Smart speakers began a voice-controlled revolution, but don't be fooled: the screen is far from dead. Smart speakers with displays are the new trend, and they're only getting better.
Coming in all shapes and sizes with the likes of Amazon Alexa and the Google Assistant built in; the best smart displays range from the glorified docked tablet to retro television sets. The display-based smart speakers are the ideal gadget to place in your kitchen or hallway.
Why? Well, while they're equally competent as their screen-less counterparts in handling voice commands, you'll also be able to view a feed from your security camera, watch instructional cooking videos or make video calls to friends. Plus, there are those times (like getting movie showtimes or the week's weather forecast) where visual information is just... better.
This is all well and good, obviously, but every smart display offers slightly different specialties - and some are naturally better than others. That's why we're here to give you a snapshot view of the very best on offer in 2021.
And, to be clear, we're including all smart speakers with screens in this list, not just those from the Google Smart Displays range, so there's also details on the Amazon Echo Show range and Facebook's, surprisingly not bad at all, Portal devices.
So, if you want an Alexa display or one of the Google Smart Display line-up, read on to find out all about them.
Jump to the information you need
- The best Alexa smart display speaker
- The best Google Assistant smart display
- Smart display that's best for music
- The best smart display alarm clock
- The best smart speaker for video calling
- Google Nest Hub and Amazon Echo alternatives
Amazon's latest flagship smart display has been given a serious upgrade over the original generation, and the subsequent various-sized sequels... and now Alexa has got the moves.
With a brushless motor packed into the base of the Show 10, powered by Amazon's new AZ1 neural processor, the Show 10 can pan, tilt and zoom. It is super useful for some things and, well, a bit weird at times too.
Essentially, Alexa follows you around a room while it's active. If you ask it something, or give it a smart home command it will turn to face you when it answers. It then stays alert to the point where it will follow you as you walk around a room for a little while after that initial interaction.
You can turn off the motion tracking, using your voice, the device itself or the Alexa app if it bothers you. But it is really useful for one of the Echo Show 10's other key USPs: being a smart security camera.
In the Alexa app, you can switch on the camera and view crisp footage from the Show's 13MP camera. You can also move the camera around to see what's going on in your house.
People won't be tracked without them knowing - the Echo Show 10 presents a warning that someone is watching the feed from an app.
Like the Echo Plus and 4th-gen Echo, the Show 10 is able to act as a smart home controller, with the built-in Zigbee chip letting it connect to other connected smart home gadgets (such as lights, plugs and cameras) aligned with the wireless protocol - all without the need to plug in yet another hub.
The experience still isn't totally fluid, and trying to figure out which skills are designed to work with the Show is still a hassle, but this is a great device to make the 'main' hub of your smart home. Sound is respectable, the 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800 screen is good enough for most things and, at the end of the day, this is still Alexa running the show.
The speakers also make it a strong music player in larger rooms and the screen is great for TV shows or and there's a camera for video calling.
Also consider: The Show now comes in all shapes and sizes; so - depending on where you're going to put it - you might want to consider either the Echo Show 8 or the Echo Show 5. The clue is in the name for the display size on these Show alternatives.
$99.99 | google.com
Going live in March 2021, Google's 2nd-gen Nest Hub features the same camera-less, 7-inch form-factor as the original but sports a few design refinements, plus new colors.
Packing a revamped chip for a faster Google Assistant Assistant (the same silicone found in the latest Google Nest Mini), a third mic for better listening, and 50% more bass for music listening, the 2021 Nest Hub also has a temperature sensor, and Google's Soli gesture technology inside its diminutive design.
Soli is a radar-based gesture recognition system that, on the Nest Hub, allows you to tap the air to pause and resume media on the device.
It also enables the device's sleep sensing capabilities, able to monitor chest rise and fall unobtrusively and - crucially for a bedroom.
The new Nest Hub lets you control your smart home from its touchscreen, activate Google Assistant, play music, watch videos, or use it as a digital photo frame.
It's also capable of being a Thread border router in your smart home set up - the same capability as Apple's HomePod Mini... although Google tells us the Thread radio on the device is not yet activated.
Instead it's "Thread//CHiP ready," and will presumably fire up once the CHiP protocol is widely available.
Read our full Nest Hub 2nd-gen review
Also consider: Explore the Nest Home Max, the bigger sibling of Nest Hub that also features a camera and packs in a much meatier audio punch.
One of the first Google-powered Smart Displays to launch, the JBL Link View looks strikingly similar to a TV from the 60s - only, y'know, with a bigger emphasis on sound, with two speakers either side and a passive radiator sitting at the back.
