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

With the speakers-with-screens now landing, we give you the lowdown

Google Smart Displays: Essential guide

The idea of the smart home controller is changing. At first it was all about the cylindrical smart speaker, but in 2018 home hubs arrived with both voice controls and touchscreens.

Google's latest 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 the range - but it's also partnering up with manufacturers so that they can make their own, too. Thus far, LG, Lenovo, JBL and Archos have all signed up - with more expected to come.

Read this: The best smart home devices

Now that Google's Smart Displays are out in the wild, here's a guide to everything they do.


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, view pictures via Google Photos and make video calls (if there's a camera). 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, kind of ugly, device of this kind – late last year in an escalating feud with Amazon.

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 Home Hub introduced a feature called Home View - now available across other Smart Displays - which gives you an overview of all your connected devices. You get to it by swiping down from the top of its display - it's a great way of seeing all your gadgets at a glance.

Smart Displays also let you make video calls with Google Duo - 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 putting the device in their home. 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. For example, asking Assistant for cinema showtimes might prompt it to ask for a specific theater location, which you can select with either a finger or a command. 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 also 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 in 2019. Here's what's out there right now.

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

Google Home Hub

$149, store.google.com

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.

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

Lenovo Smart Display

From $199.99, lenovo.com

The Lenovo Smart Display comes in 8-inch and 10-inch 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 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.

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

JBL Link View

$199.95, 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 $250 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.

LG ThinQ WK9

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

$249.99, lg.com

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.

Since first announcing the WK7 LG has lowered the price to make it competitive. Just as well, as its original proposal of $299.99 felt far too steep. We'll be testing this one out soon, so be sure to keep an eye out for our full review, but having already seen it up close we can tell you that it's not much of a looker. Shame, because it sounds so good.

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

Archos Hello

$179.99, archos.com

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, 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 still 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. 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.


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. 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 – 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 Smart Display hubs? Let us know in the comments.


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