The idea of the smart home controller is changing. If 2017 was all about the cylindrical smart speaker, it looks like a trend of 2018 will be home hubs with both voice controls and touchscreens.
Google's new push is its Assistant-powered Smart Displays, but unlike its other speakers these won't be made in-house. Instead Google's taking the Android approach and putting its brains inside a bunch of speakers built by third parties including LG, Archos, JBL - and no doubt more to come. The first speakers will go on sale this July.
Here's what you need to know to help you decide if a Google-powered Smart Display is worth holding out for, as well as a look to the rivals that Amazon is selling and Facebook is reportedly planning.
Smart Displays: Features
As well as having the voice-activated Google Assistant built in, each Smart Display as 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 – the first, kinda ugly, device of this kind – 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.
The Smart Display speakers will let you make video calls with Google Duo, but we hope to see the Google Home voice calling feature also work on these speakers - we see no reason why it shouldn't.
With an easily glanceable screen of the time, date, reminders and calendars, it starts 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's the ones we do know about and what's coming up later in 2018.
JBL Link View
The JBL Link View looks more speaker shaped in build than the rectangular Lenovo below. 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.
Lenovo Smart Display
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 – the Smart Display can be turned horizontal or portrait but they are not designed to be picked up and moved around. Our main takeaway from our recent hands on is that we'd like to see more stylish, home-friendly integrations of the screen.
Read this: Hands on with Smart Displays at MWC
When nothing's happening it acts as a digital photo frame showing your Google Photos albums – 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.
Archos' Smart Display has been harder to see in action, but will be among the July lineup. 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.
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.
LG WK9 Thinq
LG's contribution to the lineup has the least inspiring design, but packs two speakers alongside the 8-inch touchscreen. LG's leaning on Meridian's audio tech here too, so all that considered this is the most promising of the lot for sound quality alone. Naturally you've got the mute switch and front-facing camera too.
The drawback with this one, other than the bland, portable TV-like design, is the price: $269.99. That puts it just above Lenovo to make it the most expensive of the lot.
On the horizon
Sony also has a Smart Display in the works, but it's yet to be announced. Sony already has a regular Google Assistant powered speaker in the form of the LF-S50G, but we've no idea on what its Smart Display offering will look like.
The touchscreen smart speaker category is hotting up in 2018. Also expected to launch this year is Facebook's 15-inch Portal Smart Display designed for video chat and music playback, although Facebook's privacy storm has allegedly pushed back the speaker launch - and it may be even longer before it comes to the US. Meanwhile we'll no doubt see Amazon expand its own line-up of the Alexa-powered Echo Show and Echo Spot smart alarm clock.
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 – that Archos speaker will be at the affordable end.
The answer of how you want to get your info and control your home will be different for everyone – 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 – voice only speakers or screentastic Smart Display hubs? Let us know in the comments.