Review: Lenovo Smart Display makes a terrible tablet, but a decent home assistant

Lenovo Smart Display review.
The Lenovo Smart Display. Photo credit: Newshub.

Lenovo is trying to take on the big players with the Lenovo Smart Display, a voice-activated assistant meant to simplify the way you use technology in the home.

But is the unique design and addition of a screen enough to take on to compete with Google and Amazon, or is this just an overpriced, underwhelming tablet?

I’ve been using a Smart Display for the past few weeks and here are my thoughts.

The good

As a smart home device, the Lenovo Smart Display rocks. The large screen is vibrant and clear, while the speaker has enough grunt to pump music, TV shows or your audio recipe for vegan nachos across the living room with ease, unlike most of its competitors.

Initial setup is quick and easy. The Smart Display pairs with nearly every other Google-compatible device in the home, meaning it picks up every Chromecast, speaker, or smartphone within a three mile radius. If I owned anything fancier like smart light bulbs or a smart home security system, it would sync with those too.

It has a unique design which I quietly enjoy. The white finish is reminiscent of a mid-2000s iMac, while the curved wood veneer furnishing the rear matches my flooring almost perfectly.

My only complaint is the large speaker on the front looks ugly and really doesn't fit with the device, while the unorthodox shape makes it impossible to orient any way other than upright.

The Lenovo Smart Display.
The Lenovo Smart Display. Photo credit: Newshub.

So what is it the Smart Display does well?

As far as smart home devices go, it’s downright excellent. Voice detection and recognition is perfect - even with my thicker-than-standard Kiwi accent - and can grab what I say from the other side of the room with no hitches.

I was pleasantly surprised with features like the morning news briefing, which uses stripped-down bulletins from ABC and Sky News to deliver the morning news in small, bitesize packages. I found myself using this pretty much every day before work, between putting on the kettle and brushing my teeth.

Going the opposite way of other smart home devices, the addition of a screen is a welcome addition to the smart home system. While things like the Google Nest or Alexa are compact and try to cause as little aesthetic damage to their surroundings as possible, the Lenovo Smart Home Display commands the space it's in by becoming the feature piece. 

"That only becomes a problem when you find something cooler to put on display," my mum weighed in.

The Smart Display runs on Android Things: a stripped back, simplified Android build meant to streamline key features on smart home devices. Running on Android means it uses Google for, well, everything - including voice recognition, video calling software and the Google search engine.

The Smart Display really is a device designed for technophobes. If you hate having to use a smartphone, despise apps and just want a chirpy, responsive voice companion that performs most simple commands without any added steps, then this is the device for you.

Boomers rejoice: we've found you a phone you don't have to hold to read.

The Lenovo Smart Display.
The Lenovo Smart Display. Photo credit: Newshub.

You might think this all sounds well and good, but if you sense a 'but' coming, you would be right. And dear reader, this is a very big 'but'.

The bad

The Smart Display might be a nifty piece of tech for people who recoil at the idea of having a complicated piece of technology, but it does half the things a normal tablet or smartphone can do yet takes up twice the space.

No amount of wood veneer or futuristic shaping can detract from the sheer ineffectiveness of the Smart Display. Aside from the three things I did most: watching videos on YouTube, listening to music on Spotify and pulling up nacho recipes, I wasn't able to do anything else.

Put bluntly, it doesn't 'do' much at all.

After sitting down and trying out as many different voice commands as I could think of, I grew frustrated when simple tasks achieved by my phone failed on the starting block for the Smart Display.

Check last night's sports results? No luck. Open apps like Twitch, Facebook or Twitter? Those apps aren't supported yet. Check my email inbox? Sorry, we didn't understand that command.

This device might be Santa's Little Helper when it comes to holding open the digital recipe book, but when it comes to achieving real-world tasks to streamline your life, it's not helpful.

Even using voice-to-text got boring eventually. Trying to navigate around apps like YouTube is a blast for the first five minutes, but eventually, playing a non-stop game of Carmen Sandiego just to get to the latest K-pop hit gets tiresome.

The verdict 

So here's the deal. If you renounce technology and want something to sit on the mantle, look pretty and read recipes to you while you sift the cake mixture, then the Lenovo Smart Display is for you. 

But as a self-confessed technophile who gets his kick out of new features, specs and gimmicks, the stripped-back, simplistic service the Smart Display offers just isn't for me.


Oskar was supplied a Lenovo Smart Display for this review.