The idea of the smart home controller is changing. If 2017 was all about the cylindrical smart speaker, the trend of 2018 has been home hubs with both voice controls and touchscreens.
Google's new push is its Assistant-powered Smart Displays. Unlike its other speakers, Google is taking more of an Android approach here. It's got its own Smart Display, the Home Hub, which is basically the Pixel of Smart Displays, and it's also partnering up with manufacturers so that they can make their own, too. Thus far, LG, Lenovo, JBL and Archos have signed up - though there's no doubt more to come.
Read this: How to use the new Google Home app
The first couple Smart Displays - from Lenovo and JBL - have now been joined by Google's own Home Hub, and the rest are just around the corner. So here's what you need to know about Google's Smart Displays.
Smart Displays: Features
As well as having the voice-activated Google Assistant built in, each Smart Display has a touchscreen so you can watch videos, pull up things like Google Maps and recipes via voice, view photos via Google Photos and make video calls. And yes, you'll be able to watch some of those videos on YouTube. You'll remember Google pulled YouTube support from the Echo Show β the first, kind of ugly, device of this kind β late last year in an escalating feud with Amazon.
You'll also be able to control your smart home as you would any other Assistant speaker, get weather and traffic info and play music via the usual "Hey, Google" and "OK, Google" wake words. The Android Things team says they will also have Google Cast built into these speakers, allowing you to do things like add the speaker to a multi-room Chromecast audio set up. A front-facing camera, for video calls, will come with a physical cover for privacy.
Google's own Home Hub works a little differently compared to the rest. It has a feature called Home View, which you activate by swiping down from the top of its display. You'll get a top-down look at all your smart home devices, and you'll be able to quickly tap to control all of them. You can still use Google Assistant and voice commands if you like, but this is an added control method. These features will all roll out to other Smart Displays, with Lenovo rolling it out to its device first.
Smart Displays will also let you make video calls with Google Duo. Well, if they have a video camera. Most of them do, but Google has opted not to put a camera on the Home Hub in an effort to make people more comfortable with the device. You can also make audio calls with Google Duo, if video isn't your thing. We hope to see the Google Home voice calling feature work on these visual speakers one day - we see no reason why it shouldn't.
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. For example, asking Assistant for cinema showtimes might prompt it to ask for a specific theater location, which you can either tap on the screen or tell it with your voice. Google's also making tools available to let anyone build applications for these, not just seasoned coders.
The Smart Displays we've seen so far have toggles for switching off the microphone, should you want to avoid accidentally waking Assistant but still want to have the screen displayed.
Smart Displays: The options
We've only seen a handful of Smart Displays so far, and we expect there will be more to come later in the year. Here are the ones we do know about and what's launching soon.
Google's Smart Display 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.
Unlike other Smart Displays, you won't find a camera on board for 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, the other unique feature is 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 the other Smart Displays), but the result is that everything feels a little tighter.
Home View is the big new feature, a top-down look at your entire smart home - letting you tap and swipe to control your smart home devices. You can also pair up Home Hubs to create stereo sound. Google's services are all on offer here: Google Photos, YouTube, Google Maps and more.
Google will even throw in six months of free YouTube Premium, which comes with YouTube Music, when you buy a Home Hub. That brings us to one of the best features of Google's Smart Display - the price. It's the most affordable Smart Display on the market, and comes with some of the most unique features to boot. It also undercuts the Echo Show and Facebook Portal.
From $199.99, lenovo.com
The Lenovo Smart Display comes in 8-inch ($199.99) and 10-inch ($249.99) display sizes, both full HD resolution, with two 10W speakers.
The Lenovo looks very gadgety from the front but the stand does come in a 'soft grey' or 'natural bamboo' finish which helps the look β the Smart Display can be turned horizontal or portrait but they are not designed to be picked up and moved around. Our main takeaway is that we'd like to see more stylish, home-friendly integrations of the screen.
When nothing's happening it acts as a digital photo frame showing your Google Photos albums β if you like. With Bluetooth and Wi-Fi onboard, it's powered by Qualcomm's Home Hub platform, which we're sure we'll hear a lot more about soon.
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 $249 Link View being the best Smart Display to buy when it comes to audio - at least until the release of the LG ThinQ WK9, detailed below. It sounds great, with rich, deep, bass-heavy audio that wipes the floor with the Lenovo, Google and Echo Show. It's a shame that the display has bad viewing angles, but that excellent sound quality makes up for it.
LG ThinQ WK9
LG's contribution to the lineup has the least inspiring design, but packs two 20W speakers either side of the 8-inch touchscreen. LG's leaning on Meridian's audio tech here, too, just as it did with the LG ThinQ WK7, so all that considered this is the most promising of the lot for sound quality alone. Naturally, you've got the mute switch and a 5MP front-facing camera for video calls, too.
The drawback with this one, other than the bland, portable TV-like design, is the price - $299.99 makes it by far the most expensive of the bunch. However, despite not even being released just yet, LG lists a promotional price of $199 on its website. Hopefully it maintains this discounted rate when it does launch officially, which LG indicates will be in the US before other territories.
Archos' Smart Display has been harder to see in action. It will come in 7-inch and 8.4-inch screen sizes at HD and Full HD respectively, run Android Oreo and comes with a kickstand.
Read this: Hands on with Smart Displays at MWC
Also on board: four far-field mics, a 5MP camera, 16GB of storage and a 4,000 mAh battery. The Archos Hello will go on sale for $179.99, though it's unclear when the devices will ship.
New and on the horizon
Sony also has a Smart Display in the works, but it's yet to be officially announced. Sony already has a regular Google Assistant powered speaker in the form of the LF-S50G, but we've no idea what its Smart Display offering will look like.
The touchscreen smart speaker category is hotting up in 2018. We've already seen the Facebook Portal launch and give users video chat and music playback, while Amazon has recently released a brand-new, and more svelte, Echo Show.
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. Not to mention the fact that we expect these smart displays to cost more than their non-screen counterparts.
The answer of how you want to get your info and control your home will be different for everyone β people living alone, families with kids, couples, elderly people, etc. And perhaps for most people it's not an 'either or' but more a case of thinking which room would benefit from voice-only and which could do with a touchscreen.
Which do you prefer β voice-only speakers or Smart Display hubs? Let us know in the comments.
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