[REVIEW] Lenovo Smart Display

metllicamilitia

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Dec 3, 2011
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The Smart Display
A speaker, a screen, and a camera; it sounds simple enough. The Lenovo Smart Display is one such simple design that is more of a wedge than anything else. The speaker end of the Smart Display is heftily weighted to prevent accidental spills whether you have it placed in landscape or portrait orientation. My model has a simple flat gray design with white trim and an eight-inch screen. The display is 1280x800 IPS LCD and looks phenomenal, though there is some slight letterboxing on video. The eight-inch model has an HD display while the ten-inch model has full HD display, though I don't believe it makes a huge difference. The Smart Display is also running 2GB of LP DDR3 RAM and a Qualcomm Home Hub Platform (based on the Snapdragon 624). It has Bluetooth BLE and 4.2 and 2x2 802.11 A/B/G/N/AC, MIMO wifi. The speaker is 10W full-range speaker with a dual passive radiator and two passive tweeters. It's a little heavy on the low end, but not overbearingly so. The camera is a 5MP wide-angle camera and video calls are 720p. If you're worried about anyone spying on you via the camera, there is a dedicated hardware cover you can flip up to block the camera sensor. I mentioned the Smart Display is more of a wedge, and the weight is at the speaker. That is where the Smart Display bulges out and curves a bit to provide the weighted stability. The rest of the screen is fairly thin and flat as you would expect. Now the Smart Display does not have a battery, it is not meant to be a speaker on the go, but a fixture in a room. I haven't measured, though I would assume the cable is roughly five feet long. That should be more than enough to place it where you want to keep it. With the limited space in my apartment and running through all the things the Smart Display is capable of and moving it around, I've found the cable length to be a small hinderance a couple times. The cable is more than long enough to keep the Smart Display on my bedside table, however, which is its most permanent home for me.

Behind the Scenes
Under the screen, we find Android Things. Android Things is a more streamlined version of Android built specifically to run smart home devices on. The interface is mostly gesture-based which took me no time at all to get used to. The thing about Android Things is that it is built to accommodate a specific device so each device running Things has its own special build of Android. For the Lenovo Smart Display, Things is very minimal, however, it is also very clean and easy to navigate. While the screen is a touch screen there are just a few gestures built-in as the Smart Display is meant to be a voice assistant tool rather than a typical smart device. You get to see a clock and weather on the screen as well as cards for apps on the right-hand side. You are able to swipe through these like you would any app switcher. The sleep screen can be edited to show a few different things and even has a nice minimal dark mode for night time. All said and done, the software is very clean, intuitive, and nice to use. There's not a lot to go over here as Android Things is such a minimal build and most of the settings you can control are done via the Google Home and Google Assistant apps on another device.

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The Things That Can
Since Android Things is still a fairly new iteration of Android, there is not a very robust assortment of apps that are built for it. At this time the Lenovo Smart Display is capable of native YouTube, Spotify, Google Photos, Chromecast, Google Duo, Nest, Philips Hue, Netflix, HBO NOW, CBS, Viki, Starz, Project Fi, Deezer, and a host of news services. YouTube looks fantastic and I really do enjoy using it to view a few videos at a time. I don't use Spotify, Pandora, or Google Play Music, though any of them can be set as the default music player. If you don't have any of those set up and ask the Assistant to play a song it will default to YouTube, at least in my case since I have YouTube Music in my YouTube Premium subscription. I have used the Chromecast function for a number of things from queuing up some YouTube videos to streaming Twitch. For me, the ability to stream Twitch to the Smart Display is absolutely amazing. This allows me to cast the Friday night stream from a streamer that I watch, and that can run from anywhere between 3-6+ hours, while still allowing me use of my TV to do other things like completing a game I'm working on. Casting Twitch to the Smart Display also frees up my phone to be used to interact with Twitch chat. Chromecast support is easily one of my favorite features.

As for Nest and Philips Hue, or any other smart home device, I currently do not have any. So, unfortunately, I am unable to use my Smart Display to really control my home. It would be great if I did have these other devices as you can put them into your Assistant Routines and just use a simple phrase with the Smart Display to do a lot of things. While I won't really use Google Duo that much, it does work really well. The video is great at the aforementioned 720p resolution and calls are clear and easily understood. It does, however, still sound like a speakerphone and camera quality between the Smart Display and an iPhone 8 is staggering. The Smart Display has quite a clear camera. For some people, this could be one of the biggest selling points of the Smart Display. There is even more you can do with the Smart Display though, hidden in the Google Home app, under the Devices section, and in the Smart Display settings pretty far down, is the option to enable Bluetooth pairing mode. From there you can set up a Bluetooth connection to your other devices if you use other apps that aren't natively supported. For me, that is Apple Music, and being able to use the Smart Display as a Bluetooth speaker saves me the hassle of trying to add all the music I already have to my Google Play Music library. Unfortunately, I also lose the ability to use the Google Assistant to play my music. The more I use the Smart Display and browse through the settings, the more versatile I find the Smart Display to be. It is quite the capable device despite its minimal appearance.

