat screen that sits to the right of a white speaker grid. It is thin over most of the screen, with its back bent out behind the speaker. The larger, more expensive version has bamboo on the back, while the smallest has a much more dull gray plastic.
It is designed to work sitting horizontally, but Lenovo puts rubber feet on the end so that it can sit vertically. Well, the hardware can, but the software is not designed to work when the Smart Display is in portrait mode (except Duo video calls), which is a bummer. This thing would be much more likely to take care of my crowded kitchen table if I could stand upright.
Both versions of the Lenovo Smart Display have a 10-watt speaker with two passive tweeters. I've only tested the larger 10-inch version, and the sound quality is best at best – roughly in line with Google Home or entry-level Amazon Echo. It can get a lot high at maximum volume, but also a lot of distorted. It's nice as a smart speaker for basic things, but not as close as a Sonos One or HomePod.
The touch screen is visible even in direct sunlight, but does not override the room in the dark – it has great brightness range, basically and good auto brightness settings. But strangely, my favorite feature is not the screen, it's the small hardware switch that moves a shutter to block the 5 megapixel wide-angle camera. True, Google Duo does not support the incredible Drop In feature like Echo Show and Spot, but I'm still more comfortable putting a smart speaker in my bedroom or in the bathroom if I know that the camera is covered.
There are only two microphones to recognize your voice, but they seem to do the job pretty well until you sweep the music volume up to the maximum. One of the benefits of Google-based speakers is that they do a good job of recognizing the sound of your specific voice and delivering your personal Google content to you. With this device, I found it a little more difficult to identify my voice than Google Home, but just a little.
If you've ever used a Google Home or Google Home Mini, the new Lenovo Smart Screen will feel very similar. The setup works by using the Google Home app on your phone, which goes through the default steps for connecting to Wi-Fi and your Google Account.
When online, you can do anything you do on a regular smart speaker or via Google Assistant on your phone. Say "Hello Google," ask a question or issue a command to control a smart home gadget and it's done. Your core interactions with this device continue with your voice. Touch is there for things like follow-up cranes when something's on the screen, such as a play / pause button or a map you want to zoom in on.
Because there is a screen now, many of these talks come with an optional visual component. When you ask it to turn on the lights, for example, a screen will appear that lets you adjust the brightness or color temperature. If you have a video source in the daily news update, it plays the video before moving on to the audio updates. The weather shows a chart and some cute animations.
Even timers are better with a screen. You can enter as many as you want (as opposed to Apple HomePod), and your last few hours remain on the screen instead of all that returns to the home screen too fast, as it happens at Amazon's Echo Show.
By default, A smart screen is in "Surround Mode", which shows a rotating slide show of images. You can choose from images from Google (art and landscapes, etc.) or albums from the Google Photos archive.
Touch the screen and you will get a home screen. To the left you will find the local weather, which you can tap to expand. To the right there is a series of cards that serve mainly as suggestions for things you can ask. You can of course tap a YouTube video or calendar entries, but it's not really the goal.
The map displayed on the home screen can be changed depending on context. If you just watched a video or listened to music, the map of that activity becomes the first. If you have an upcoming meeting, the card can be displayed first. If you are concerned about people in the household who look at your stuff, you can not view the information by default in the phone program.
Like other Google Home Devices, you can set it up to recognize different voices associated with different Google Accounts, so people in your family can get personal information. However, the display will display information from the primary account by default. And as with other Google Home Devices, it's a pain to make it work with your work information. You may need to get your work calendar in one way or another synchronized to your personal calendar, for example.
Swiping in from the left edge serves as a back button, if you do not want to say "Hello Google, go home" high. By swinging from the bottom you can adjust the brightness. There are other nice features: You can make traditional phone calls, but when you call, it appears as an unknown number to your recipient. Duo conversations worked well in our test, but sometimes Smart Display was a bit aggressive to call via Duo when I just wanted a regular old phone call.
If you're looking for something local, you'll get a great Google Maps list that lets you swipe through photos of the place, get directions, and pan around a map. You can also ask follow-up questions about the location, including getting directions sent to your phone.
It's about it, honestly. It is as far as the visual user interface goes. But what really surprised me is how elegant developed the software. Apart from a few struts, the animation was not only smooth and fluid, but also really useful to show you what's happening. The scriptures are clean, the drop shadows are consistent, and everything is very well connected.
Granted, this is not a very complicated UI system, so it would be a pretty gigantic whiff if Google could not do this work. But looking at the work that it's trying to do with Material themes on Android and Chrome, and you can tell that the direction Google will go with design, this is the exact system. It is the clearest statement of what Google believes that software should look like what I've seen in recent memory.
Beyond the basics, it's most fascinating to add a Google Assistant screen that Google takes it as an opportunity to develop how it answers questions. To get the most obvious example: If you ask a question like "How do I make socks?" Are you likely to get a YouTube video instead of an excerpt from a website.
I really like what happens when you request a recipe. Google returns a number of possible results drawn from the web, but reformats them again for this screen. You will get step-by-step instructions that remain on-screen until you are ready for the next part of the instructions. It's so smart that I immediately wanted me to import my own recipes into the system instead of just using what's on the web.
Here's another, more brilliant example: I wanted to test web search, so I said "Hi Google, show me pictures of otter." Google returned with a puzzle of an otter I sat together on a lazy cabin Saturday; I had taken a picture of the almost done work to decrypt the missing piece. Then I asked "when was this photo taken" and Google knew the answer – because it was saved in the metadata for my own photo.
There are two themes to point out in these examples. The first is that Google tries to be more creative in how it delivers answers than before, and retrieves multimedia sources from the web and from my personal information. You kind of never really know when to get answers that are more immersive or personal when you ask the question.
The second theme? Good golly, this thing is closely integrated into Google's ecosystem. It captures YouTube videos. It uses Google's web extract. It works like a great kitchen TV if you are a YouTube TV subscriber. It knows what my reminders are and where my wedding was. There is very much a device that wants to give you answers instead of web links.
That does not mean I think this device is fundamentally creepier than other products. I just mean that the addition of the screen and the ways Google has utilized is ten times more interesting if you live in Googleworld.
That's not to say it's a walled Google garden. Third party services are displayed here. You can set default music player to Spotify or one of Google's music services; It also supports some video services like HBO Now, CNN, and Fox News. However, if you want Netflix or Hulu, you must go to the phone and hunt for the Google Cast button. Smart Display can act as a Google Cast video pointpoint, which is a smart feature – but not so good as just saying "Hello Google, play Stranger Things ." It also supports the same package of Google actions as Google Home does – and third-party developers will be able to create on-screen experiences on time.
It is appropriate that the Lenovo Smart Display is clearly designed to sit in the kitchen because it really is a device, a Google ] device. Although you could make the case that its connection to Google's powerful cloud and AI makes it a computer, it's much more like our idea of what a machine really is: simple, mostly focused on a few simple tasks, and hopefully well designed.  The Smart Display platform is all of these things and it's much more focused on activating Google experiences than any other product I've seen. Either giving a new direction for the company or just what it thought was the best way to get this speaker out of the door is still to see.
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