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Coronavirus has changed my opinion on smart displays. Now I want one

Commentary: Wherein I turn a complete 180 amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

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I miss my friends, and sometimes a phone call isn't enough.

Angela Lang/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

I thought I hated smart displays. I have a phone, a half-functioning third-gen iPad, two laptops (one work, one personal), a desktop and a smart TV -- surely that's enough. Why would I want a clunky nontablet tablet with a built-in stand? To cook with? Maybe, but that isn't nearly enough of an incentive for me to actually buy one.

I was so sure, I wrote a whole commentary about it last May: I have enough screens in my life. I don't need a smart display too. That is still true: I have a lot of screens in my life and I don't need a smart display.

I want one. And it's because of the coronavirus

My phone isn't enough right now

A stay-at-home order is in full effect here in Kentucky. Like many of you, I have close friends and family scattered all over the world. Previously, we'd catch up regularly over chats or calls and plan semiregular visits. With those in-person visits on hold, the interim "Hey, how are ya?" chats aren't always enough. Even loved ones in town who I saw right before #quarantinelife kicked in feel far away. 

People are getting creative to combat the isolation, hosting virtual TV watch parties, game nights and more. I've used my phone and laptops for video chats so far. But the face-tracking tech in smart displays like the Google Nest Hub Max and Facebook Portals that automatically keep your subject in frame are tailor-made for them. (I still don't recommend the Facebook Portal TV.)

My mom and I talked about cooking Easter dinner "together" over FaceTime. My iPhone 8 Plus can handle that fine, but you know what would be even better? A smart display. That wide viewing angle and tracking technology would make it easier to have longer video chats while doing an activity, like cooking, where you're moving around a bit. Instead of having to occasionally reposition my phone, I could just let the smart display handle the heavy lifting while I mash potatoes. 

Now playing: Watch this: Google's Nest Hub Max smart display tracks your face
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You get bonus smart home benefits 

Aside from connecting loved ones during this pandemic, a smart display has tons of other features that make it helpful during self-isolation. Here are just a few of my favorites: 

Cooking tutorials

I'm cooking a lot more than usual right now -- and I'm guessing you are too. Both Google and Amazon smart displays have guided cooking tutorials. Either use the touchscreen on the device to pick a recipe, or ask the voice assistant for, say, a great banana bread recipe. Then, follow the steps on the screen and the interactive audio instructions from the voice assistant, totally hands-free. 

Front door sentry

Smart displays connect to compatible video doorbells and home security cameras, bringing the live feed into your house without the need for a phone. Just say, "Hey, Google/Alexa, show me the front door." That way, you can monitor package or food deliveries from inside -- and otherwise keep an eye on things outside. Make sure to check which doorbells and security cameras work with your specific display. 

Workout videos

You can watch YouTube videos on the Google Nest Hub Max and Echo Show displays, including countless free workout tutorials. My favorites are Yoga with Adriene and Carly Rowena's HIIT routines

No, I'm still not going to jump online and buy a smart display. But I've finally found a purpose for them that actually makes sense to me: to connect people when they can't be together. The smart home stuff is just a nice bonus.