LG WK9 ThinQ Xboom AI Smart Display review: Despite Google Assistant, LG's smart display doesn't justify its price
Even before I opened the box, the LG Xboom AI WK9 Smart Display had a lot going against it. It's late to the game -- Lenovo, JBL and more recently, Google already have similar smart displays with Google Assistant built in. It's expensive -- $300 as opposed to $150 for the Google Home Hub and $250 for the JBL Link View or Lenovo Smart Display. It's also kind of ugly -- I'd call it boxy at best, whereas the Lenovo Smart Display is elegant and the Google Home Hub is cute.
After spending some time with it, the appearance of the WK9 grew on me a little. I'd still call it ugly, but it's also simple and straightforward, and it cleverly tilts the screen upward for a nice viewing angle throughout a room. Since it has Google Assistant built in, the WK9 also sports all of the cool features that made me like the other smart displays mentioned earlier. It showcases Google's attractive user interface and responds to a wide variety of voice commands. With the touchscreen, you can watch videos, scroll through pictures, check on your calendar, walk through the steps of a recipe, and more.
Because of the other, less-expensive options, the LG WK9 had to have terrific sound quality to earn its keep, and LG partnered with high-end English audio company Meridian for just that purpose. As a result, its sound quality when playing music is indeed good, but it doesn't keep up with the cheaper JBL Link View, and it's only slightly better than the Lenovo Smart Display. In a vacuum, I'd call the LG WK9 a good smart gadget that was worth your consideration, but I'd recommend the cheaper Link View if you really want a smart display that can rock or the Google Home Hub if you're primarily after the touchscreen-enhanced smarts.
If you're familiar with any of Google's other smart displays, then you're familiar with the basics of the LG WK9. You'll primarily use voice commands to interact with it as it has Google Assistant built in -- the same assistant in Google Home smart speakers, most Android phones and the smart displays mentioned above.
Thanks to Google Assistant, you can ask the LG Smart Display to search the web, check your calendar, play a song, control your smart home and more. Google Assistant's roster of abilities is growing constantly. The screen will show you what it hears as you talk so you'll know if it mishears you -- a nice, obvious feature that you currently don't get with Amazon's smart display, the Alexa-equipped Echo Show.
The screen will also do its best to show info relevant to your voice command. Check the weather and you'll see the week's forecast. Search for a place to eat and you can see pictures of and directions to local restaurants. I'm a big fan of the step-by-step recipe guides on these devices. Google will walk you through how to cook a wide variety of meals. You can skip forward and back through the steps as necessary, and you can also multitask while Google saves your place in the recipe for when you need to refer to it next.
The touchscreen uses the same Android Things operating system as the other third-party options from Lenovo and JBL. Android Things is a trimmed-down version of Google's famous Android mobile operating system meant for smart-home devices. On smart displays, Android Things is customized to show information in a large format that you can see from across the room.
It works well, as you'll always be able to interact with anything you see on the screen with a touch or with your voice. As a whole, Google Assistant makes better use of a touchscreen than Amazon's Alexa on the Echo Show. Weirdly, the Google Home Hub uses a different operating system than the third-party products, but it functions the same. All Google Assistant-equipped smart displays offer the same voice commands and the same touchscreen experience.
You can scroll right to go back a page, scroll up for quick settings like volume and brightness, or scroll down for a smart-home control panel allowing you to see all of your compatible devices and perform common tasks like turning off the lights with shortcuts.
You'll set up the LG WK9 using the Google Home app. Plug it in, use the app to connect it to your Wi-Fi and then you can sync a variety of music streaming services such as Google Play Music and Spotify as well as video services like YouTube and CBS All Access. (Note, CNET's parent company is CBS, which also operates CBS All Access.) You can listen to music and watch videos on the display itself, or cast content to other compatible devices in your home.
The LG WK9 also has a built-in camera (the Google Home Hub is the only one that doesn't) so you can make video calls using Google Duo -- the search giant's video chat app built into most Androids and available for download on iPhones. You can make voice calls as well, and Google Assistant can recognize your voice and search through your contacts to find the right number when you tell it to "call mom." She'll even see it's you calling on her caller ID.
Check out this primer for more on Google's smart displays and smart displays in general. You can buy the LG WK9 ThinQ Xboom AI Smart Display now from LG's site for $300. The Xboom AI ThinQ is only available in the US for now, but LG promises other markets will follow shortly. (The $300 US price converts to roughly £230 or AU$410.)
Putting the 'boom' in Xboom
Given the software similarities, LG's smart display needed to have better hardware than the rest to be worth the extra money. It has an eight inch screen that looks fine playing videos, but the wide black bezels don't help its already bland aesthetic. The JBL Link View has an eight-inch screen that looks relatively bigger on a less bulky body. The Lenovo Smart Display has a screen that's actually bigger with a 10-inch model that seems to dwarf the LG screen by comparison. You can also get a Lenovo Smart Display with an 8-inch screen for just $200. The Google Home Hub has a 7-inch screen that outclasses its size, thanks to great adaptive brightness.
The WK9 has a physical mute button and a shutter you can slide over the camera if you want extra privacy. Touch controls on either side of the mute button can raise and lower the volume, and that's it for extras -- all of which mirror the other smart displays.
The WK9 fared well in my microphone tests. It could hear me from across the large great room of the CNET Smart Home and it even heard me from the next room, as long as I spoke loudly. It also heard me over low background noise but usually couldn't make out my voice if I turned up the music. The JBL Link View picked up my voice more frequently over background noise, but the WK9 has competent mics that will hear you correctly most of the time -- once again, just like the other smart displays.
That leaves sound quality as the one area where LG's smart display could reasonably hope to stand out. LG partnered with Meridian, which has designed high-end speaker systems and in-car audio for Jaguar Land Rover. To give your music extra oomph, the WK9 features two 20-watt speakers and dual passive radiators on the back for bass. In terms of specs, that's the most powerful combination of sound equipment of the Google Assistant displays.
In practice, the WK9 does sound good. Orchestral music sounds powerful and well-rounded. You can feel the beat if you turn up the volume on rock. It's weirdly not that much louder than the Lenovo Smart Display at max volume, but the sound is definitely fuller. At high volumes, it'll occasionally distort high flat frequencies, so you might hear something off if you're blasting jazz. Complex tracks can also sound a little muddy, so you might not be able to pick out all of the instruments.
None of this will matter unless you're listening extremely carefully or you're a practiced audiophile. If you want something to pump out fun background music while you cook, the LG WK9 is more than up to the job, but here's the catch: it doesn't outclass the JBL Link View. In fact, the less-expensive Link View sounds louder, deeper and a little clearer.
Since you can find better sound in a cheaper smart display, the $300 LG Xboom AI ThinQ WK9 Smart Display just doesn't have anything going for it to make it worth the extra money. It can do all of the cool tricks I've come to expect of a Google Assistant-equipped display, but you can get the same features on more-attractive smart displays that cost less.
If you want a smart display with great sound quality, go with the $250 JBL Link View. The 10-inch, $250 Lenovo Smart Display is the most well-rounded option with the biggest screen. The $150 Google Home Hub is the cutest and cheapest, and it offers adaptive brightness for scrolling through pictures. The LG WK9 isn't the best at anything, so I don't recommend spending a premium to get it.