Lenovo smart display review a google assistant speaker with a screen – the verge

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.

The card that shows up on the homescreen can change depending on context. If you were just watching a video or listening to music, the card for that activity will be first. If you have an upcoming meeting, the calendar card might be shown first. If you’re worried about people in your household seeing your stuff, the phone app lets you not display that information by default.

As with other Google Home devices, you can set it up to recognize different voices that are attached to different Google accounts, so people in your family can get their personal information. But the display will default to showing information from the primary account. And as with other Google Home devices, getting it to work with your work information is a pain. You will need to somehow get your work calendar synced over to your personal calendar, for example.

Swiping in from the left edge serves as a back button if you don’t want to say “Hey Google, go home” out loud. Swiping up from the bottom lets you adjust the brightness. There are other nice functions: you can make traditional phone calls, though when you dial out it shows up as an unknown number to your recipient. Duo calls worked well in our test, though sometimes the Smart Display was a little aggressive about calling via Duo when I just wanted to a plain old telephone call.

Beyond the basics, the most fascinating thing about adding a display to the Google Assistant is that Google is it taking that as an opportunity to evolve how it answers questions. To take the most obvious example: if you ask a how-to question like “How do I darn socks?” you’re likely to get a YouTube video instead of a snippet from a website.

I really like what happens when you ask for a recipe. Google returns a bunch of possible results pulled from the web, but then re-formats them for this display. You get step-by-step instructions that stay on the screen until you’re ready for the next part of the instructions. It’s so clever that I immediately wished that I could import my own recipes into the system instead of just using what’s out there on the web.

Here’s another, more illuminating example: I wanted to test web image search, so I said “Hey Google, show me pictures of otters.” Google came back with a jigsaw puzzle of an otter I put together on a lazy cabin Saturday; I had taken a photo of the almost-finished work to decry the one missing piece. So I asked “when was this photo taken” and Google knew the answer — because it was stored in the metadata for my own picture.

There are two themes to point out in these examples. The first is that Google is trying to be more creative in how it delivers answers than before, pulling in multimedia sources both from the web and from my own personal information. You sort of never really know when you’re going to get a response that’s more immersive or personalized when you ask the question.

The second theme? Good golly this thing is tightly integrated into the Google ecosystem. It grabs YouTube videos. It uses Google’s web snippets. It serves as an amazing kitchen TV if you’re a YouTube TV subscriber. It knows what my reminders are and where my wedding was. It’s very much a device that aspires to give you answers instead of web links.

That’s not to say that it is completely a walled Google garden. Third-party services do show up here. You can set your default music player to Spotify or one of Google’s music services; it also directly supports some video services like HBO Now, CNN, and Fox News. If you want another video service however, you’ll need to go to your phone and hunt down the Google Cast button. Unfortunately (and weirdly), not all video services can Cast to this device — Android Central has a list of what does and doesn’t work (Netflix doesn’t). It also supports the same suite of Google Actions that the Google Home does — and third party developers will be able to create on-screen experiences in time.