And really, it's the booming sound and built-in Chromecast support that are the high points of the Link View, since the 8-inch screen is tough to view at different angles and unimpressive in resolution when compared to rivals.
If you're looking for the best smart display for sound, and you just want the display part as an added bonus, the Link View has to be a consideration.
The JBL Link View is a visual smart speaker that focuses on great audio ‚Äď and it certainly delivers in that department. It's a deep, rich, bass-heavy sound that makes music and movie trailer listening a treat.
However, its bad viewing angles make for a less wonderful visual experience. Android Things is a good start on a visual Google Assistant, but it still feels undercooked and has a long way to go.
Also consider: If sound is really important to you then, perhaps, you should look at a smart speaker without a display, from the likes of Apple or Sonos.
Lenovo's Smart Clock is the perfect fit for your bedside table. The 80mm x 114mm x 80mm size means it doesn't take up too much room, and the 4-inch, 480 x 800, LCD screen is crisp enough for pretty much everything this clock has to offer.
Running on the same Android Things platform as its sibling Google Assistant Smart Displays, things have been stripped back a touch for the smaller form factor. There's no Home View, for example, the best way to control your home is very much through the voice assistance and not the screen with the Smart Clock.
It also can't play videos from the likes of YouTube, call people on Duo or guide you with recipes, either, though, to us, this actually makes sense; we probably don't need another screen in the bedroom distracting us in the morning and evening
Where it does excel is in the bedroom. The display's brightness will dim and illuminate based on its surroundings, thanks to the ambient light sensor, and you can even tap the top of the device to snooze or stop the alarm in the morning. They're little touches that actually make a big difference to this feeling like a standard alarm clock, and not just a smart display in smaller clothing.
You can also replace your phone's plug and use the clock's built-in USB cable to power your phone. Located on the back, too, is a switch to turn the microphone off and there's no camera to worry about, either. A big plus in the bedroom.
Also consider: The obvious rival here is Amazon's Echo Show Spot and, if you're firmly in camp Alexa, that's also a great bedside table companion.
Facebook's first generation Portal (and Portal Plus) came at a terrible time for the company and, by all accounts, sold pretty poorly. And, while we don't yet know how the latest models will perform in the market, we do know that they are pretty solid devices; especially with that WhatsApp integration and enhanced video calling features.
The latest Portal and Portal Mini models have a similar design, but in 10-inch and 8-inch sizes respectively. Both look like a digital photo frame, with a nice sharp 1280 x 800 pixel resolution, and when you‚Äôre not using the Portal that‚Äôs exactly what they'll be, scrolling through stock pictures or your own library of pictures from Facebook and Instagram, if you allow the Portal to have access.
For video calling the speakers are great but for music they‚Äôre tinny and less impressive than the Google Nest Hub Max or the Echo Show. Does this matter? Chances are you‚Äôre buying this because you want a Facebook/WhatsApp calling device and not because you want a new stereo system.
Video calls are helped thanks to the Portals boasting a 114-degree field of view and Facebook's clever tech that keeps you in frame as you move around the room, panning and scanning your position. You can have a maximum of eight participants on Messenger or four on a WhatsApp video call.
Surprisingly, Alexa is on board too. You‚Äôll be prompted to connect your Alexa account during the setup process, and once connected you‚Äôll be able to control your gadgets as you would on an Echo.
Also consider: There are no real rival to the specific USPs of the Portal; but you may want to check out the older Portal Plus, or the TV-accessory Portal TV.
The smart display speakers listed above are our current favorites, but there are also a bunch of other devices you might want to consider.
Lenovo is by far the most prolific player in Google's Smart Display family. Not only is there the Smart Clock we already covered but there's also 7-inch, 8-inch and 10-inch Smart Display models, as well as the 10.2-inch Yoga Smart Tab; an Android tablet that comes with a kickstand and the Assistant built in to answer commands and offer hands-free control.
Lenovo also has the Alexa-flavored Lenovo Smart Tab on offer too; a 2-in-1 Android tablet that also doubles up as an Echo Show Mode smart speaker (pictured above).
Actually, there's two models the P10 and the M10 - with the latter being slightly better thanks to increased storage capacity (64GB as opposed to 32GB), an extra GB of RAM, a dual-glass design, a fingerprint sensor and a couple of extra Dolby Atmos speakers.