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AI or Bust?
AI is the future, we all know this, but it's also not quite ready. As I mentioned earlier you can queue up YouTube videos or even cast just one video. The drawback I found is that if you wait a minute or two without disconnecting the Smart Display from your device, the Smart Display will decide what video you want to watch next and just start playing it. This is also the case with music, I did add some music to my Google Play Music library and asked the Assistant to play a song from my library. Right after the song ended it immediately started playing a song, but not one from my library. I do actually have that song in my Apple Music library, but not on Google Play Music. Some people may find this appealing, I am not one of those people though. If I ask for one song to be played, I want just that one song to play then end. If I queue up a single video, I want all video playback to end after that video. I intentionally disable all autoplay whenever possible. Most companies that have an algorithm that thinks they know what I want, they are usually wrong. That is still very true here with the Smart Display. It's a minor gripe to be sure, but still a gripe I have.

The Glorified Alarm Clock
I also mentioned previously that I do not have any other smart home devices. This is something I want to change when I am able to, but in the meantime, my Smart Display ends up being a really fancy alarm clock most of the time. It makes a fantastic alarm clock though. Just say "OK Google, good night" or "Hey Google, good night" and as long as your routine is set up this way, the Assistant will ask what time you want your alarm set, and play some sleep sounds. That's how I have mine set up and I like it. In the morning I say "OK Google, good morning" or "Hey Google, good morning" and the Assistant tells me the weather for the day, traffic conditions going to work, anything on my calendar, and then plays the news for me. Using this in conjunction with some other sleep apps I have and it creates a really nice way to go to sleep and wake up. Pairing this with more smart home devices will only add to this experience. I wish that at this time the Smart Display was more than an alarm clock, speaker, and video machine for me, but that's what it is. I'm okay with that right now though, I can see the potential the Smart Display has and it has me excited to be able to take full advantage of it in the future.

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An Android in the Garden of Apple
All tech enthusiasts know that Apple is a walled garden. Apple has been opening up a little more over the years, but it is still a very protected ecosystem. When I first got the Smart Display I was dismayed at my inability to use Apple Music with it. It took me a few days to find the Bluetooth pairing option that allowed me to use Apple Music with the Smart Display. Now that fixes one aspect, but there are still a lot of other Apple services that you just can't use with the Smart Display. That's partly because the Smart Device is an Android device, but more importantly, it's because Apple still refuses to play well with others. The Bluetooth pairing creates a bandaid for the situation and will let you use things like Apple Music and Apple Podcasts over Bluetooth. It does not fix the root problem though. In this age of ever more prevalent smart devices, most of which are Android-based, and Apple only having the HomePod, Apple either needs to step up and create more smart home devices or open up their ecosystem to use the Google Home API's. It's unfortunate, but it's the reality of the situation. Using an Android-based smart device within the Apple ecosystem is going to be a hindrance.

Always Learning
While I touched on this briefly in an earlier section, there is so much to learn about smart devices. Whether it be from scouring the settings to find a setting you didn't know you had, or from software updates and machine learning evolving the experience. The smart devices are always learning and there's always things to learn by playing around with the settings and tinkering with routines or other Assistant phrases. Unless you become completely content at all times with your setup, you will always be finding new ways to interact with the Smart Display and more ways to use it and fit it into your daily routines. I like devices like that and I still play around with things on my phone as well, always looking for the best way to streamline my usage. I'm always trying to find a way to make my smart devices minimize my routines and make my daily tasks cohesive. As I mentioned it took me a few days to even see the Bluetooth pairing setting. This alone is enough to tell me there is always something I may have overlooked, a new way to better utilize the Smart Display for my own needs and uses. So I will encourage you too, to regularly peruse the settings and available apps, the routines, and how you interact with the Smart Display. You never know what may jump out at you and change your view of the Smart Display and streamline your daily life.

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The Good
  • Excellent screen clarity
  • Quick and easy to use
  • Great at what it does

The Bad
  • Short cable
  • Not mobile
  • Limited app choices (for now)

Conclusion
Even within the Apple walls, there is so much I can do with the Lenovo Smart Display. If I were to switch to Google services everything would be native and easily controlled by the Google Assistant. This one device...one..device...can turn your whole smart home experience into a voice-controlled oasis. Having more than one Smart Display around the house will make things even better because you can set one up as an alarm clock, set one up as a cookbook in the kitchen, and set a couple up in other rooms just for speakers. Even having just the one Smart Display is a great addition for anyone. Even I have to admit that is best used with Android and Google services, though it can still be used relatively efficiently with Apple products. The biggest hurdle I think most will have when it comes to the Smart Display is the cost. The eight-inch gray model I have is $200, and the ten-inch bamboo model is $250. The only thing I can counter with is to reiterate how useful and versatile the Smart Display is. It will show its worth on the first day. You can check them out on Lenovo's site here.
 
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