JBL Link View review: The Google Assistant smart display with the best sound quality
Editors' note, Feb. 27 2019: Google rolled out a new home control screen for the JBL Link View last year and the landscape is getting more competitive with the Google Home Hub and the LG Xboom Smart Display hitting stores. This review has been updated accordingly.
The JBL Link View has the best sound quality of all current smart displays equipped with Google Assistant . Smart displays are a relatively new category of smart home tech with several good options and no clear frontrunner. All of them combine the always listening help of a smart speaker with a simple touchscreen that shows you cooking instructions, the forecast, your calendar, pictures, videos and more.
Figuring out the right smart display for you is a bit like solving a math problem. Sort through the variables to find the ones that most align with what you want. If you want a display with Amazon's assistant Alexa, that's easy: go with the $230 Amazon Echo Show . If you want one with the competitive Google Assistant, you have more choices to make.
The $150 Google Home Hub is the cutest and most affordable; it's the best entry point especially if you don't want a device with a camera. The Lenovo Smart Display ($250 for a model with a 10 inch screen or $200 for an eight-inch version) has the best screen and looks the most stylish. The $250 JBL Link View is your best option if you don't mind a more utilitarian look and want a smart display with great sound quality.
A new category of tech
The JBL Link View has a touchscreen, but it's not a tablet. It has speakers and a microphone, but it's not just a smart speaker. It shows visual information after you ask a question, but your phone can do that with the same Google Assistant. Like the Lenovo Smart Display and the Amazon Echo Show before it, the JBL Link View has a lot to prove merely to justify its existence as yet another screen looking for a place in your home.
While it's true that you can't use the JBL Link View for composing an email or downloading apps like you can with a phone or a tablet, the Google Assistant experience sits front and center to elegant effect. The Link View runs Android Things, a trimmed down version of Google's Android mobile operating system meant for simple smart home devices.
Unlike a phone or a tablet, you'll primarily use your voice to control the JBL Link View, and you're meant to engage with the screen from a medium distance. Search for a restaurant, and the display will show a couple of results along with pics of each that you can see from across the room. You can then scroll through the choices with your voice or with a touch.
Like the Lenovo Smart Display, the JBL Link View is cheaper than our favorite phones or tablets . It also has more finely tuned microphones for commanding it from afar and better speakers.
You set up the JBL Link View using the Google Home app. You can customize the ambient screen using the app -- pick from personal photos, stock photos and a clock. You can enable personalized results, set up voice match and give the Link View your address via the app.
If you're worried about privacy, the Link View has a switch to mute the microphone, and a physical shutter that covers the camera. Otherwise, it only records what you say after you say the wake words "Hey Google" or "OK Google." Since it integrates with services such as Google Calendar, you might see personalized info on the home screen, but you can turn that feature off in the app if that makes you uncomfortable.
You can order the JBL Link View now for $250 on the company's site. JBL looks to be a little behind on shipping. The website estimates a couple of weeks between when you order and when your device will be delivered. It's not yet available overseas, but the US price converts to roughly £200 and AU$350.
See what a smart display can do
Once you're up and running with the JBL Link View, you no longer need your phone as an intermediary. You can talk directly to the screen, and it will respond to commands via the Google Assistant. You can search the web, control your smart home, play music, add something to your shopping list, play a game and more.
You can also get started with a tap on the ambient screen, and the Link View will show you a snapshot of your day and the local weather. Scroll over for music and video recommendations and suggestions of other commands.
The screen shows YouTube videos in HD. You can also browse your personal photos and make a video call using Google Duo . I wish Google allowed you to use other video chat software -- even the company's own Hangouts would be nice -- but that's a minor gripe.
The quality of video calls will of course depend on your signal quality. Our test calls were smooth and clear if not perfectly crisp. If the recipient doesn't have Google Duo, you can always make a normal voice call: Google's Assistant will recognize your voice and search your contact list for the phone number. The recipient will even see that it's you calling, even though you are on the speaker.
The JBL Link View also works well as a smart home control center. You can use it to command any of the 10,000 connected devices that now work with Google Assistant. Give a voice command and you'll see additional onscreen sliders and buttons for most devices, including thermostats, lights and smart switches. For instance, turn on your Philips Hue lights with a voice command and you'll see a control panel allowing you to adjust the brightness with a swipe or change the color. You can even pull up the feed of your Nest Cam.
Swipe down from the top of the screen, and you'll see a control panel with shortcuts for common tasks like turning off the lights or broadcasting a message to other Google Assistant speakers. You can also pull up a room-by-room list of all of your devices through this screen and you can control each with a touch or with your voice.
The panel is well organized, and a great reference point if you have a lot of devices and want an overview. If certain members of your family don't want to remember the names of your rooms and smart devices for voice commands, the control panel allows them to intuitively access them and control them with a tap.
Right now, you can also watch videos from streaming services such as YouTube TV, HBO Now, CBS All Access, Google Play Movies as well as certain news videos on the Link View, but not Netflix yet. You can't even cast Netflix to the display using your phone, but you can use it as a Bluetooth speaker.
Whether you're watching videos or searching the web, you can always swipe up for quick settings like volume control and brightness, or swipe right on the screen to go back to the previous page. In general, using the JBL Link View is intuitive and the touchscreen is responsive.