LG's effort - the Xboom AI ThinQ WK9 - can probably be ignored unless you manage to find it at a bargain price. It was announced an age ago and has since been well and truly trumped.
Archos' Hello range is also one to, probably, steer clear of; although it is a cheaper option. It comes in three shapes and sizes although the big caveat here is that they are all, essentially, Android tablets baked into smart speaker form factors.
Amazon Echo Show: Need to know
When the original Amazon Echo Show launched a few years back, it became the first Alexa speaker to feature a screen - but it wasn't the best looking, nor did it offer the friendliest integrations.
As part of its 2018 refresh, Amazon announced a second generation Show, that brings an all-new design and an ability to act as a Zigbee smart home hub.
Since then we've seen a multitude of Echo Show devices go live - of varying shapes and sizes - but they all do essentially the same thing.
We'll dive into all the details below, but the basic advantages of the Show over standard speakers is obvious. With a screen, the Amazon Echo Show can do things the other Echo devices can't. All of a sudden, you don't have to just listen to Alexa's responses, you can see them. And the ecosystem of visual Amazon Echo Show Skills is growing by the week.
The Echo Show, as we say, is essentially an Echo with a touchscreen display.
You also don't exactly need an Echo Show to have an Echo Show. Amazon's Fire Tablets are now updated with something called Show Mode, which essentially turns your Fire Tablet into an Echo Show. There's even a Show Mode Charging Dock that'll hold your tablet up for you while you scroll across its UI and shout commands.
The Echo Show has both a display and a front-facing camera, and that means that it can be used to video call people. Specifically, it allows you to video call people with either an Echo Show or the Alexa app on their phone. You can either initiate a call by asking Alexa to call someone ("Alexa, call dad"), or you can ask it to answer or decline an incoming video call.
Speaking of incoming calls, the Echo Show has another feature called Drop In, which is intended for you to use with your closest family and friends ‚Äď the kind of people you'd give a copy of your house keys to, y'know? That's because Drop In is essentially a digital version of that. When you ask Alexa to Drop In on someone, it'll let you immediately start chatting with them. However, there are 10 seconds of translucent fog before the video pops in, so you won't catch them completely off guard.
Drop In is disabled by default, and you have to choose who ‚Äď if anyone ‚Äď you want to be able to drop in on you. If you have multiple Echo Show devices, you can also choose which ones are allowed to be dropped in on and which aren't.
With an Echo Show you can get a more visual look at the likes of timers, weather reports, kitchen recipes, your calendar and your music.
There's also now live TV available, with Prime Video, Netflix and Hulu integration, and even the ability to play back TV recordings when you pair it with a Fire TV Recast.
This Recast is basically a mix between a Slingbox and TiVo. It acts as an antenna to pick up over-the-air TV programming and allows you to record it like a DVR. When paired with a Fire TV device, it'll add a DVR menu. It also will play your TV shows and movies on practically any device - including the Show.
The device also, crucially, now comes with Amazon's Silk Browser, which means that you'll be able to watch both YouTube and YouTube TV via the browser - something which wasn't an option through the first generation, after the app was cut.
If you've only used the standard Alexa speakers before, you'll have to learn some of the assistant's Show-centric capabilities. All kinds of companies have been updating their skills with Echo Show support over the past couple of years in order to advantage of that big display and camera, so make sure to head over to our dedicated Skills brief to get the most out of your Show.
The most immediately useful application of visual skills is in the kitchen. Food Network and Allrecipes have both updated their skills to take advantage of the display. Food Network will play cooking tutorials, so you can follow along while you cook in the kitchen. Similarly, the Allrecipe app will either play video or list out the recipe so you can quickly reference it as you cook. And this has been improved through the new interface, letting you go step-by-step and even skip forward or back at different stages.
That's not all, either. Some apps, like CNN's Flash Briefing, have a video component so you can get a video flash briefing (you just have to say "Alexa, play my video flash briefing"). Below is a list of some of the most useful skills making use of the Show's display and camera.
Arguably, the Echo Show has leapfrogged the Echo Plus as the most attractive option to control your smart home. Like the Plus, it now features a Zigbee controller, eliminating the need for hubs for specific devices like bulbs and smart security systems. And the reason this is more attractive on the Show than the Plus, naturally, is because of that 10-inch screen visualising things for you.
With the improved internals, you can now say "Alexa, discover my devices" and add a bunch of new tech to your smart home. There's a new two-way talk feature for Ring and August doorbells, which upgrades on the simple video feed you were given through the first generation.
