Household appliances are so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget the lengthy, difficult road most travel to success and longevity. Sometimes challenges arise that are simple matters of changing taste, like transition from the Autumn Gold and Avocado Green kitchen appliances of the 1970s to contemporary consumers’ preferences for stainless steel. In other cases—rotary dial telephone handsets are a good example—core design points can last for decades that also masking massive behind the scenes evolution in supporting infrastructures.
Compute-enabled smart home concepts and products have been around for over two decades but most failed due to high cost and innate complexity. Plus, many such solutions simply aped functions and features already available on PCs, then smart phones and tablets, reinforced their redundancy. If you already have devices that suit your needs, why do you need an appliance?
But that situation began changing with the introduction of voice-enabled virtual assistants, like Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, and related consumer products, including integrated speakers, thermostats and lighting fixtures. Recently, Lenovo launched its new Smart Display which comes in 8-inch and 10-inch configurations and leverages Google’s Assistant and Home apps for intelligent interaction. Has Lenovo cracked the code for smart home products? Let’s look more closely.
Lenovo’s Smart Display – Outside and inside the box
Facing front, the Smart Display features an 8-inch or 10-inch HD touch display with a rectangular Google Home-enabled interactive speaker fixed to one short side. From the back, the design is curvilinear, with a weighted base that houses the Display’s power, processing and 10W full-range speaker components. The Display can stably rest in a portrait or landscape position and supports both touch and Google Voice interactions.
The Smart Display features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 624 processor, 2GB of RAM, 4GB of storage, dual-array microphones and a 5MP camera for video chat. It also leverages Qualcomm’s Home Hub Platform which was developed to bring Google Assistant into OEM-designed home devices. Due to its integration with Google’s Home and Assistant, the Smart Display supports most of their related apps and services, including Google’s Chromecast, Duo and Photos, and media services, like YouTube and Spotify.
The Smart Display is plug-in only—requiring a standard 110V outlet. It also includes two simple yet extremely valuable manual features: Lenovo’s TrueBlock Privacy Shutter and a microphone mute button. Given the numerous media reports of Amazon Alexa and other voice-enabled products snooping on owners or mistakenly sharing information, it’s hard to overestimate the value of simply and effectively secure your privacy. Lenovo nailed this feature, and I expect to see it incorporated into other company solutions.
How about other features and functions? The Smart Display’s performance is solid which is what you’d expect from the Snapdragon 624 CPU and included memory and storage. The HD display is crisp and responsive. Connecting to wi-fi networks was seamless. The integration with Google Home makes set-up and management a breeze, and the mainstream apps work well. There have been reports that some apps—particularly Netflix—tend to glitch, but I expect those issues will smooth out over time.
Does the Smart Display have any other shortcomings? Two come immediately to mind. First, video chat is only supported with the device in portrait mode which is awkward since most users will prefer landscape mode for most other functions, including group calls. That should be addressable with software updates, and hopefully Google and/or Qualcomm are on the case
A larger problem is the Smart Display’s fixed, non-adjustable viewing angle. Practically, the design makes sense since the substantial base provides far more stability than adjustable options. However, while I found the Smart Display fine for use on a dining room table or standing desk, placing it on a kitchen or similar waist-high counter-top meant having to stoop a bit to look at the display directly. The portrait mode made things easier—an important point for video chat. But Lenovo is partly pitching the device as a kitchen assistant which may make the issue more noticeable for those using it in landscape mode.
MSRP for Lenovo’s Smart Display is $199.00 for the 8-inch model and $249.00 for the 10-inch model. Both are available direct from Lenovo and through retail outlets, including Amazon, Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Bed, Bath & Beyond.
So, what can we conclude? Minor issues aside, the Smart Display is a solidly built, well-considered, attractive solution that should please consumers and advance Google’s and Qualcomm’s smart home strategies. Moreover, the integration with Google Assistant and Home offers intriguing opportunities to further emphasize voice-enablement as a worthy enhancement of or successor to touch technology.
That idea has been around for a while but only two vendors – Google and Amazon (with its Alexa-enabled Echo Show) – are actively working with OEMs and promoting consumer platforms that blend voice, touch, video and media functions. Lenovo is promoting its solution as the market’s first device leveraging Google Assistant. More importantly, the new Smart Display sets a high bar for what consumers should expect from such appliances.
Lenovo isn’t the only vendor to play in this market. But its combination of value, features and performance make the Smart Display a tough act to follow.
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