So-called smart speakers became the darling of every big tech company in the last three years, with Amazon, Google, and Apple all trying to push their digital assistants as a complementary and indispensable part of their locked-in ecosystems. Incremental advancement continues, and the Assistant-powered responses to Amazon's trailblazing, screen-equipped Echo Show have started to land, the first one being this: Lenovo's Smart Display. And far from just being an interesting first try, Google's Assistant on a screen has already become an indispensable part of my home, especially in the kitchen. 

The Google Home and Home Mini have operated like decentralized, Assistant-powered satellites. Each one is self-contained without any real remote management outside the Home app. Lenovo's Smart Display doesn't really change that. At its most basic, this is still just another Assistant-powered device, but the addition of a screen brings a lot of new, exclusive functionality.

That means you probably won't be replacing all your Google Homes with these new screen-equipped models, but you really don't need to.

Specs

Display IPS, 8": 1280x800, 10": 1920x1200
Speakers 8": 1.75" 10W + 2 passive tweeters, 10": 2" 10W + 2 passive tweeters
Microphone 2x2 dual microphone arrays
Front-facing camera 5MP wide-angle, 720p video
SoC Qualcomm Home Hub Platform (Snapdragon 624)
Controls Microphone mute switch, camera shutter, volume
Dimensions 8": 142.21 x 263.21 x 12.5-111.36mm, 10": 173.87x 311.37x 12.5-136.02mm
Weight 8": 1 kg (2.2 lbs), 10": 1.2 kg (2.6 lbs)
Connectivity Bluetooth LE 4.2, 2x2 MIMO 2.4GHz & 5GHz Wi-Fi 802.11ac
Price 8": $200, 10": $250

The Good

Display High-resolution, bright, quality screen.
Design It looks good, and the bamboo is right at home in modern decor.
Recipes The best cooking assistant I've ever had, the step-by-step verbal instructions make it a lot easier to whip something up at the end of the day.
(Mostly) same Assistant features Does pretty much everything you'd expect from a smart speaker, with touchscreen benefits.
Cast target Replaces your kitchen TV, too—unless you still watch cable.

The Not So Good

Sound Gets loud enough, but quality doesn't compare to display-less smart speakers at the same price point. Don't buy it for the sound quality.
No grouped audio Can't pair it with other speakers for a louder experience.
Functionality differences Compared to using an Assistant-powered speaker, I've noticed some commands don't seem to work quite so well or as regularly, though future updates could fix/change that.
Touchscreen Needs more and better touch functionality in services.
Some app omissions Can't receive cast content from Netflix.
Browser Although it might kill the simplicity, I'd like to see a full browser available.

Our review is of the 10" Smart Display, and though many of the features are likely to be the same between the 10" and the 8" models, this review was written having exclusively used the larger device.

Design and hardware

The 10" Smart Display is made mostly of white, matte-finish plastic and a bamboo laminate back. So far as I can tell, it's real bamboo in a reasonable thickness—at least, thick enough that you can't see any material behind or through it—and it seems durable. The smaller 8" model doesn't get the bamboo treatment, instead receiving the same matte plastic all over (though it is cheaper).

The front of the Smart Display is tilted back, with the screen set at around a 70° angle. It stands on three rubber feet, supported by a pyramidal projection out the back on the left side, behind the speaker. That projection also serves as a three-footed base if the Smart Display is rotated to stand in portrait. Near the furthest apex of that projection is the barrel-connector power input jack.

The bamboo laminate is attractive, and having all physical controls near one corner is convenient.

The screen has blacked-out glass bezel, with a camera embedded on the top right (in landscape). To the left is a roughly 2" by 6" white perforated plastic speaker grille. The top edge has two mics, volume controls, and a microphone switch, all cramped together on the right. The right edge has a privacy shutter for the camera and two more mics.

The shutter is great for those that are a bit more privacy-conscious (or merely paranoid).

Both the speaker’s output and the microphones are highly directional. Other smart speakers like the Google Home or Sony’s LF-S50G offer both omnidirectional sound and microphone input, making them perfect for use in, say, the middle of a room or on a shelf/cutout between two or more spaces. They'll hear you pretty much independently of where you're positioned. Lenovo’s Smart Display doesn’t offer that same convenience—not that it really needs to. After all, it has a screen. You’re supposed to interact with it from the business end. Just don’t expect to be able to pass commands from too far behind it. Mine was unable to hear me more than 3-4 feet away in the opposite direction, so I couldn't reliably use it from the window between my living room and kitchen. 

When you turn out the lights, the Smart Display follows suit, turning off the ambient display and switching to a basic clock at minimum brightness. In this mode the screen is able to get so dim that the typical IPS backlight glow/bloom present at extreme angles and corners—most noticeable with darker content—isn't even visible. All you see is the faint white clock.

There's a Smart Display there, I assure you.

I also noticed the screen would dim to black when I just wasn't around, but the behavior wasn't super consistent (and I wasn't always around to witness it). Walking in front of the Smart Display at those times would wake the device.

