Lenovo Smart Display Review

Posted on November 18, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Smart Home with 10 Comments

Rarely has a technology product inserted itself so seamlessly into my family’s daily lives: The Lenovo Smart Display combines everything we like about Google Home smart speaker with a display, which puts the experience over the top.

Granted, I knew I wanted the Smart Display as soon as Lenovo announced the device, way back at CES 2018. We already use three Google Homes—two the original size and one Mini—throughout our house for voice control. And the promise of the Smart Display was obvious: It was basically a superset of Google Home, but with additional features related to its display.

As I noted in my First Impression post—it’s OK if you don’t remember that, it was almost four months ago—Lenovo was the first to ship a Google Smart Display. And it’s still the best entry in the market, despite Google’s own Home Hub, which lacks the webcam you’ll need t make video calls. It comes in both 10-inch and 8-inch variants, compared to just a single size—and price point—for the Google entry.

Anyway, Lenovo’s Smart Display, like any other device based on Google’s new platform, is a home-based hardware interaction point for the Google Assistant and various other Google and third-party services. You can interact with it as you do with a Google Home, by voice, using dual array microphones that work well from across a room. Or you can use its multitouch display to browse through a personalized, multi-screen dashboard that Google’s been refining over time (and has brought to the Google Home app on Android and iOS).

Aside from browsing and touch-based navigation, that display adds a number of other useful features.

There’s a nice ambient mode that lets you display Google-curated images, personal photos (more on that in a bit), or some fun clock faces. It provides visual context for many search results, like that extended forecast when you ask about the weather. You gain new interactive capabilities, such as the demo-tastic ability to step through recipes in real time, complete with text and videos. And of course music apps have their own interactive displays too.

And you get video playback functionality for services such as YouTube and Google Play Movies & TV.

Watching a YouTube music video

And you can engage in video calls, and in portrait mode, assuming you can find someone else using Google Duo.

Lenovo’s Smart Display also offers some useful physical sliders so that you can manually and separately disable the device’s webcam and microphones. This is huge given the privacy concerns of this era. And if you don’t trust Google to not record everything you’re doing, they’re a nice safety net.

That’s all very useful. But the happy surprise here is that the rest of my family actually enjoys using—and sometimes just seeing—the Smart Display, which we’ve placed in on the kitchen counter.

Initially, we used the Smart Display much like the Google Home smart speaker we already had in the kitchen, to check on the weather, listen to the news, a podcast, or some music while preparing food in the kitchen. For these types of things, the display is a nicety but not a requirement. I like being able to see the weather forecast for the next few days as well, for example. But it’s not crucial.

My wife was most intrigued by the Smart Display’s recipe capabilities. She prepares all of our meals, basically, and she’s an excellent cook. And she likes to branch out into new meals when possible. But so far, she’s only used this feature a handful of times. I think it’s evolved into something that’s nice to have, but it’s not something she uses every week.

For me, there’s only one strange downside to the Smart Display, and this one is clearly not Lenovo’s fault: It can’t fully replace a Google Home because you can’t cast your phone’s display to it. This is an issue for me because I listen to Audible regularly, and that app inexplicably doesn’t support Chromecast. (Seriously, Amazon.) So the only way I can stream audiobooks from the app to a Google-compatible speaker, short of using an AUX cable, I guess, is to cast the entire display. (I wrote up this workaround as a tip back in 2017.)

This method works on Google Home devices. It works on any Chromecast-connect speaker set. And it works with the Google-compatible RIVA smart speaker we use up in our bathroom. But it doesn’t work with the Smart Display, so I have to keep the old Google Home around until that changes. Again, not Lenovo’s fault. But disappointing.

Since it’s initial release, the Lenovo Smart Display has benefited from a number of improvements, both to the underlying platform and to its own software. For example, you can use the Routines feature in Google Home to create scripts, of a sort, of multiple commands that all run when you give a single command (like “Hey Google, good morning”).

But the bigger change arrived around the same time as Google Hub, when Google updated both Google Home (the app) and the Smart Display dashboard in various ways. In doing so, it added my family’s favorite Smart Display feature: Support for Google Photos’ Live Albums feature.

Previous to this, the Smart Display’s ambient display—what it would display when you were not interacting with it directly—could be configured to display a full-screen clock, perhaps, Or a curated slideshow of artwork. Now, however, you can configure a Live Album in Google Photos that uses the search giant’s vaunted AI capabilities to collect photos that match some criteria—in this case, my family and our pets—and then keep it updated as new photos arrive. So our Smart Display has changed from being occasionally interesting in a passive way to being highly interesting to everyone.

Yes, I know. It’s “just” a digital photo frame. But it’s also more than that, and the differences are transformative. Because those photos are selected automatically by Google and are updated over time, there’s always a surprise. We as people may select whatever photos that we feel nicely represent some trip or event or person. But Google’s choices are a little different sometimes. And the photos it does show are both endearing—many of them are of our kids when they were younger—and a constant source of “oh, remember that”-type conversations. It’s just wonderful.

How much use you get out of the Smart Display will depend, of course, on how deeply invested you are in the Google ecosystem. That Live Photos thing, for example, won’t be of much use if you don’t have a lifetime of photos up in Google Photos. But assuming you have made this investment—and privacy concerns be damned, we have—the Lenovo Smart Display becomes sort of a no-brainer.

As noted, Lenovo makes two versions of this Smart Display, one with a 10-inch 1080p (1920 x 1080) display and one with an 8-inch 800p (1280 x 800) display. I strongly prefer the 10-inch version, thanks to its bigger size, of course. But also for its attractive bamboo design; the smaller version comes in a gray color only. The bigger unit also has more powerful speakers.

But you can’t go wrong with either. The 10-inch Lenovo Smart Display normally retails for $250, while the 8-inch version is $200. But like many Lenovo products, they are often on sale. So be sure to shop around.

The Lenovo Smart Display is highly recommended. It does so much more than what we’re using it for. But my family still loves it.

 

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