Editors’ note, Jan. 27, 2019: Google rolled out a new home control screen for the Lenovo Smart Display and the landscape is getting more competitive with the Google Home Hub and other smart displays hitting stores. This review has been updated accordingly.
The Lenovo Smart Display is essentially the same great gadget we first reviewed in July 2018, and all of its changes have been for the better. It responds to voice commands via Google Assistant, and shows relevant info on its touchscreen using a trimmed-down Android operating system called Android Things. As Google has updated what Google Assistant can do with smart displays, the Lenovo Smart Display’s list of features has gotten more robust.
As before, you can issue any of the voice commands you could give to an ordinary Google Home ($99 at Walmart) smart speaker. You’ll still see extra, helpful info on a number of searches. Ask about the weather and you’ll see the forecast. Check for places to eat and you’ll see nearby restaurant pics and hours. You can also use the screen to watch videos on YouTube. You can make video calls. You can check your calendar, browse family pics or let Google Assistant talk you through the detailed steps of a recipe as you cook.
While all of this functionality remains intact, you can now swipe down from the top of the screen to access a well-organized smart home control panel. You can set an automatically updating album of family photos as your ambient mode screensaver. You can see recommendations for recipes based on the season and you’ll soon be able to save your favorites to a cookbook. In time, you’ll even be able to use the Lenovo Smart Display as an interpreter to talk to someone who speaks a different language.
As a result, the Lenovo Smart Display is better than ever, but I would no longer recommend it as widely as I did in July. At the time, it didn’t have much competition outside of the clunky first-gen Amazon Echo Show. Now, Amazon has a second-generation Echo Show that’s much better, and you can find several other smart displays with Google Assistant built in, including one from Google itself called the Google Home Hub that costs less than the Lenovo display.
Nevertheless, the Lenovo Smart Display is still the most stylish of the bunch, especially the $250 model with a 10-inch touchscreen and a bamboo back. The $200 8-inch model with a gray back isn’t as striking, but it’s just as competent. Overall, Google’s smart displays still handle multitasking and cooking better than the Echo Show. The $150 Google Home Hub is the best choice if you’re budget-minded and looking for something cute. The $250 JBL Link View ($150 at Best Buy) has the best sound quality. Go with the Lenovo Smart Display if you want a model that’s well-rounded and feels like a premium gadget meant for a stylish kitchen.
Read more: The Lenovo Smart Clock review
Lenovo Smart Display gives Google Home a helpful touchscreen
What can the Lenovo Smart Display do?
Thanks to the built-in Google Assistant UI, the Lenovo Smart Display offers the same breadth of voice-controlled features as a Google Home speaker. Say the wake words “Hey, Google” or “OK, Google” followed by a command or a question and Google Assistant will respond. You can play music, listen to a podcast or the radio, look up the meaning of a word, add something to your shopping list, buy something from Google Express and control more than 10,000 different smart home devices.
Like Amazon’s assistant Alexa, Google Assistant has an extensive list of features and capabilities. I won’t go into every voice-powered feature, but you can catch up with everything you need to know about Google Home and Google Assistant here.
Google Assistant 101: Get to know Google’s voice-activated helper
Getting started with your smart display
Instead of running the full Android operating system, the Lenovo Smart Display uses Android Things. Android Things is a simplified version of Google’s Android mobile OS meant to power smart home devices. On the Lenovo Smart Display, Android Things runs a customized version of Google Assistant tailored to a medium-distance user experience.
Ask a question, and the Lenovo Smart Display shows info in a large-enough format that you can read it from across the room. You can’t download apps, pull up a browser window, compose an email or type in any sense. The touchscreen is meant more as a complement to the voice assistant than as a robust computing interface. It’s not as feature-rich as a tablet, but the Lenovo Smart Display is less expensive than most cutting-edge tablets. It also includes better speakers, a more finely tuned microphone and the customized Google Assistant experience that makes it better suited to providing info at a glance from a distance.