My biggest hardware gripe is that there isn't a switch or button for cleaning mode. As I see it, this device is pretty ideal for use in the kitchen, but wiping it down to clean off the screen after a bout of especially violent man vs. frying pan results in a lot of unintended swipes and touches. It's best to just unplug it entirely when you wipe it down, which is a little inconvenient.

Setup and configuration

The configuration process, overall, is basically the same as any other Google Assistant hardware. If you've set up a Google Home, it won't offer any surprises. In fact, most of the same features are present between Home hardware and the Smart Display, so the same tips and tricks apply.

  

For those features that are different, you get a detailed intro video during setup. It explains a range of subjects from routines and the ambient modes to the different ways of adjusting settings via the screen.

 

Now-like feed (left), brightness and volume settings (right).

Overall, navigating around the Smart Display is intuitive. A swipe from the left edge is the “back” button equivalent. Tap anywhere on the screen to pull up a sort of old-school, side-scrolling Google Now-type feed with stuff like upcoming events from your calendar, weather, and ongoing widgets for audio playback, timers, etc. Swipe up from the bottom to pull up brightness and volume settings.

Features

The ambient display settings have a range of options from art backdrops to your own photos, or even just a clock in a variety of tasteful but simple designs. Some of the ambient display modes look and behave a lot like a Chromecast does at idle, feeding you a steady stream of images in the selected category, with a clock and local weather at the bottom left, and information about the current content at the bottom right.

Cast target for Twitch, but not Netflix (for some reason).

The Smart Display is also a cast target, so you can easily turn on YouTube, Twitch, etc. in the kitchen while you are cooking. Whether you'd like to catch up on your favorite series while you make dinner for the kids, follow along with a cooking video, or just watch your favorite esports, you can. It's also compatible directly or via Cast with YouTube Music, YouTube TV, Pandora, Google Podcasts, and even Google Play Books. 

In a strange twist, Netflix doesn't seem to be able to cast content to the Smart Display yet. It doesn't appear as a cast target and commands to open content in it fail, but I assume that should be fixed in the future. It's also possible Google or Netflix has something else in mind for the future, like an entire touch interface for Netflix on these new Assistant displays. 

Perhaps not the most useful result when asking the Smart Display to "Show me a world map."

One of the more significant omissions is the lack of a browser equivalent for plugging feature gaps between existing services and data sources. You can kind of perform a general search on Google, but it's very limited. There are few visual results, and they're often just some tiny, random image pulled from Wikipedia as the Assistant rambles the first few lines of the entry. If the query can't be answered or explained in a verbal response by Google's Assistant via the Knowledge Graph, the best you can hope for is a useful thumbnail squished into the corner.

Worse, if you ask for, say, an image of a world map, it won't even try to pull from anywhere but your Google Photo library (although Rita assures me the Assistant can pull general image search results on her phone, all of my hardware defaults to my Google Photos results regardless of how I state the query). So not only do you still have to be careful in how you phrase things in a way that isn't immediately intuitive for someone not familiar with the Assistant, the best-case-scenario result isn't that good.

Like on other hardware, the Assistant is, at least, verbally clear that it isn't able to answer those queries in any useful way, though. If it finds a page on a site that it thinks is relevant, it will occasionally ask to send it to your phone, or at least it did for me. Even so, they never seemed to arrive on my devices. I'm not sure if this behavior is different from the existing functionality which already allowed for certain types of queries related to weather, news, or movie info to be sent to your phone, which did work for me.

Video Calls

The Smart Display has a screen, a camera, and support for Google's Duo, so that means you can use it for video calls.

Corbin says "hi."

Call quality in both directions seemed reasonable enough. The local camera is about on-par with the mediocre webcams used in most laptops these days. It's nothing special, but the quality isn't offensive. Video quality will, of course, be subject to the hardware in use at the other end and your connection speeds, but if your partner has a decent phone and you've got the bandwidth, you should be fine. I didn't experience any quality issues during my time with it.

Recipes

Personally, the thing about the Smart Display that I most enjoy are the recipes. Ask Google for pretty much anything from pesto to pancakes, and it'll show you a sizable menu seemingly scraped from the web.

Unfortunately, some of our favorite places to get recipes here at AP seem to be missing. David has professed that he couldn't live without his NYT Cooking subscription, and sources like that aren't present so far as we can tell. You might think: "No problem, I'll just navigate to my preferred recipes in a browser," but, as previously mentioned, that isn't really possible either.

 

Prep (left) and ingredients (right) stages in the cooking walkthrough.

Once you've found a recipe you dig, select it, and you'll get a scrollable overview of the steps involved. Personally, I'd really enjoy having a shortcut to add the items required to a shopping list in, say, Google Keep, for a convenient trip to the grocery store, but you can't have everything. Ostensibly you can still add items to your shopping list in Google Express, but given the limited selection perishable selection offered even in a major metropolitan area like Boston, that's of precisely no use to me. (And I will continue to complain about the lack of shopping list support in the Assistant via Keep until I get it.)

When you're ready, tap the "Start Cooking" button, and you're off. Step by step guidance is provided verbally, and you advance down through the process or navigate back to a previous step all with your voice (or touch, if you prefer). For easy reference, written instructions are also visible at all times.

