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Review: Lenovo Smart Display Is What's Next For Google Assistant

The CRN Test Center goes hands-on with one of the first devices to combine the Google Assistant with video.

Pretty much from the get-go, the Google Assistant has been impressive for its smarts and usefulness as a voice assistant. We think one of the first attempts at combining video with the Google Assistant, the Lenovo Smart Display, is a worthy advancement over the now-prevalent smart speaker concept.

It's not perfect, and it's priced well above the typical smart speaker. But the Lenovo Smart Display, which goes on sale Friday, is truly more versatile than the Google Home or Amazon Echo even with this first-gen model.

We tested out the 10-inch model, which features a bright and sharp FHD screen and an appealing bamboo design on the backside.

[Related: War Of The Smart Speaker]

Full disclosure: We haven't tried out Amazon's Alexa-powered display device, the Echo Show, which the Smart Display is competing with. But as has been well publicized, Google has prevented Amazon from including YouTube on the Echo Show. Regardless of what you think about that controversial move, it gives a key advantage to Lenovo's Smart Display.

That's because the ability to look up YouTube videos by voice is one of the key features of the Smart Display, although getting the right phrasing down may take a little practice. For example, saying "Play the video for Buddy Holly by Weezer" returned the correct result. But giving the Smart Display's Google Assistant a less-specific command, such as "Play a Kid Rock video," actually opened a Kid Rock song from the YouTube Music service.

While there are some situations where you can navigate by using the display's touch screen, for the most part the Smart Display is oriented toward voice control. There are no apps on the home screen, per se, just a list of ideas for what to ask the Google Assistant that can be accessed by swiping in from the right side. So there'll be a bit of a learning curve in order to get used to what the Smart Display can do (beyond answering now-familiar voice assistant queries).

One of our favorite features is asking the Smart Display a standard voice assistant question: "What's the news?" While standard smart speakers will fetch you the latest briefing from outlets such as NPR, the Smart Display makes good use of its screen by pulling up the latest video updates from outlets such as Reuters and Bloomberg. You can specify in the Google Home app which briefings you want to see first, or use a voice command, such as "Play Bloomberg news," to fetch a specific briefing.

The Smart Display also offers "routines" that will play, for instance, upcoming calendar items, weather and traffic based on asking a certain prompt (such as saying "Good morning" or "Tell me about my day"). While smart speakers do this too, the Smart Display adds the visual element by showing details about your schedule and the weather forecast.

Where do Lenovo and Google picture the Smart Display being used? The bedroom makes a lot of sense, but the kitchen may be the ideal location for the device. That's partly because the Smart Display is a recipe whiz. While working off recipes on a phone can be a hassle, the Smart Display lets you search for recipes by voice and then pulls up step-by-step directions. The Google Assistant will read out the recipe directions if you want, or you can just scroll through them on the screen.

Later, while you're doing the dishes, the Smart Display can turn into your TV. The device supports services such as HBO Now and YouTube TV, as well as Google Play Movies and TV.

The Smart Display also has Chromecast built into it, so you can cast video content from your phone. We tried out casting Hulu, and it worked great. We weren't able to get Netflix to work (the Google Assistant informed us that "Netflix can't be played on Smart Display" when we asked about it).

You will need to pull up the video on your phone to get it started over Chromecast—no voice control there--but you can at least use voice commands to pause and restart videos while using over Chromecast.

Podcasts are supported, via the new Google Podcast service, and can be pulled up with the voice command "Play the latest episode of [podcast name]."

As for music services, the Smart Display works with Spotify and Pandora as well as Google's services (Play Music and YouTube Music). The display can also work as a Bluetooth speaker. We weren't blown away by the audio quality, which, like many other smart speakers, comes up a bit short on bass. The speaker is fine for playing music at lower volumes and for TV content, but along with the subpar low end, the sound can get a bit distorted at the top volumes.

Video calling is another option, although your loved ones on the other end will need the Google Duo app (available for both Android and iOS). While normally the Smart Display sits horizontally, it can sit up vertically for video calling purposes.

There's a lot more that you can do with Lenovo's Smart Display—such as smart home control, creating shopping lists and placing orders at Target and Walmart. And presumably more will be added over time; Netflix support would be nice.

The 10-inch model is priced at $249.99, pretty close to the $229.99 Echo Show (which has a smaller, 7-inch display, in addition to other differences along with the lack of YouTube). There's also an 8-inch model for the Lenovo Smart Display, which has a lower-res, HD display and is priced at $199.99. With either device, you're paying much more than you would for the $100 Amazon Echo or $129 Google Home. But as long as you're really into YouTube and recipes—or are a fan of the supported video services or Chromecast--we think the extra investment may just be worth your while with Lenovo's Smart Display.

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