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Lenovo Smart Display Review: Yep, I’ll Take One

Lenovo Smart Display Review

Remember the Google Assistant-powered smart display devices that Google and its partners first unveiled way back at CES? The first options are starting to arrive now for purchase. Lenovo’s Smart Display arrives tomorrow, July 27, to be exact, and we’ve been playing with one for about a week now. Want to hear some thoughts on it?

Let’s do this. This is our Lenovo Smart Display review!

What is the Lenovo Smart Display?

To recap this device, you should know that it comes in both 8-inch and 10-inch models. The 8-inch version will cost $199.99 and the 10-inch will cost $249.99. I’ve been using the 10-inch model for this review.

The 8-inch Smart Display from Lenovo features a 1280×800 display, two passive tweeters and a 1.75″ 10 Watt speaker. The 10″ version has a display with a 1920×1200 resolution, two passive tweeters, and a 2″ 10 Watt speaker. Both devices also include the Snapdragon 624 Home Hub Platform, 5MP front camera for video calls (with privacy shutter), 2GB RAM, 4GB storage, 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.2, 2×2 dual array microphones, and a design that lets them sit horizontally or vertically. The 8-inch model comes in white with a grey back, while the bigger model has a bamboo back.

A smart display in general is a lot like a Google Home or other smart speaker with Google Assistant built-in, only it has a touch display for additional interactions. That means you can tell it to Cast video or music here and there by voice, have it tell you about your day and the weather, do conversions, answer questions, control your smart home, add items to your shopping list, set timers and alarms, and place calls. But where this becomes infinitely more exciting is in the display.

With that display, your smart home controls appear on the touch panel, so you can manually adjust your lights if you want. You can manually adjust your temperature too, tap on your favorite Spotify playlist, look at Google Photos albums, see the weather forecast, watch timers countdown, view traffic information, and Cast video to it rather than some place else.

To interact with a smart display, you can talk to it using the “Hey Google” or “OK Google” commands. You can interact by touch too, which means scrolling left to right to see more info or swiping from the left edge to make it go back a page or to its main home screen. Tapping on items will let you control them or show you more info as well.

Lenovo Smart Display Review

Is the Lenovo Smart Display any good?

As someone who tried and tried to find uses for an Amazon Echo Show for months, but ultimately gave up on it since Amazon could never make the display do much or work with enough services, I’m really enjoying this Lenovo Smart Display. In fact, I’m seriously tempted to buy one tomorrow when they go on sale because this is going to be tough to live without in my office.

Mini desk TV

Here’s what I like. I like it first and foremost as a media box in my office. Because these Google Assistant-powered smart displays are Cast targets, I can Cast anything to it! That means I can sit here working all day on my computer and Cast YouTube TV or Twitch or HBO or Google Play Movies or any other app with those capabilities (well, except for Netflix for now). That’s a huge enhancement for my office life, as someone who up until now has had to dedicate a tab in a Chrome window to media consumption.

So with this Lenovo Smart Display on my desk, I have a mini-TV in case I want to sit here being unproductive. But it adds a level of convenience that I didn’t previously have at a somewhat reasonable price.

Now, would this be great in my kitchen? Umm, I probably wouldn’t use it there much. I don’t want to watch TV on my kitchen counter because my living room TV is nearby and I have a Google Home unit in there to answer questions, do conversions, or set timers.

So that’s the deal with these smart displays – they need to be somewhere that you spend a lot of time or where you think you’ll be able to use the display. I’m not saying they wouldn’t be great for you in the kitchen or bathroom, because pulling up a recipe or your shopping list or favorite playlist or morning talkshow as you get ready in those areas does make a lot of sense, that’s just not where I see myself using one. Actually, now that I type that out, maybe it would be useful to have one in both the kitchen and bathroom?

Taking me through a day

When I’m not using it as a media box, it’s there to always show me the weather, a bunch of photo albums that I selected from my own Google Photos library, my upcoming flight information, and the current song that’s playing from Spotify. When this 95-degree heat in Portland starts murdering my pits in this office, I can ask it what the temperature is on my Nest and then reach over and adjust the temperature to cool things off. And then I can set a reminder on it to buy some cold-as-hell beer later, which it will visually remind me to do rather than through a dot, like it would on Google Home. Then when I’m done working, I’ll have it show me traffic nearby so that I can decide which store I’m going to buy that beer from. And when I sit back down to write up reviews in the middle of the night, I can pull up my backyard Nest camera to see which kind of bug just set off a motion detection.

