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Lenovo Smart Display 10 review: Google Assistant is your sous chef in Lenovo's take on the Echo Show

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The Good The Lenovo Smart Display is a great kitchen assistant with an elegant design and a high-resolution touchscreen. It multitasks well, responds quickly to both touch and voice commands, and offers a rich, personalized home screen and a customizable ambient mode.

The Bad I'd like the screen to do more when you play games or listen to music. You're limited to Google Duo for making voice calls. Scrolling through content with your voice can be tedious.

The Bottom Line If you'd like visual recipe help in the kitchen, the Lenovo Smart Display performs that task exceedingly well and everything else well enough that it deserves your consideration.

8.6 Overall
  • Features 9
  • Usability 9
  • Design 9
  • Performance 7

Editors' note, October 17th 2018: Stay tuned for updated comparisons once we review the upcoming Google Home Hub. Google's also rolling out a new home control screen to the Lenovo Smart Display soon. 

The Lenovo Smart Display is the first of four new touchscreen displays equipped with Google Assistant due out this year, and it enters a pitched battle between Google Assistant and Amazon's Alexa for digital assistant dominance. Designed to improve upon the premise of the Amazon Echo Show ($300 at Dell Home), the $250 Lenovo Smart Display combines a Google Assistant-powered smart speaker with a simple touchscreen that brings a visual element to the virtual assistant concept.

The idea is that a screen can provide a richer experience around using a voice assistant. Ask for nearby restaurants and the Lenovo Smart Display shows you a list of options while the embedded Google Assistant reads them off. You can use your finger or your voice to get more specific venue information such as directions and pictures. You get the same rich experience when you ask about the weather, check your calendar, ask Google Assistant random trivia questions, or issue a command to a smart home device. You can also use Lenovo's display to make video calls or watch videos on YouTube.

The Lenovo Smart Display isn't as robust as a tablet. For one, it needs to stay plugged in since it lacks a battery. There's no app store. It's also hard to avoid the fact that you can access Google Assistant from a cheaper smart speaker, and you can always turn to your phone for most of the visual help. The problems here mirror our main issues with the Amazon Echo Show, with an exception. Like the Show, the Lenovo Smart Display does many tasks pretty well, but where the Echo Show is a master of none of them, Lenovo separates itself as an outstanding kitchen assistant.

By using verbal and visual cues to walk you through recipes in a way that's actually helpful, the Lenovo Smart Display proves its worth. It also has a much more elegant design than the boxy $230 Show. The bamboo finish on the $250 10-inch Lenovo model is particularly striking, but I like the simple gray of the $200 model with an 8-inch screen as well. I'm happy to recommend either if you want help with recipes from a competent multitasker with a penchant for cooking.

What can the Lenovo Smart Display do?

Thanks to the built-in Google Assistant, the Lenovo Smart Display offers the same breadth of voice controlled features as a Google Home speaker. Say the wake words "Hey Google" or "OK Google" followed by a command or a question and Google Assistant will respond. You can play music, listen to a podcast or the radio, look up the meaning of a word, add something to your shopping list, buy something from Google Express and control more than 5,000 different smart home devices.

Similar to Alexa, Google Assistant's full list of features and capabilities is extensive. I won't go into every voice-powered feature, but you can catch up with everything you need to know about Google Home and Google Assistant here.

Getting started with your smart display

Instead of running the full Android operating system, the Lenovo Smart Display uses the newly launched Android Things. Android Things is a simplified version of Google's Android mobile OS meant to power smart home devices. On the Lenovo Smart Display, Android Things runs a customized version of Google Assistant tailored to a medium-distance user experience.

Ask a question, and the Lenovo Smart Display shows info in a large enough format that you can read it from across the room. You can't download apps, pull up a browser window, compose an email or type in any sense. The touchscreen is meant more as a complement to the voice assistant than as a robust computing interface. It's not as feature-rich as a tablet, but the Lenovo Smart Display is less expensive than most cutting-edge tablets. It also includes better speakers, a more finely tuned microphone, and the customized Google Assistant experience that makes it better suited to providing info at a glance from a distance.

lenovo-smart-display-with-google-assistant-3292-013

The horizontal 10-inch display we tested includes a 2-inch, 10-watt speaker. The vertical 8-inch display has a 1.75-inch, 10-watt speaker and slightly lower resolution (1,280x800 versus 1,920x1,200 pixels). Everything else is the same between the two. 

