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Lenovo Smart Display Shows Loads of Potential

Lenovo’s Smart Display with Google Assistant hit the market on Friday.

There are two versions of the device, one with an 8-inch full HD screen and the other with a 10-inch full HD screen, priced at US$200 and $250 respectively.

“The cost is significantly below an iPad mini and it offers far more functionality than just a digital picture frame or a Bluetooth speaker,” said Alan Lepofsky, principal analyst at Constellation Research.

Buyers will get three months’ free access to YouTube Premium.

The Lenovo Smart Display runs on Google’s Android Things, an operating system developed for the notoriously insecure Internet of Things.

Google has addressed the IoT security problem by providing three years of OS updates for free for every Android Things-based product.

Automatic updates are enabled by default. After three years, there will be options for extended support.

You Can Speak Softly

The Lenovo Smart Display lets users play music, make video calls, conduct Web searches, view their calendars, and access YouTube videos. It has native integration with Google Duo video calling and Google Photos.

However, Android Things reportedly can run only one app at a time.

Both versions of the Lenovo Smart Display have a 10W speaker with tweeters, and both offer multiroom audio support. They have two microphones that are sensitive enough to pick up commands spoken softly.

Voice commands are the main interface, but the device also has a touchscreen for follow-up actions such as zooming in on a map, for example.

The 10-inch version can be stood horizontally in landscape mode, or vertically in portrait mode. It comes with a privacy shutter to block the camera, and a microphone mute toggle setting.

Tablet or Speaker?

Sound quality is “mediocre — about on par with the Google Home or entry-level Amazon Echo — but nowhere near as good as a Sonos One or HomePod,” noted Dieter Bohn in his review for The Verge.

The device’s speaker lacks bass impact, said Daniel Bader in his review for Android Central.

Also, Android Things isn’t fully baked yet, he pointed out. It lacks Netflix and other big-name Chromecast support, and it’s better optimized for voice than touch.

However, the sound quality is “great,” according to Nicole Lee, who reviewed the Smart Display for Engadget.

“While I have portable speakers that produce better sound overall, I was impressed with the audio quality of the Smart Display, as it was better than that of the [Amazon] Echo Show,” wrote Valentina Palladino for Ars Technica.

“Lenovo is trying to thread the needle between tablets and smart speakers, but it seems like the best parts of both devices are lost in this product,” observed Eric Smith, director of tablet and touchscreen strategies at Strategy Analytics.

“The sound quality isn’t as good as other smart speakers, and the functionality isn’t as strong as most tablets,” he told TechNewsWorld. “The second generation needs a full Android or Chrome OS to be as useful as possible.”

Amazon offers a docking station that enables voice input “to transform the UI and functionality of its Fire tablets at the low end of the price spectrum,” Smith said, suggesting that Lenovo should follow suit.

The Smart Display’s mikes are sensitive, noted Ars’ Palladino. “I never had to yell or raise my voice for the Google Assistant to hear me.”

Although the 10-inch device can be set up in portrait mode, it’s useful only for Duo video calls, The Verge’s Bohn noted, as the software otherwise isn’t designed to work in that mode.

The device can be set up to recognize different voices attached to different Google accounts, but the display will default to showing information from the primary account, Bohn found.

Smart Display at Work

Syncing with work applications, such as the work calendar, is a pain, several reviewers found.

The Smart Display does not yet work with GSuite, Engadget’s Lee noted.

Still, “the tight integration with the Google portfolio and Lenovo’s heritage with ThinkPads provides an excellent opportunity for adoption at work,” Constellation’s Lepofsky told TechNewsWorld.

Smart displays with ambient assistants “will complement the placement of voice or speaker-only devices across your home or office,” he said.

Users can make video calls through Google Duo or regular phone calls, but the device tends to try making a Google Duo call first, Bohn found.

Google Duo call quality is “just OK,” according to Palladino, who noticed a lag and crackly sound quality.

Search results are wide ranging, and they include YouTube videos as well as websites and, in some cases, user-generated information.

Users can set the default music player to Spotify or one of Google’s music services. The Smart Display also supports some video services such as HBO Now, CNN, and Fox News. However, not all video services can Chromecast to the Lenovo Smart Display.

Netflix is one of the major services not supported, Android Central’s Bader said.

The Lenovo Smart Display supports the same suite of Google Actions as the Google Home smart speaker.

However, Smart Display users must ensure they have Google Home, Google Assistant, and Google Duo apps installed, Ars’ Palladino noted, which “isn’t convenient to say the least.”

The Google Assistant supports a variety of smart home devices, and Palladino found pairing the Smart Display with Philips Hue lightbulbs quick and easy. Further, users can set up routines for the device to launch a variety of tasks.

However, the Smart Display doesn’t offer a lexicon of acceptable commands and functions, and it doesn’t offer users a way to see their YouTube subscription feed, she wrote.

Setup for the Smart Display was faster on Android than on iOS, wrote Engadget’s Lee. She found it more difficult to verify her Duo phone number for video calls through iOS, but noted that Google and Lenovo later said they had fixed that problem.

Future Prospects for Smart Displays

“One of the critical elements for success in this market is ecosystem,” Constellation’s Lepofsky pointed out. The more devices these displays can control and integrate with, the more integrated they will become in our lives, both at home and at work.”

Smart displays “can be used as a hub in the smart home,” said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“The smart home has a kluge of standards and products that don’t work together — I’m finding that out as I build my house,” he told TechNewsWorld.

However, “it seems you’re giving up so much to use smart displays,” McGregor continued. “They don’t seem to have the same functionality as tablets or even smartphones. You have to get a bunch of applications to get them to work, and they’re only supported for three years.”

Still, “like any new technology, it will take three to five generations before it’s really ready for mass consumption,” McGregor said. “It’s probably a good first attempt.”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology. Email Richard.

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