Plug in the Lenovo Smart Display and it prompts you to go through the setup process using the Google Home app. You can assign the Smart Display to any rooms you’ve already established in the app, and it’s smart enough to take multiple Google Home speakers into account if you already own a few. If more than one speaker hears you issue a voice command, they can determine which one you’re closest to, so only that one responds to you.
Among other customizations, you can use the app to adjust the ambient display that pops on the screen when you’re not using it. I liked the old-fashioned clock, but you can also show personal photos from your photo album, Facebook photos or scenic stock photos. You can add the time and current weather to any of the ambient screens.
A recent update allows Google’s AI to curate an album of recent photos for you for the ambient mode, and the feature works quite well. You can tell the display to show pictures of your kids, for example, and it will find the best ones in your Google Photos album. Better yet, if you take more, Google will automatically add them to the mix.
Once you’re set up, you’ll need to start most functions with a voice command, but you can also touch the screen or ask follow-up questions to get more information. The screen comes in handy for general searches, checking the forecast, shopping, finding nutrition facts and more.
Add voice recognition as you would on any Google Home speaker, and you can enable personal info on the screen. You can then edit your calendar and add reminders. Say a command, and you’ll see a small box appear at the top of the screen that shows the words it hears as you talk. That kind of visual feedback is useful for telling you which words Google might not have heard correctly.
You’ll need to keep the screen positioned horizontally most of the time, but you can flip it vertically when you’re making a video call. You can call businesses or any of your contacts with a voice command and if they have Google Duo (which is a free app on iOS and Android), you can have a video chat. As you’d expect, your reception on the video call will vary based on the strength of your Wi-Fi signal. With a decent signal on both ends, I was able to consistently have a clear conversation, though the picture wasn’t always crisp.
You can also scroll through and watch videos on YouTube, YouTube TV, HBO Now, Google Play Movies & TV and Crackle. You can ask for the news and customize your news feed. Some news sources include videos as well. The HD screen fares best when watching videos. Movie trailers from YouTube looked and sounded particularly great.
You can buy the Lenovo Smart Display now. You’ll find it in major electronics retailers such as Best Buy and Walmart. Again, the model with the 10-inch screen and bamboo finish costs $250, while the 8-inch gray model is $200.
Both products are US-only for now, but given the way Google’s gradually expanded the territory of Google Home, I’d expect both to be available overseas before long. The US price for the 10-inch version converts to roughly £180 or AU$315, but we’ll update when we have real prices.
A great sous-chef
The biggest reason I liked the Lenovo Smart Display over the original Echo Show was its prowess in the kitchen, and that advantage holds even though the second-generation Show made significant strides in this area. Alexa and the Show can search recipes and display the details, but the Lenovo Smart Display can walk you through the whole process step by step, so you can actually rely on it to provide meaningful help while you cook.
In a neat touch, you can search for a recipe on your phone and send it to your display when you find one you like. If your Android phone has Google Assistant built in, you’ll see a “Send to Google Home” button beneath certain compatible recipes. Press it and you can ask Google Assistant on your smart display to start the recipe and you’re up and running. The functionality even works on iPhones if you download the Google Assistant app.
You can also search for a recipe with your voice on the Smart Display itself and scroll through your options for a wide variety of meals. Pick one and it shows you an overview with all of the necessary steps and ingredients. A big “start recipe” button sits at the bottom of the screen for you to tap when ready, or you can get rolling with a voice command.
Google Assistant walks you through each ingredient one by one both by voice and text, and you can skip forward at any time. Once you’re looking at the directions, the ingredient list stays on the right side of the screen, and the Smart Display keeps this screen active while you work without reverting to your ambient or home screen.
The recipe mode has a bunch of cool extras. You can scroll through directions with a touch, then say, “Hey, Google, next step” and it will advance based on where you stopped scrolling, instead of reverting to where you were when you last gave it a voice command. If a step asks you to add an ingredient, you can double-check how much you need in the panel on the right, or just ask and Google Assistant will know what you’re referring to and answer.
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