Google Assistant Smart Displays: Everything you need to know

We give you the lowdown on the Google Home smart display army

Google Smart Displays: Essential guide
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The idea of the smart home controller is changing. At first it was all about the cylindrical smart speaker, but smart displays have become a popular new command center for the house.

Amazon kicked off the race with its Echo Show in 2017, and Google first followed suit but with a different strategy: third-party manufacturers would build many of what Google itself calls "Smart Displays" – and Google would provide the software.

It's the same approach Google takes with its Android phones, and in a similar vain Google has also built a couple of its own Smart Displays: the Nest Hub and Nest Hub Max.

Here's a guide to everything you need to know about Google's Smart Displays: what they do, who's built them, and why you might one. And for our guide to all the top smart displays out there – note: lower case, as we're talking about the entire category which includes Amazon and others – head to our best smart displays roundup.


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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 – or simply to tell other household members when the trash needs taking out.

Check out some of the other new features coming to Smart Displays this year.

The best Google Smart Displays 2020

Now that Google's Smart Displays have been kicking around for a while, we've had time to play with all of the available options. Of course, the family of displays is (slowly) growing, so make sure you keep checking back for our updated thoughts.

Google Assistant Smart Displays: Your need-to-know on the touchscreen speakers

Google Nest Hub

$89.99, store.google.com

Google's dinky Smart Display – once named the Home Hub and rebranded as the Nest Hub – is a little different than the rest. First, it's a lot smaller than you may expect; it's got a 7-inch display with the speaker, covered in Google's now-recognizable fabric, tucked behind it. It all comes across as pretty dinky, but the aim is to be able to fit it anywhere you'd like.

But it's the lack of a camera that really differentiates the Nest Hub, meaning you won't be able to make Google Duo video calls. You will be able to audio call with Duo, but Google wanted people to feel more comfortable putting this in their bedroom - or any other room, really.

In terms of hardware, we really love the Ambient EQ light sensor, which reads the amount of light in a room and adjusts the display to match. It can result in the display nearly matching an actual picture frame in looks. As for what's actually on the display, you have a custom build of Google Cast (note: not Android Things, like Google's third-party Smart Displays, but this doesn't really matter).

Google's services are all on offer here: Google Photos, YouTube, Google Maps etc, and like other Google Smart Displays you can connect them with others to create stereo sound.

At less than $90 it's also one of the most affordable Smart Display on the market, undercutting both the Echo Show and Facebook Portal.

What we love

  • How small it is
  • Lack of camera good for the privacy-minded
  • Decent sound

What we don't love

  • Some may find it too small
  • No Zigbee/Z-Wave hub
  • Software still maturing

Read our full Google Nest Hub review

Google Assistant Smart Displays: Your need-to-know on the touchscreen speakers

Google Nest Hub Max

$229 | google.com

No points for guessing: the Nest Hub Max is a larger version of the above Nest Hub. But there is another key difference beyond the 10-inch display: it has a camera. Where Google sees the Nest Hub as something that you might tuck away on a bookshelf of keep on a nightstand, the Max is meant to be more central to the home.

The primary reason for that is because it doubles as a Nest camera. This means you can keep an eye on your home when you're out of the house, accessing the camera remotely with your phone or having it send you notifications when it picks up suspicious activity.

The other benefit of the camera is Face Match, a feature that lets the speaker display personalized information to whoever's looking at it – YouTube recommendations, calendar entries and suchlike. If the idea of Google mapping your face gives you the heebie jeebies, you don't have to use this feature. More on Face Match privacy here.

We wish the Nest camera didn't feel so siloed off from the rest of the experience, but this feels like more of a "complete" smart display than the smaller, cheaper Nest Hub.

What we love

  • Big, rich display
  • Works as a Nest camera
  • Good smart home controls

What we don't love

  • Nest cam mostly siloed off
  • Sound quality not super
  • Gestures feel gimmicky

Read our full Google Nest Hub Max review.

Google Assistant smart displays look like the Echo Show & act like the Echo Show

Lenovo Smart Displays

From $79.99, lenovo.com

Lenovo's Smart Displays now come in 7-inch, 8-inch and 10-inch display sizes, so you're spoiled for choice. And if you want something even smaller, there's the Lenovo Smart Clock.

Both the two larger displays have a full HD resolution and 10W full-range speaker, along with a 5MP wide-angle camera. Both look very gadgety from the front, but the larger model comes in a 'natural bamboo' finish which is a little more inspiring than the 8-incher's drab grey.

The 7-inch speaker looks a bit more like an Echo Show of days gone by. It's also mediocre on the specs: 1024 x 700 resolution, 5W stereo speaker, 2PM wide-angle camera.

But the best thing about Lenovo's family is how wide and varied it is. Also, big shout-out to the Smart Clock, which doesn't get a camera but makes for a perfect nightstand companion.

What we love

  • Choices, choices
  • Well designed; looks at home in a kitchen
  • Chromecast built in

What we don't love

  • More color options would be nice
  • Mic sometimes misses commands

Read our full Lenovo Smart Display review.

Google Assistant smart displays: Your need to know on touchscreen smart speakers

JBL Link View

From $99, jbl.com

The JBL Link View looks more speaker-shaped in build than the rectangular Lenovo and Google options above. It's got an 8-inch 1280 x 720 touchscreen, two 10W speakers and a 5MP camera on the front.

On the audio front, there's 24 bit HD audio streaming on board, a rear-facing passive radiator designed to crank up the bass and, as elsewhere, there's built-in Google Cast for multi-room audio. As for the size, its dimensions are 13 x 5.9 x 3.9 inches.

All of that adds up to the Link View being one of the best sounding Smart Display to buy when it comes to audio, with rich, deep, bass-heavy audio that wipes the floor with the Lenovo, Google and the Echo Show.

It's a shame that the display has bad viewing angles, but that excellent sound quality makes up for it. As does the now-reduced price you can pick it up for.

What we love

  • Great sound
  • Chromecast built in
  • YouTube

What we don't love

  • Bad viewing angles
  • Bland design

Read our full JBL Link View review.


Google Assistant Smart Displays: Your need-to-know on the touchscreen speakers

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 – lights, thermostats, locks etc – 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.


Google Assistant smart displays: Your need to know on touchscreen smart speakers

Smart Displays vs smart speakers

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 – 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.

TAGGED    google home    smart speakers

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