You see where I’m going here? Of course I could ask a Google Home most of this stuff and get the information I need, but sometimes a visual within a touch panel makes it more precise, with less error or less confusion or less “HEY, GOOGLE!” It’s also just kind of nice to look at stuff.

Other goodies

This particular 10-inch unit gets quite loud when listening to music or watching video from any service. I like that it has a privacy shutter to block the camera, since I’m slowly turning into one of those people who constantly worries about privacy. It has a mute switch too and it looks pretty slick. The minimal white design, curved back with bamboo, and size fit nicely onto my desk with all of these other monitors and computer equipment. I could see it blending in nicely on a counter or bookshelf or just about any other spot around the house too. The display is good enough on this 10-inch version, with ample brightness and a proper, non-ridiculous color profile, which is important since it will be used to stare at photos or video.

And finally, I’d argue that the price is pretty decent. For one, both 8-inch ($199.99) and 10-inch ($249.99) models give you a bigger, better display than what you’ll find on an Amazon Echo Show. They are priced on each side of the Show ($229.99), yet I’ve found them to be far more useful in terms of having actual touch screen interactions. And they look like they were designed in 2018, where the Show has more of that 1995 bar room video poker vibe. They aren’t cheap, but they also aren’t priced much higher than some of the tablets you’ll find around either.

What’s not great about it?

Sound

My biggest gripe has to be with the speaker. While I’m no audiophile, I have not been impressed by the sound coming out of this unit. As I mentioned above, it gets plenty loud, but I’ve just found there to be no depth or richness to music that’s played. With hip hop, there is almost this vocal separation that pushes the beat into the background. With rock or pop, it improves some, but still sounds similarly.

Now, I’m comparing this to the Sonos Play:1 I have in my office, the desktop speakers I have, and the various other Google Home units throughout my house. It’s probably comparable to the regular Google Home, which isn’t exactly something to brag about. Like, it would be fine if you have no other speaker setup, just don’t expect to be blown away by the richest, crispest sound a speaker has ever produced.

No real portrait?

I’m also somewhat disappointed in the fact that this device doesn’t really work in both portrait or landscape modes. I thought that was initially the promise, but it really only flips to portrait when you use Duo to make a video call. That kind of sucks. The ability to flip the device upright makes it more flexible in spaces around your home and was a decent added bonus to the feature set. But yeah, it doesn’t work like that.

Software can improve

And the last thing I’d complain about is the software experience. It’s a good start for Google, where you can view a bunch of useful information, swipe between panels to get to more, and use your voice to call up others, but I’d love to see apps or services that can be pinned. So rather than having to ask about the temperature on my Nest or adjust smart lights, I’d love to just have Nest card or button to press to then manually adjust temperature or pull up a camera feed. It’d be great if I could reach over and adjust my lights without having to first ping the device with “Hey Google.” In fact, I think most features should just have a way to tap on them, almost like a launcher. Not all of us want to use that damn Google hotword every time we want to do something.

This device seems somewhat slow when you tap on cards too. For example, if I tap on Spotify or YouTube, it takes a good 3-4 seconds before it finally opens those services to let me choose options within them. And you can see it thinking during that time. My guess is that that’s an Android Things software issue that Google needs to improve. Either way, a performance boost after you tap on something would be great.

Should you pick-up a Lenovo Smart Display?

Like I said earlier, I’m more than likely going to buy the 10-inch version the minute it goes live. And I’m going to because I like it as a media box on my desk, but I also like the visual bits of information I can get from it while working that my Google Home units can’t provide. I’ll go with the 10-inch, because the lower resolution on the 8-inch model scares me, and because bigger is better or something, right?

With that said, we know that JBL, LG, and Sony are all making smart displays. There are bound to be countless others who make them too, including Google, who could show one off in October with new Pixel phones. I think this Lenovo is the best looking of the bunch we’ve seen so far, but that could change should Google drop its own version. If you like being an early adopter, though, this Lenovo Smart Display is pretty good.

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