The JBL Link View has enough features to be useful in most rooms of your house, but it's at its best in the kitchen. Ask for a recipe, and you'll see a number of options you can scroll through. Pick one to get an overview, then start the recipe for a customized Google Assistant program that goes through the ingredients and then the cooking directions step-by-step.
These directions are fantastic. You can skip forward and back by voice or by touch and Google will keep up. Once you're looking at the cooking steps, Google will show the ingredients in a small list on the right for quick reference. If you don't see one and you're ready to add the onions, you can just ask how much you need and Google will know what you're referring to and answer.
If you don't know how to do a certain step, you can ask for help and Google will find more detailed directions and sometimes a video so you can see how to saute, blacken or whatever step you need clarified.
You can also multitask while you cook and play a song, watch a video, set multiple named timers, add something to your shopping list and control your smart home, then you can go right back to where you left off by telling Google to resume cooking. The Link View will keep your place.
The JBL Link View is a seriously great kitchen assistant, and so is the Lenovo Smart Display and the Google Home Hub. In fact, every feature I've detailed above works the same way on the other smart displays with Google Assistant.
Both the Lenovo Smart Display and the LG WK9 run the same Android Things operating system powered by the same Google Assistant. The Google Home Hub runs on a customized version of the operating system Google uses from its Chromecast streamers, but it looks the same in practice.
The only functional differences between the devices comes from the hardware. Lenovo offers two Smart Displays. The 10-inch model costs $250 and has a bamboo back. The 8-inch model is $200 with a grey back. Lenovo also has a physical shutter and a mute switch. Both Lenovo displays are thin at the top and round out to a wider bass at the bottom left corner. They both look great -- the 10-inch model in particular.
I like the design of the JBL Link View as well, but not quite as much. It's predominantly black and rounded with speakers on either side of its 8-inch screen, and it also costs $250, so you get less screen for the price. The Link View looks more like a speaker with a screen stuck to the front, whereas the Lenovo Smart Display looks the part of a kitchen tool -- the bamboo back in particular resembles a cutting board.
Both look better than LG's smart display -- which is boxy and utilitarian. It also costs too much, with an 8-inch screen for $300 and sound quality on par with the JBL Link View. The Google Home Hub has the worst sound quality and the smallest screen of the bunch, but makes up for its deficiencies with a cute look, a clear adaptive screen and an affordable $150 price.
The Amazon Echo Show, of course, features different software as it's powered by Alexa rather than the Google Assistant. On smart speakers, Alexa and Google Assistant are equals. On smart displays, Google Assistant works better. The second-gen Echo Show made a lot of improvements, but Google Assistant still offers more intuitive smart home controls, better cooking assistance and more clever integrations with your phone.
The Echo Show has a Tap-to-Alexa feature meant to help those with hearing or speech impairments use the device. You can also use it as an intercom and "drop in" on the video feeds of other Echo Shows as long as both parties have the feature enabled. Those are the Show's only advantages as far as software.
The Echo Show's mics are the best of the bunch. They heard me from a greater distance and more easily over background noise. The JBL Link View barely edged out the Lenovo Smart Display on this test to claim the top spot of Google Assistant displays. It heard me more frequently over music. All of the models are fine if you're in the same room and speaking over low background noise.
All about that bass
With hardware as the main differentiator, especially among Google's smart displays, Lenovo did a good job of creating a model with a distinct and elegant design. The JBL Link View doesn't look bad, but with a brand typically known for its speakers, JBL clearly wanted to make its own mark with sound quality.
The JBL Link View assertively hits the bass on songs like Elephant by Tame Impala above and Sail by Awolnation. The Lenovo Smart Display can't keep up. The Amazon Echo Show does a fine job rounding the sound out with almost as much power, but it doesn't have quite the same oomph on this type of song.
Turn up a song like Sail, and you'll even see the silver metal logo on the back of the speaker bounce with the bass-filled music. Unfortunately, if you're not as into heavy bass, the JBL does lean on it and you can't adjust the EQ settings in the app. You can with Google's smart speakers like the Google Home, so hopefully that feature isn't far behind for the company's smart displays.
I'd call the Echo Show the best of the group on this song, but fortunately, the JBL Link View isn't far behind, even on the lighter melody with a greater emphasis on the vocals. Both are clearly better than the Lenovo Smart Display.
To be clear, I think the Lenovo Smart Display sounds fine, especially if you just want to listen to music in the background while you cook. The JBL Link View needed to be better to stand out from the competition, and it is.
The Link View handles a wide variety of tasks well thanks to the built-in Google Assistant. Like the other smart displays with Google Assistant, it's at its best as a smart home control center and a multitasking sous chef with a knack for helping you through recipes.
If you want help in the kitchen from a smart display that can make the room bounce with music, the JBL Link View deserves your consideration. Thanks to the same Google Assistant, other smart displays work just as well. The Echo Show isn't quite as good as Google's bunch, but the second version closed the gap enough to be worth considering if you're already invested in Alexa devices.
Go with the Google Home Hub if you want something cute and affordable. The Lenovo Smart Display is the best looking and most well rounded of the bunch. Thanks to all of this lofty competition, the JBL Link View isn't my favorite smart speaker with a screen, but it might be yours if you want to dance while you cook.