The idea of the smart home controller is changing. If 2017 was all about the cylindrical smart speaker, it looks like 2018 will shift to home hubs with touchscreens alongside voice controls.
Google's new push is its Assistant powered 'smart displays', with two launch devices made by Lenovo and JBL announced at CES in January, namedrops that Sony and LG are working on similar products plus a new device from Archos showing up at MWC.
Here's what you need to know to help you decide if Google powered smart displays are 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, there's a touchscreen so you can watch YouTube videos, pull up things like Google Maps and recipes via voice, view photos via Google Photos and video call people using Google Duo. (You'll remember Google pulled YouTube support from the Echo Show – the first, kinda ugly, device of this kind – late in 2017, probably in preparation for this).
You can also manage smart home kit, 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-in which includes features like adding it to a multi-room Chromecast audio set up. A front-facing camera, for video calls, will come with a physical cover for privacy.
Google Home voice calling just went live in the UK and would make sense as a future feature, to add to the built-in video chat capability.
With an easily glanceable screen of the time, date, reminders and calendars, it starts to look like a real hub though it's unclear exactly how multiple users/accounts are handled. Think of a smart display like a propped up, family tablet with great speakers that you leave in one place – that's precisely how Google and Amazon don't want you to think of these devices but hey, it's gonna happen.
Smart Displays: The options
Like we said, we've only seen a handful of smart displays so far and we don't have all the specs, price and release date info on them yet. 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. Specs wise, it has 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 and from the press pics, we quite like the design.
Interestingly, Samsung wasn't ready to show off the Link View at MWC, choosing to show off 'dumb' Bluetooth speakers from JBL (which it now owns) instead. The Link View joins JBL's range of affordable, Link Google Assistant smart speakers which, until now, have been voice only. We don't have a price yet but it's due to launch in summer 2018.
Lenovo Smart Display
The Lenovo Smart Display (pictured) is the device we know most about so far and the only one we have been able to demo to date. It comes in 8-inch ($199.99) and 10-inch ($249.99) display sizes, both full HD resolution with two 10W speakers.
The voice controls work as they would on your phone. You can ask Assistant about bakeries in the area and the display will show you Google Maps, for instance. Or you could pull up a YouTube video of a recipe tutorial.
Read this: Hands on with smart displays at MWC
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.
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 isn't quite ready for primetime yet – at the MWC show in Barcelona, it was only showing off non-powered models to show the form factor and build quality. 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 this summer for €129.99 and €179.99.
Coming up: Sony and LG smart displays
It looks like both Sony and LG are waiting to reveal the smart displays they are working on until later in 2018. Sony already has a regular Google Assistant powered speaker in the form of the LF-S50G. We have no details on either of these upcoming smart displays yet but with the other manufacturers setting the summer as their release date, we could see a launch around this time. If not then we might be waiting until IFA in September.
The idea of a touchscreen speaker with built in voice is an area that's really hotting up. Also expected to launch this year – in July specifically – is Facebook's 15-inch Portal smart display designed for video chat and music playback. Plus 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
We'll keep this guide updated with Google Assistant smart display news. At MWC, we were quite won over by the features on the Lenovo as a central 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 innovation in how we interact with our smart home and the internet. Not to mention the fact that we expect these smart displays to cost more than their non-screen counterparts – that Archos price 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.