Step-by-step recipe guides.

Don't understand what it means to "cream the sugar" when a recipe calls for it? No problem. You can just ask Google right in the middle of cooking what a term might mean and get an answer. Once everything's been illuminated, you can navigate back to the cooking process via either a side-swipe or your voice commands, and quickly get back to the step you were on. If an instruction calls for setting a timer, it'll even offer to set one for you, which is incredibly convenient.

In my opinion, if you spend a lot of time in the kitchen, this feature by itself should put the Smart Display on your radar. I didn't know how much I wanted or would use this recipe functionality until I had it, and I really don't want to give it up.

Smart Home

Detailed smart home-related coverage for the Smart Display will be coming in a future post—I'm not as heavily invested into the ecosystem of security cameras, thermostats, or smart lights as the other folks here at Android Police are. But I do have a couple of devices.

My cheap lights are only binary, but other more expensive models will have additional options. 

Hardware-specific issues aside (Wemo/Belkin suck and only one of my outlets will show up for the Assistant after hours spent slogging through the worst setup process of my life) it works pretty much as it does on a Google Home, with the benefit of visual toggles. If you have a Nest thermostat, you should get a visual indicator for temperature, and on supported smart lights, things like color and brightness can also be independently controlled.

Third party integration via the Actions on Google platform doesn't seem to be different compared to my Home hardware. None of the services I tried had any new functionality. Things like Harmony could definitely use a touchscreen for added remote control functionality, but it probably won't happen until Logitech/Harmony becomes a direct control partner—which has been promised for months.

Drawbacks

I do have a few lamentations, though. Volume control granularity for the Smart Display is very low. It's a 1-10 scale, and often I wished I could set it between options. There's also no scrollbar or other visual indicators when browsing horizontal or vertical lists, so you can't tell how far up or down you might be. In some places, like the one-tap overview screen, that's not really a big deal, but when you're browsing a list of recipes, it would be nice to know how many options there are in some way. 

The touchscreen, though useful, also feels a bit like an afterthought, or a minimum-effort attempt to integrate a new controls scheme. With 8-10" of touch available, I'd like it if more than 2-5 interactive elements could be used at a time. Some type of browser might also be genuinely handy for pulling up information that the Assistant and Google can't parse via the Knowledge Graph.

Sound

Sound quality on Lenovo's Smart Display isn't amazing. You've got 10W advertised power off a single active woofer (plus two "passive tweeters," as Lenovo calls them). Although Google doesn't specify the wattage driving the Google Home, it's probably closer to 15-18W, and sound quality is much better.

There was a bit of distortion in specific genres, like harsher electronic-heavy music, and more generally at louder volumes. It's difficult to describe, but I also noticed some weirdness/darkness when it comes to volume consistency. Mids had a tendency to fall in volume when the bass punched, but not always, and I'm honestly not sure what to call that.

At first, you might think that audio performance isn't the biggest concern, but, in a roundabout way, it is. Turns out, the Smart Display can't be pulled into a group for audio, so it can't be supplemented by a stronger speaker.

In my opinion, that isn't really a big deal. The screen and its additional functionality are the real selling points, but be sure to keep the lack of grouping in mind.

Should you buy one?

Yes. With very few reservations, I can easily recommend Lenovo's Smart Display to anyone that can afford it. As a kitchen appliance, it's precisely the sort of thing you can't live without once you've used it. Anything I'd actively miss has proved its worth. I live in the city, and I don't have a lot of space, so plenty of stuff doesn't make the cut, but this emphatically does. The convenience of voice-controlled step-by-step recipes with accompanying text obviates the use of a tablet, phone, or Chromebook while cooking. Paired with cast support, it's the ideal cord-cutting kitchen screen, period.

That isn't to say it's perfect. With a design that allows for portrait or landscape positioning, it's too bad it can't actually do anything in portrait outside of calls. I'd like to see everything, from the ambient display to the Now-style feed and other baked-in services, support a portrait layout.

I'd also appreciate if Google was able to add a bit more touch functionality to the various services so the benefits of a touchscreen can be better harnessed. The bolted-on feeling of the touchscreen is all that prevents the Smart Display from earning our "Most Wanted" accolade. For the price ($200-$250), audio quality also isn't that great, but when you consider that it has a big, high-resolution IPS display and a Snapdragon 624 powering things, I do think it's justified—though it would still be better if it supported grouped audio.

Why buy?

  • Hate getting a phone or tablet dirty when following recipes? This gives hands-free instructions with visual accompaniment.
  • If you already have and love your Assistant-powered speaker, but wish it had a screen.
  • Kitchen TV and digital assistant 2-in-1, if you're willing to only watch casted content.
  • If you're heavily invested in the Google/Assistant ecosystem with accessories like Nest home cameras, it's the perfect center of home operations.

Why not?

  • The price might be a bit steep for some.
  • Less functionality than you get in a Chromebook or tablet.
  • For the price, sound isn't that great.

You can pre-order/purchase the Smart Display at the retailers below: