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How to pick the right smart display for you

Every smart display offers something a little bit different. Here's how to pick the one that fits your smart home best.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

As many Americans are spending more time at home, smart home products are becoming increasingly important necessities for convenience and security. The Consumer Technology Association reported that the shipment of smart home products, including smart displays, smart doorbells, smart cameras and smart appliances has risen 9% so far in 2021. 

If you have other smart devices in the home, a smart display can serve as a central hub for viewing and listening to your other devices. If you don't have other smart products in the home, a smart display can still serve a valuable purpose by allowing you to watch videos, listen to music, view your calendar and more.

Smart displays have come a long way since the Amazon Echo Show hit the market in 2017. Today, there are at least a dozen smart displays to choose from. Due to rapidly growing interest and demand, manufacturers are continually adding new functionality. Having options is a great thing and gives you shopping power but it can seem a bit overwhelming when it comes to making a final choice on the best smart display. That's where we come in. We've done the research for you to help you pick the right smart display for your family's needs. 

Determine your wants and needs

Why are you interested in buying a smart display? We dug in and discovered some of the best things smart displays can do. Read through the list and then determine if these features cover your needs or if there are other capabilities you are looking for. 

  • Personal assistant (i.e., Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa)
  • Video chat
  • Connectivity with smart doorbells, smart cameras and other smart home devices
  • Control other smart home devices
  • Shop online
  • Listen to music
  • Display photos like a digital photo frame
  • Privacy
  • Stream video content from platforms like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video

Once you determine what you need in a smart display, it becomes easier to narrow down your top choices. There are at least a dozen smart displays on the market to choose from, but we've highlighted some of the top choices based on their specific features. 

Compact models 

These teensy tabletop displays make great additions to nightstands, desks and other small spaces.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

This model is compact, handy and offers the convenience of controlling your other smart devices with a simple touch. Alexa, your personal assistant will take any number of voice commands. If you're looking for a small device that fits nicely on your nightstand, has customizable clock faces, connects with your other smart devices and offers privacy features like a physical camera shutter, the Amazon Echo Show 5 may be a great choice. 

If connectivity with a Ring Doorbell or Ring Camera is high on your priority list for a smart display, this model works well with the Ring Video Doorbell and the Ring Door View Camera, allowing you to talk to whoever is on the camera. We also think the Amazon Echo Show 5 has excellent sound quality if music listening is important to you, and you can stream video from Netflix, Amazon Prime and more. 

It's worth noting that this $90 model does offer video calling, but since it's a small 5.5-inch screen, it may not be the best smart display choice if video calling or watching videos is high on your priority list. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

Lenovo's Google Assistant-powered smart clock is a compact smart display for anyone with basic smart home needs. You won't get the same robust dashboard as Google's larger in-house models. There's no video chat option on this pint-size display, either. 

However, if you're just looking for basic smart home commands with helpful visuals for things like weather, traffic and games, this $80 model is a good bet. It can still communicate with the Assistant, make calls, show YouTube videos and display photos. 

Models for video chatting 

A quick call to Grandma and Grandpa is easy with these smart displays optimized for video chats. 

Google

The Google Nest Hub Max strives to make up for anything the Nest Hub lacks, albeit at a higher price. The Nest Hub Max costs $230, but includes a built-in camera that also acts as a Nest Cam for home security. 

You'll get the same helpful Google Assistant features, smart home connectivity and video streaming options as the regular Nest Hub, but with a larger screen and the option to use this device for video calls. Sound is also beefier, thanks to a larger speaker in the Max Hub's base. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

 If you want a 10-inch touchscreen powered by Alexa, the $250 Amazon Echo Show 10 is the latest and greatest in smart display technology. With a motorized base, the Echo Show 10 can follow you around the room during video calls or while you're watching video content on the device.

The 10.1-inch HD display looks good, and the Echo Show 10 comes with a 13-megapixel front-facing camera with a physical shutter for privacy. Amazon also added adaptive color to this model. Group video calling is supported with Amazon Chime or Zoom, and Drop In lets you make a call directly to your display from anywhere with the Alexa app. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Are you more of a minimalist when it comes to smart displays and only want video chatting and assistant capabilities? The Portal or the Portal Plus may be a great choice for you. Using Alexa, the Facebook Portal and Portal Plus respond to a variety of voice commands. Portal's strongest point is its video chatting, resulting from its wide-angle camera with zoom and large screens. The Portal Mini measures 8 inches, Portal 10 is 10.1 inches and the Portal Plus is 15.6 inches. The Portal runs around $199 while the Portal Plus begins at $349. 

We've reviewed the Portal and while it works well when tied into Facebook, it's not our top smart display suggestion. We also had concerns about a device manufactured by a social media giant. Even less impressive was the Facebook Portal TV device. Still, it is a good device strictly from a video-chatting perspective. Read our Portal Plus review. 

For the security-minded

If you're not interested in adding a camera to your home (and we wouldn't blame you), there is a great option that still provides plenty of smarts. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

If you're looking for a smart display with video capabilities, you should skip the Google Nest Hub (and consider the Nest Hub Max) because it doesn't have a camera. However, if you're looking for an impactful and useful smart display with a focus on entertainment, keep reading. 

This 7-inch display is a small but powerful hub for entertainment that costs around $90. Unlike other smart displays, you can enjoy YouTube with voice commands or touch. Google Assistant acts as your versatile personal assistant and responds to many voice commands, even placing calls and organizing your photos. Controlling your smart home devices is as easy as a voice command with the Google Nest Hub. 

Final thoughts 

The right smart display can be a great addition to your home. They add convenience by offering voice-controlled assistants that can perform a variety of tasks for you. Need a recipe for the best barbecue rub for your first summer cookout? With a smart display, it's as simple as asking a question. Some smart displays also enhance your home security by connecting with your other smart home devices like smart doorbells, smart cameras, smart light switches and more.

Whether you're looking for security, convenience, entertainment or the ability to have a personal video chat experience with someone far away, there is a smart display out there for you. By following the steps we've mentioned here, you'll be on the path to finding the smart display that will be perfect for your needs. 

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