Lenovo Smart Display review

Google Assistant is awesome. It’s everywhere we go, knows just about everything, and helps us keep track of our lives. We use it in our phone multiple times a day and our homes are starting to fill up with Assistant-powered smart speakers and connected devices.

If you thought talking to Google was really cool, wait until you’ve interacted with it visually. That’s the basic premise of the Lenovo Smart Display, one of the first products of its type to hit the market which is powered by Google Assistant.

Available in 8-inch and 10-inch configurations, the slate is everything your kitchen or home office ever needed. Well, that might be just a slight exaggeration. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine a future without something like this in every room.

What is the Lenovo Smart Display?

The Lenovo Smart Display runs a different, but increasingly interesting operating system in Android Things. It’s not the full-blown Android experience that you get with a phone or tablet; it doesn’t have any apps or access to the Google Play Store. In essence, it’s a canvas that compliments your lifestyle using anything and everything possible from your Google account.

When not in use, the Smart Display defaults to a digital picture frame or clock. Walk into a room and you’ll see it cycling through a Google Photos album or simply offering up the current time. Prompt it with “Hey Google” or “Okay Google” and it gets down to business.

Think of all of the things you do with Google Assistant today. Whether it’s asking for the weather forecast, a glimpse into your day, or querying Search for some random statistic, you’re tapping into it quite often. If you’re like us, we’re using more with each passing week.

Once you have the ability to literally see what Google knows, it changes the game. Now, instead of hearing how tall a particular building is, you get a picture and a readout of the stats, too.

If you ask for a timer on your phone, you get a countdown that can run in the background. If you ask to watch a video, your phone hands you off to YouTube. Music? Here’s that playlist with album artwork on Google Play Music. How about a recipe? Ask Google how to make a raspberry Danish and your phone pulls up neatly organized results with easy-to-read ingredients and directions.

The Lenovo Smart Display takes all of that stuff you get on your phone and reconfigures it for the kitchen. Or home office. Or bedroom. It works no matter where you put it, and it works in so many facets of our lives.

This isn’t simply taking the same results and actions and expanding them to a larger display. No, Google does an excellent job of taking advantage of a bigger, portrait orientation.

Design

We’ve already talked quite a bit about what the Smart Display can and does do. Let’s back up and discuss how it’s designed as well as how it looks, and sounds.

First, and foremost, it takes up a fair amount of space. It’s not the same as a 10-inch tablet as there’s a speaker grille to the left with a curved, angular back with bamboo finish. It’s a unique design that lets the Smart Display sit in both landscape and portrait orientation.

There are rubber feet on the bottom and left end, meaning it is meant to fit your environment. That’s physically, at least. For not the software does not allow for any portrait stuff just yet.

In a crowded kitchen, on a smaller nightstand, or on a cluttered desk the portrait mode would work best. With that said, if there’s room for it, the landscape looks awesome and it compliments pretty much any decor.

The 10-watt speaker, and two passive tweeters are fairly nice, but it’s not what you want to use for really diving into music or starting a party. It gets loud enough, sure, but it doesn’t have the range you get from other Bluetooth speakers.

We’ve enjoyed playing music, casting YouTube TV, and other audiovisual media if, for no other reason, than to have an extra place to consume content. If you’re using the Smart Display for recipes, timers, alarms, and other daily needs, the sound experience is great. The same goes for taking in a podcast. You can easily fill a room with a respectable sound.

Unlike the Google Home Hub, the Lenovo Smart Display houses a front-facing camera. Don’t be alarmed, though, as you can slide a shutter over it to block it out. This was the sort of peace of mind we hoped for as we moved the device to the bedroom for a few days. Similarly, there is an option to toggle the microphones, too. Rest easy knowing Google isn’t listening to you talking in your sleep.

The two microphones do an excellent job of recognizing voices, particularly those you’ve set up with Google Assistant. As you may already know, it behaves differently when different people use it.

Google replies with specifics when you ask your phone how your day looks or to remind you of upcoming appointments. But, that doesn’t mean your spouse can’t pick up the phone to use it for other, broad purposes. That’s the same situation with the Smart Display.

