Lenovo’s Smart Display – The Long Road to Intelligent Appliances Just Got Shorter

By Charles King Pund-IT, Inc.  August 15, 2018

Appliances are so commonplace that it’s easy to forget the often long and difficult road that most travel to success. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of changing taste, like transition from the Autumn Gold and Avocado Green kitchen appliances of the 1960’s to contemporary consumers’ preferences for stainless steel. In other cases—landline telephone handsets are a good example—core design points can last for decades, masking massive behind the scenes changes in supporting infrastructures.

Ideas for compute-enabled smart home products have been around for over two decades but have mostly failed due to high cost, innate complexity and clunky design. Plus, the fact that many such solutions aped functions and features already available on PCs, then smart phones and tablets, reinforced their innate redundancy. If you already have devices that suit the vast majority of your needs, why do you need a smart appliance?

But that situation began changing with the introduction of voice-enabled technologies, 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 a new class of smart home products? Let’s look more closely.

Lenovo’s Smart Display – Out/inside

From the front, the Smart Display features an 8-inch or 10-inch HD touch display with a rectangular Google Home 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.

From a compute perspective, 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 decidedly 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 consumers being able to simply and effectively secure their privacy. Lenovo got this exactly right.

How about the rest of the Smart Display’s features and functions? Performance is solid, which is what you’d expect from the Snapdragon 624 and included memory and storage. The HD display is crisp and responsive and 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 users are likely to prefer landscape mode for most other functions. 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, that approach makes sense since the substantial base provides far more stability than adjustable designs. However, while I found the Smart Display fine for use on a dining room table or standing desk, using 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 to some owners.

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.

Final analysis

So, what can we conclude? Minor shortcomings aside, the Smart Display is a solidly built, well-considered, attractive solution that should please Lenovo customers and also help 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 so far – Google and Amazon (with its Alexa-enabled Echo Show) – are actively developing and promoting consumer platforms that blend voice, touch, video and media functions. Lenovo is promoting its solution as the market’s first such device. More importantly, the new Smart Display has set a high bar for what consumers should expect from consumer appliances integrating Google Assistant.

Lenovo won’t be the only vendor to explore this market. But its combination of value, features and performance will make the Smart Display a tough act to follow.

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