Josh Miller/CNET

Plug in the Lenovo Smart Display and it prompts you to go through the setup process using the Google Home app. You can assign the Smart Display to any rooms you've already established in the app, and it's smart enough to take multiple Google Home speakers into account if you already own a few. If more than one speaker hears you issue a voice command, they can determine which one you're closest to, so only that one responds to you. 

Among other customizations, you can use the app to adjust the ambient display that pops on the screen when you're not using it. I liked the old fashioned clock, but you can also show personal photos from your photo album, Facebook photos or scenic stock photos. You can add the time and current weather to any of the ambient screens.

Other than tinkering with customization and settings, you probably won't use the Google Home app to control the Lenovo Smart Display after setup. 

lenovo-smart-display-3

My favorite ambient screen was the simplest.

Chris Monroe/CNET

You'll need to start most functions with a voice command, but you can also touch the screen or ask follow-up questions to get more information. The screen comes in handy for general searches, checking the forecast, shopping, finding nutrition facts and more. Add voice recognition as you would on any Google Home speaker, and you can enable personal info on the screen. You can then edit your calendar and add reminders. Say a command, and you'll see a small box appear at the top of the screen that shows the words it hears as you talk. That kind of visual feedback is useful for telling you which words Google might not have heard correctly. 

You'll need to keep the screen positioned horizontally most of the time, but you can flip it vertically when you're making a video call. You can call businesses or any of your contacts with a voice command and if they have Google Duo (which is a free app on iOS and Android), you can have a video chat. As you'd expect, your reception on the video call will vary based on the strength of your Wi-Fi signal. With a decent signal on both ends, I was able to consistently have a clear conversation, though the picture wasn't always crisp. 

You can also scroll through and watch videos on YouTube, YouTube TV, HBO Now, Google Play Movies & TV and Crackle. You can ask for the news and customize your news feed. Some news sources include videos as well. The HD screen fares best when watching videos. Movie trailers from YouTube looked and sounded particularly great.

You can buy the Lenovo Smart Display starting on Friday, July 27. You'll find it in major electronics retailers such as Best Buy and Walmart. The model with the 10-inch screen and bamboo finish costs $250, while the 8-inch gray model is $200. 

Both products are US-only for now, but given the way Google's gradually expanded the territory of Google Home, I'd expect both to be available overseas before long. The US price for the 10-inch version converts to roughly £180 or AU$315, but we'll update when we have real prices.

A great sous-chef

The biggest reason I'd pick the Lenovo Smart Display over the Echo Show is its prowess in the kitchen. Alexa and the Show can search recipes and display the details, but the Lenovo Smart Display can walk you through the whole process step-by-step, so you can actually rely on it to provide meaningful help while you cook.

In a neat touch, you can search for a recipe on your phone and send it to your display when you find one you like. If your Android phone has Google Assistant built-in, you'll see a "Send to Google Home" button beneath certain compatible recipes. Press it and you can ask Google Assistant on your smart display to start the recipe and you're up and running. The functionality even works on iPhones if you download the Google Assistant app.

You can also search for a recipe with your voice on the Smart Display itself and scroll through your options for a wide variety of meals. Pick one and it shows you an overview with all of the necessary steps and ingredients. A big "start recipe" button sits at the bottom of the screen for you to tap when ready, or you can get rolling with a voice command.

lenovo-smart-display-17

The Lenovo Smart Display will start recipe assistance by going over the ingredients one by one. Once you start a task with a tap or a voice command, you can return to the previous screen at any time by scrolling right from the left edge of the screen. You can also scroll up from the bottom to access a quick settings menu that includes brightness and volume.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Google Assistant walks you through each ingredient one by one both by voice and text, and you can skip forward at any time. Once you're looking at the directions, the ingredient list stays on the right side of the screen, and the Smart Display keeps this screen active while you work without reverting to your ambient or home screen.

The recipe mode has a bunch of cool extras. You can scroll through directions with a touch, then say, "Hey Google, next step" and it will advance based on where you stopped scrolling, instead of reverting to where you were when you last gave it a voice command. If a step asks you to add an ingredient, you can double check how much you need on the panel on the right, or just ask and Google Assistant will know what you're referring to and answer.

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