Amazon Echo Show, Google Nest Hub, Facebook Portal and more: How to pick the best smart display in 2019
We've seen a lot of smart displays since Amazon launched the Echo Show back in 2017. Here's a quick rundown of the category.
Rich BrownFormer Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
ExpertiseSmart home, Windows PCs, cooking (sometimes), woodworking tools (getting there...)
Smart displays, as we've come to call them, are countertop touchscreen devices that also feature either the Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant voice services. The Amazon Echo Show was the first example in this category, and while it had a clunky design, its 2017 debut proved that the concept had potential.
Watch this: The battle for the best smart display: Google Home Hub vs Amazon Echo Show
The category his since grown to roughly a dozen different offerings, depending on how you define them, each with a variation on the core theme. All of them use a voice assistant and a touchscreen in combination to answer questions, play music and provide you with information about weather, the news and other things. Most of them also have a camera that enables two-way video chats.
To help you sort through all of them, here's a breakdown of every smart display currently available. Looking for the best of the best in this category? Check out the best smart displays of 2019.
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Amazon Echo Show (second generation)
The second-gen Echo Show updated the first popular smart display with a softer look, better sound quality and a large 10.1-inch display. Like the first Echo Show, you can make video calls to other Echo Show owners, watch movie trailers, play music, watch a feed from a video camera or use it as a digital picture frame, among other things. While the first model also famously lost YouTube support after its launch, Amazon built a workaround into the second-gen model by including web browser apps. You still can't use Alexa to pull up or control YouTube videos on this model, but you can at least watch them via the touchscreen interface. Better than nothing, but it still doesn't feel great given the $229 price tag.
The first-gen Echo Show has been discontinued by Amazon, but if you're chasing a bargain you can find it for less than $100 via Amazon resellers. The throwback, angular design didn't do the Echo Show any favors, but it introduced the idea of an Alexa screen on your countertop.
For the more privacy-minded consumer, an always-listening smart speaker is already problematic. Add a video camera for video calling, like you'll find on most of these displays, and the sketch-factor climbs even higher. What if I told you the 2.5-inch Echo Spot is both an Alexa speaker and a camera-equipped video-calling device, and that it's designed to go on your bedroom nightstand? Takers? Only $130.
The Echo Show 5 addresses some of the privacy concerns raised by devices like the Spot with a physical shutter you can close over the camera. Amazon's smart display with a 5.5-inch touchscreen is still designed for your bedside, and it includes the ability to watch videos and control your smart home, and all of the other tricks of the full-sized Echo Show. It also offers a few unique features specifically aimed at the bedroom such as a sunrise alarm setting. Turn this on, and the screen will gradually start getting brighter 30 minutes before you need to wake up. Better yet, the upcoming Echo Show 5 is a reasonable $90.
Speaking of privacy, it's hard to imagine a more trust-challenged company than Facebook entering this category. That said, Facebook took some steps to keep your data protected on its two Portal video chat devices. Both devices have Alexa support, but to make video calls, you need to use the eponymous Portal voice assistant. All of the processing for voice commands issued to Portal happens on the device itself, not in the cloud. Facebook also says it will gather data about the length and frequency of your calls to inform which ads you see on Facebook, but not the contents of your calls.
Smart displays let Amazon, Facebook, Google show you answers to your questions
I wouldn't blame anyone for not trusting Facebook despite that declaration. It's a shame the company has earned such a bad reputation with regard to privacy because the quality of video calls on both Portal devices is excellent. The camera has an amazingly wide viewing angle, and it's also smart enough that you can tag individual people and it will zoom in on them and follow their movements to keep them in the frame. The 15.6-inch Portal Plus is awkward-looking and expensive at $350, but the 10.1-inch, $200 Portal is more competitive with the other smart displays.
If you're not comfortable with the idea of an Amazon-, Facebook- or Google-provided video camera inside your home, Google is self-aware enough to offer a camera-free alternative, with an aggressive price to boot. The $129 Google Nest Hub (formerly the Google Home Hub) has a 7-inch touchscreen, and no camera. You control it via Google Assistant voice commands, or with the touchscreen, both of which are the most robust in this category. The screen is on the small side for smart displays, which for some people might be a turn-off. But that also makes it easy to plunk it down on a crowded kitchen counter. Guiding you through recipes is one thing every Google-powered smart display excels at.
Google has a new smart display in the works as well. The Nest Hub Max adds a Nest Cam to the mix, so it can watch your home for movement when you're not there. It features a bigger 10-inch touchscreen than the first Nest Hub and has more powerful speakers as well. Google also used the embedded smart cam for a few unique tricks: You can play and pause music with a gesture, the Hub Max can display personalized notifications when it recognizes you and the camera can follow you around on video calls, much like the main feature of the Facebook Portal. The Nest Hub Max will be competitively priced as well at $230 -- the same as the second-gen Echo Show.
JBL is one of a few third parties with a Google Assistant-based smart display, and one of two that were actually on the market before Google's own Nest Hub. Unlike that smart display, the JBL Link View has a camera for making two-way video calls via Google Duo. It also leans heavily into audio quality as a way to differentiate itself from its competitors, and we found it's especially good with bass-heavy tracks.
At $250, the Link View sits on the higher end of the smart display category. The camera, sound quality and 8-inch screen are compelling enough, but as we see more and more competition in this space, that price has become tougher to swallow.
The LG WK9 smart display also uses Google Assistant as its voice platform, but it doesn't differentiate itself enough from its competition. Its manufacturer suggested retail price was $300 before it launched, but you should be able to find it around $230 right now. It has similar features to the JBL display, and while the LG's sound quality is decent, it's not quite as good. If you can find it for a lower price, it might be worth picking up.
Lenovo's Smart Displays might be the best of this bunch if you want one with a camera. Lenovo offers a 10-inch model for $250, and an 8-inch version for $200. They both use Google Assistant and come with a camera for making video calls. And while their audio quality isn't as good as JBL's, it's good enough, and the Lenovo's screen size and the overall design of both the 8-inch and 10-inch models are clean enough that they will match pretty much any decor.
Lenovo recently debuted its own bedside smart display to compete with the Echo Spot and Show 5. The Lenovo Smart Clock sports Google Assistant, but the touchscreen doesn't have all of the same features -- you can't watch videos, scroll through a recipe or access a smart home control panel. What remains are screens for weather, your commute and your calendar -- the info you'd need when you're going to bed or first waking up. As of a recent update, you can also look at personal pics on the screen and use a Google Photos album as your screensaver. The alarms are highly customizable and you can turn on the sunrise feature to ease yourself awake. You can also smack the top of the alarm if you want a few more minutes to snooze. At $60, it's a little pricey given the limited touchscreen functionality, but if you find it on sale, it would make a great upgrade to an old-fashioned alarm clock.