The Google Home Hub, the Amazon Echo Show and the Facebook Portal are popularizing a relatively new category of tech. What are these devices and how do they fit into your home?
Tech giants want to squeeze another screen onto your countertop. Tentatively dubbed "smart displays," these gadgets combine the functionality of smart speakers like the Google Home or the Amazon Echo with a touchscreen for watching videos, looking at pictures or seeing extra info after you ask Alexa or Google Assistant a question.
The first Amazon Echo Show introduced the idea to the mainstream last summer, but last week, the smart display category expanded in dramatic fashion. Amazon's second-generation Echo Show launched on Monday, Oct. 8. Facebook debuted the Portal the same day and Google announced the Google Home Hub on Oct. 9. Check out this post for a head-to-head rundown of these three new hubs.
With smart displays now for sale from several major tech companies (not to mentioned third-party Google Assistant touchscreens from names like Lenovo and JBL), it's time to ask if any of these devices deserves a place on your countertop.
Read more: Amazon Echo Show 5 smart display coming in June for $90
I tend to view smart displays as the next evolution of smart speakers. Like the Google Home or Amazon Echo, they are always listening for certain wake phrases like "Alexa," or "Hey, Google" -- once they hear them, they'll respond to your questions or commands. Just like smart speakers, you can ask smart displays to control your smart home , search the web, make a call, add something to your shopping list and check you calendar, among a long list of other things.
Smart displays add a touchscreen to the mix, which lets you watch videos or look at pictures. The smart displays we've tested can also walk you through a recipe step by step, show you detailed weather forecasts or give info about restaurants if you're searching for something to eat.
Currently, smart displays either use Amazon's digital assistant Alexa or Google's competitive Google Assistant. Your options with Alexa are the newly released second-generation Amazon Echo Show and the upcoming Facebook Portal. Google Assistant is built in to the Lenovo Smart Display, the JBL Link View and the upcoming smart displays from LG and Sony. The upcoming Google Home Hub also features Google Assistant.
Apple has yet to show off a smart display with its assistant Siri, but its HomePod smart speaker debuted long after the Echo and the Google Home. If Apple does decide to add a screen to its smart speaker, it might still be a while before the company releases it.
Prices run the gamut from $150 (the Google Home Hub) to $350 (the Facebook Portal Plus) but most cost between $230 (the new Echo Show) and $250 (the 10-inch Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View). See the individual reviews for international availability and pricing.
Screen sizes run from 7 to 10 inches, so smart displays won't replace your television. Without traditional apps, they're also not as functional as tablets , though you will find the same access to Google's Actions and Alexa's Skills, which are voice-centric apps that teach your assistant new tricks.
Smart displays aren't really designed for surfing the web, either. Instead, they offer a simple interface you can see from across the room, and are meant more for simple interactions designed to enhance your initial voice query. The new Amazon Echo Show is the only one thus far to even provide full browser support, with built-in versions of Firefox and Silk.
All smart displays we've seen also allow you to make video calls, but the upcoming Google Home Hub is an outlier in that it doesn't have a camera. You can still make video calls with it, but the person you're calling won't be able to see you (and yes, some folks might prefer that approach). The rest of the current crop of smart displays all have cameras for making two-way video calls.
The new Echo Show and Google Home Hub both also make it easier to control your smart home -- and not just with voice commands. Swipe down on the screen and both will show you an organized overview of your connected devices along with buttons and sliders for controlling them. Otherwise, smart displays mix in features such as showing song lyrics when you play music and scrolling through personal photos in ambient mode.
We weren't huge fans of the original Echo Show. It was boxy and ugly and there wasn't enough content to justify the screen. Alexa worked well, as expected, but the overall experience wasn't significantly different than that of the Echo Dot. The video calling feature had limited appeal since it only let you make calls to other Echo Show owners, and despite initial support for playing YouTube content, Google quickly pulled access to its video service. Overall, the Show had a hard time justifying an extra screen in your house, especially since it had the price tag of a decent tablet, but significantly less functionality.
The second major entry in the category was the Lenovo Smart Display -- the first smart display with Google Assistant -- and it changed my mind about the category as a whole. YouTube support didn't hurt, but Lenovo's display also looked stylish, was good at multitasking and featured helpful and illustrative step-by-step recipes.
The second Amazon Echo Show caught up to an extent and the rest of Google's smart displays have strengths similar to Lenovo's. Smart displays still aren't as functional as tablets. Given that you likely already own a smartphone, a TV and maybe a smart speaker, you can pretty much replicate the features of a smart display with your current tech.
However, smart displays could prove themselves useful, especially if you want help in the kitchen or if you have a lot of smart home devices. For simple tasks where you might want a visual reference, such as cooking, they're better than tablets, as they have far-field microphones that are supposed to allow them to hear you from across the room. Smart displays also have more robust speakers than tablets.
Thanks to the new smart home control panels, interacting with any connected light switches or ceiling fans is more accessible to other members of your household. Unlike a phone, you can place a smart display in a central location so your whole family can interact with one without knowing your password. True, those family members could also give voice commands to a less expensive smart speaker, but with smart displays, they can see a view of all your connected devices and control them with a tap.
Of course, not all smart displays are created equal. The Facebook Portal is focused more on video calls. It does have Alexa, but not the same touch controls, so it might not be as broadly useful. We'll know for sure when we have a chance to review it. The Google Home Hub could also shake up the landscape when it comes out in a couple of weeks, so you may want to wait to make a purchase until you see how these two contenders fare under the microscope.
Smart displays have a lot of momentum as a category, and while they might not be as obviously useful as a smartphone or a smart speaker, the good ones would make a nice addition to a lot of households.