It can also pair with Nest cameras, to let you check up what's happening outside or in another room, and control your Nest Thermostat from the Show as you would from other Echo devices.
And for devices that don't agree with the new Zigbee smarts, you can still hook up your Echo Show to the likes of your Yale lock via the SmartThings or Wink hub, meaning you'll be able to control the lock on the front door with voice. So you can see who's outside on the Show's display and ask it to unlock the door if it's someone you want to let in.
Just as with other Echo devices, setting up the Show is simple. You just turn it on and connect it to your Wi-Fi network. Rather than handle things via the Alexa app on your phone, however, you'll just type in your information on the Show itself. It does have a touchscreen display, after all.
All you have to do is make sure you have an Amazon account. If you have an Amazon Prime account, that's even better, as you'll have access to Prime Music, Video and Photos. Top tip: be sure to set your location in the app, as this will make Alexa more useful with certain features.
Google Smart Displays: What do they actually do?
As well as having the voice-activated Google Assistant built in, each Smart Display has a touchscreen that can be used for all sorts of interactions.
When idle, the smart display will usually display the time or some of your favorite photos. But these displays are also listening like any other smart display, so ask it a question and it will be able to not only respond with the Google Assistant voice, but it will be able to display information pertinent to your query.
It's a more contextually rich experience, and perhaps the foremost reason any smart display can be more useful than a speaker alone: some queries just work better when you have a screen. For example, if you ask Google Assistant for movie showtimes near you a smart speaker will need to read out the times and movies one by one, but a display can deliver all that information to your eyes in a second.
But the displays can also be used for things like pulling up Google Maps, making video calls (if there's a camera), watching YouTube videos, and checking in on the news.
You can also use Smart Displays to control your smart home as you would any other Assistant speaker, getting weather and traffic info and playing music via the usual "Hey, Google" and "OK, Google" wake words. Google Cast is built into these speakers, allowing you to do things like add the speaker to a multi-room Chromecast audio set up.
Google's updating its Smart Displays all the time, but note that third-party options are sometimes slower to receive updates. For example, Google's Home View feature was exclusive to its first-party displays for a short while before rolling out on others.
The good news is that Google is continually updated this fledgling platform. For example, at CES 2020 it announced that Smart Displays will soon get a digital sticky note feature for keeping reminders ‚Äď or simply to tell other household members when the trash needs taking out.
Google Smart Displays: Smart home control
Home View - available across all Smart Displays - gives you an overview of all your connected devices. It's a great way of seeing all your gadgets at a glance, accessed by simply swiping down from the top of its display.
It's one of our favorite things about Google's displays, and much easier than asking the Assistant for a status update of individual devices. To make life even easier, you'll see a status at the top of the screen, which will say something like "3 lights are on, the front door is locked, and the temp is set to 75."
Below that are icons for your various device categories ‚Äď lights, thermostats, locks etc ‚Äď which can be tapped to open more information on each.
Smart Displays can also use Google's Broadcast feature to, well, broadcast messages to other Google Assistant speakers around your home (here's how).
And if your Smart Display has a camera then you can make video calls with Google Duo. You can still make audio calls with Google Duo without a camera, but the person on the other end obviously won't be able to see you.
With an easily glanceable screen of the time, date, reminders and calendars, Smart Displays start to look like a real home hub. You can, of course, treat it like a screen-less Assistant speaker, and in many cases you'll have the option to respond to it with either voice or a touch on the screen, depending on how developers build for it.
Some Smart Displays also have toggles for switching off the microphone, should you want to avoid accidentally waking Assistant but still want to have the screen displayed. Not all of them actually cover the camera physically however, so be mindful of that if you're extra concerned about privacy.
So far we've been quite won over by the features of these devices as a smart home controller, and we can see the benefit - especially for families. But it would also be a shame to return to our reliance on screens so early in this cycle of voice-powered innovation ‚Äď right?
Well, the very existence of smart displays is an admission that voice isn't the best interface for everything. We've touched on examples like cinema showtimes where being able to glance a lot of information at once is much more sensible; weather forecasts are another example.
And having the camera is obviously key to video calling, something that is never going to die out.
It's very likely that both of these categories will live side by side for years to come, rather than one eating the other entirely. Perhaps smart displays will become the primary smart home drivers, taking over from larger smart speakers like the Google Home, while we'll continue to scatter inconspicuous speakers like the Echo Dot around our houses. That is, until we have total smart home ambience, of course.
And even right now, it's not an "either or" situation but more a case of thinking which room would benefit from voice-only and which could do with a touchscreen or a camera.