While that's all well and good, more than once I've asked myself, "Why not just use a tablet?" The answer seemed simple. Smart displays are tailor-made for the smart home. Guided recipes, drop-down smart home controls. Who wouldn't want all that sweet smart home simplicity controlled by the sound of their voice? Then I tested the GE Kitchen Hub.
A light bulb suddenly went off. Smart displays might not be the smartest option. Sure, I had known about, at least on paper, the differences between using a smart display and a tablet, but when you mount a 27-inch Android touchscreen above a range, those differences become much more tangible. Here's what I mean.
Android OS vs. Android Things
Most people probably won't get in the weeds about the operating systems running the screens in their home, but it does make a difference. Smart displays and tablets use two different Android systems (there's no Apple smart display yet) and those systems change the entire experience.
Smart displays, designed for the smart home specifically, run an OS called Android Things. Good examples of this are the Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View. Whereas a Samsung Galaxy Tab, a Pixel Slate and the GE Kitchen Hub all use an iteration of the standard mobile Android OS that's on your Android phone.
The two systems are remarkably different, especially when it comes to voice control. Android Things began as a simpler version of Android for IoT products. Since then, it's become the go-to for Google-enabled smart displays and smart speakers.
These Android Things smart displays are centered around your voice: They're built to be navigated predominately with voice commands instead of taps or swipes, making them a theoretically great kitchen assistant. Ask Google to show you a recipe for macaroni and cheese, and you'll get a recipe you can swipe through using voice commands without ever putting messy fingers or wet hands on your display.
A tablet running on Android OS (currently version 9, nicknamed Android Pie), won't display those nice pop-up recipe cards. Instead, you'll still be able to ask Google for a recipe hands-free, but you'll get a web page of internet search results instead of interactive cards. You'll need to scroll and tap the result you want to pull up the recipe, which won't be navigable via voice. It's not nearly as easy as the voice-first smart display approach.
There are other smart-home centric qualities of smart displays, too. Most include swipe-down dashboard controls for things like lights, cameras and thermostats for quick, easy access. Of course, with a simple voice command you can also adjust the thermostat or turn off the lights. All of that is slightly more difficult on an Android OS tablet. You'll get a less intuitive home menu from the Google Assistant or you'll need to use the Home app or product-specific app to control your devices. No matter how you slice it, smart displays win in these areas. But the fight isn't over.
Google Play possibilities
The other big difference is the absence of the Google Play store on smart displays. This is where the GE Kitchen Hub really made its point. At first, I was disappointed to realize this giant smart home screen was actually just a mega tablet. But the tablet OS offers nearly endless customization thanks to the Google Play store, which is completely absent on Android Things smart displays.
With a large tablet like the Kitchen Hub, I could watch Netflix or any streaming service I subscribe to, download any other app I use on my Android phone or play any Android-compatible tablet game (a little Cut The Rope, anyone?).
That level of customization is what draws me to the Kitchen Hub. The idea that I can make it exactly what I want it to be is so appealing. Yes, the smart home controls will be a little less intuitive and hands-free, but they are still there. Everything you do on a smart display is still possible on a tablet and much much more.
At first, I was sure GE had made a mistake in choosing a tablet approach over a smart display. I was disappointed that I couldn't get the hands-free simplicity of the Google Nest Hub.
Now that I've used it, I see the advantages. As tablets integrate better with voice assistants and large appliances get their own built-in displays, I'm not sure the smart display will have as long a shelf life as we first imagined, unless it opens up to more user customization.