Lenovo Smart Display Review: The Google Appliance

The basic idea behind the new Google-powered Smart Displays that are coming this summer is simple: take a Google Home smart speaker and put a screen on it, just like Amazon’s Echo Show. Really if that’s all you take away from this review, you’ve got the basics.

The 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 27th, priced at $199 for a model with an 8-inch screen and $249 for the model I tested, which has a 10-inch display.

There’s something more going on here than just a screen for the Google Assistant, though. These Smart Displays run Android Things, a newish operating system based on Android and designed for Internet of Things devices. That means Google has a new canvas for its virtual Assistant to work with, unencumbered with the need to support any of the cruft that would come along with running full Android or Chrome.

With that blank slate comes an opportunity for Google to make exactly the thing it wants to make. And the result is something I wasn’t really expecting: a Google appliance.

As a piece of hardware, Lenovo’s take on the Smart Display is elegant — especially when compared to the Echo Show. It has a large, flat screen that sits to the right of a white speaker grille. It’s thin across most of the screen, with the back curving out behind the speaker. The larger, more expensive version has bamboo on the back, while the smaller one has a much more boring gray plastic.

It’s designed to work sitting horizontally, but Lenovo put rubber feet on the end so it can sit vertically. Well, the hardware can, but the software hasn’t been designed to work when the Smart Display is in portrait mode (except for Duo video calls), which is a bummer. This thing would be much more likely to fit on my crowded kitchen counter if I could stand it 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 passable at best — about on par with the Google Home or entry-level Amazon Echo. It can get plenty loud at max volume, but also plenty distorted. It’s fine as a smart speaker for basic stuff, but nowhere near as good as a Sonos One or HomePod.

The touchscreen display is visible even in direct sunlight but doesn’t overwhelm the room in the dark — it has a large brightness range, basically, and good auto-brightness settings. But oddly enough, my favorite feature isn’t the screen, it’s the little hardware switch that moves a shutter to block out the 5-megapixel wide-angle camera. It’s true that Google Duo doesn’t support the disconcerting “Drop In” feature like the Echo Show and Spot, but I still feel more comfortable putting a smart speaker in my bedroom or bathroom if I know the camera is covered.

There are just two microphones for recognizing your voice, but they seem to do their job quite well until you crank the music volume up to the max. 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 seemed to have a slightly harder time identifying my voice than the Google Home did, but only by a little.

If you’ve ever used a Google Home or Google Home Mini, the new Lenovo Smart Display will feel very similar. Setup works by using the Google Home app on your phone, which will walk you through the standard steps of connecting to Wi-Fi and your Google account.

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