Setup

Setup is surprisingly easy. If you’ve ever used a Google Home or Google Home Mini, you know what it’s like. In essence, you use the Google Home app and follow a few steps as the device is found and registered on your network.

We’ve moved it from home to the office and found it really simple to set up. The only thing we’d caution is to go into the settings and have the device “forget” the current Wi-Fi network before taking it to another location. Once off the registered network you’ll not be able to communicate between phone and device.

Once you’re up and running, you are able to tap into Google Assistant right away. Ask Google whatever questions you have, direct it to play a video, or look up a recipe. This is where the fun begins.

Usage and Features

Having a display for Google Assistant is pretty damn cool. If you’ve ever asked to broadcast “it’s dinner time”, you know it’s accompanied by a dinner bell. Here, you get visual representations, too. So, when mom tells you to come downstairs to eat, and you’ve got your headphones on, your Smart Display will show fun, attention-getting animations.

When used for recipes, for instance, you get sharp, large text with a standardized format and photos. Tap the button to get going and you’ll get prompts to preheat the oven with a nice large readout of 350 degrees.

We found that we’ve significantly increased our usage of Google Assistant in the time we’ve spent with the Smart Display. Instead of setting reminders on our phone or putting in a cooking timer on the oven we simply said, “Hey Google, set a timer for 15 minutes”. Doing so gives us large clock which counts down until zero when it rings and flashes an image.

While much of what we do with the Smart Display is done via voice, the screen does reply nicely to touch. What’s more, navigation is intuitive hassle-free.

Swipe from the left and you find it acts like a “back” button. If you’re listening to a podcast, you can swipe back to the home screen or ambient screen saver. Swipe up from the bottom and you can adjust volume and brightness.

You won’t find very many screens to go through, which we found to be refreshing. Too much stuff tends to feel like clutter and leads to a confusing experience. It takes all of a few minutes to figure out how things work here and what you’ll see.

The Google Home app gives you control over what you get to see. Let’s say you don’t want to see your personal photos splashed across the screen or show your calendar appointments. That’s all really easy to change and you’re never stuck with any particular settings.

One thing we’d like to see in Google Home is the ability to add merge more than one account. It would be nice to see both our personal and work calendar but that’s not a shortcoming of the device.

Making and receiving calls via Google Duo is pretty interesting, and is probably the most compelling reason for the service yet. We could imagine having these throughout the home or office so it makes sense that contacts can reach us as easily as they would through a phone.

Thinking more broadly, it doesn’t seem a stretch to consider an update which allows room-to-room calls or video chat from one office to another. The more we outfit our homes with smart displays with cameras, the more helpful they become. A mom can ask to see a baby’s room regardless of where she is in the house. A co-worker can go over the TPS report with management without leaving the cubicle.

We love using the Smart Display as a screen for casting our apps. Whether that’s from our phones with YouTube TV in the kitchen, or Google Play Music from a web browser in the living room, it’s a seamless experience.

It might only be 10-inches, and sound really small, but catching up on the news is awesome when putting dishes away. Forget about pausing live TV or recorded shows because you have to hang up laundry. Cast to your Smart Display and make sure you catch that touchdown drive.

Conclusion

The Smart Display might be manufactured by Lenovo but it is Google through and through — and that’s awesome. We use its services for search, Chrome, Gmail, calendar appointments, YouTube, and much, much more. This is a piece of hardware that ties many of those things together, and it does it in a uniform and interesting experience.

We would love to see how this works in portrait mode and hope that an update is not far away. Upright could change things quite a bit and force us to reconsider how and where we use it.

We’ve already increased our Google Assistant use with just one of these devices. A second one, or one in another location such as work, feels like the next move.

Although Google Home and Google Assistant have been around a few years, we’re just starting to kick things into gear. Devices like the Lenovo Smart Display make us giddy with anticipation over where we might be a year or two down the road.

As of the time of publication we were not able to use the Home Hub features or add the Smart Display to a group. Both of these issues will be resolved in an update which should arrive in the coming weeks.

Availability

You can purchase the Lenovo Smart Display in 8-inch and 10-inch options for $179.99 and $249.99, respectively. It’s available at lenovo.com as well as through retailers like Best Buy, Office Depot, and Newegg.