Smart Displays Reviewed - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Updated: Aug 6
The title pretty much says it all. However, the one I would generally recommend for practicality, ease of use and just being braver than the others, is the Ugly! Read on to find out why in my frank review...
NB (At the bottom you can find my full table of comparisons for download)
Recently, I have been able to review three of the latest Smart Displays with a special emphasis towards accessibility, cost, video-calling and NOT having to subscribe to any further services!
I had access to an Amazon Echo Show 5-inch (Alexa Assistant), a Facebook 8-inch Portal Mini (Alexa Assistant) and Lenovo 7-inch Smart Display (Google Assistant).
Google's Nest Hub and Google's Next Hub Max Smart Displays were not part of the remit due to the basic Google Nest Hub (£79.99) not supporting video-calling and the cost of over £200 for the Google Nest Hub Max. Given the current situation, with the Pandemic having led to a boom in video-calling, this is a great shame. I hope that Google quickly release an updated version of their smaller model to include this feature.
NB: My testing was conducted on the basis that I would not subscribe to any subscription services and would be using them only as a free user having just purchased a Smart Display.
MAIN POINTS TO TAKE NOTE OF:
All devices really require an additional smartphone or tablet with Alexa or Google home app on it!
Whilst these are all 'Smart Displays' do not think they will all be largely the same but just made by different companies. There are some significant differences and careful thought must be given to how you ideally would want to use one before you choose to buy.
My general feel is if money is limited and you can choose only one, then a tablet *may* be a better purchase for the money as you can do far more with them – but then these smart displays are aiming to fill a very different niche.
Do not be fooled into thinking that as the Portal comes with Alexa, its smart speaker will behave like an Amazon Alexa device - It doesn’t!
The Google assistant is streaks ahead of the Alexa in its ability to answer questions. i.e. Try asking the Alexa and the Google ‘what time is 3:25 EDT in BST?’ – Only the Google will tell you!
If sound quality is important to you then the larger the smart display, the better – this is especially true of the Lenovo (NB I have not tried the larger 10 inch Lenovo, Echo Show 8 inch or Portal but I think it's safe to assume they all must have better speakers)
Here at Enrych Connect we work with people with a wide array of disabilities and health challenges. Our aim is to ensure that *everyone* who wants to, can participate in this IT-age. As such, we are always extra-interested in accessibility.
All three of the devices have excellent accessibility options including screen-readers, magnifier, closed captioning and high contrast setting and they all seemed to work well!
I especially liked the fact that you can link an email account to the Echo Show and it will read out and reply to your email, by voice alone. Interestingly and despite the rivalry, you can link a Google Gmail account to it! Disappointingly, the Lenovo Smart Display does not currently support email. I think the Echo Shows ability to read out your email, along with being able to order shopping (albeit from Amazon), makes the Show especially worth considering with respect to anyone Visually Impaired.
It was easier to turn the settings on and off using the Google Home App for the Lenovo. The Portal and Echo required you to touch the screen and scroll through the menu's to activate the various options.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Amazon Echo Show (The Good - but with nag issues) £59.99
Echo Show Summary:
Good all rounder but Amazon product pushing quickly gets annoying. A significant plus point is its Email reading feature.
The Echo Show proves to be an effective general smart speaker and display with free music (ad supported) that just worked. With the addition of pretty easy video-calling via Alexa apps or Skype, its good at doing what it claims.
This has a fixed position/non pan and scan video calling system that showed quality images.
I sort of like the idea of the Echo Shows ‘drop-in’ ability. Could be useful to 'drop-in' on Nan and 'see' how she is - it could also create lots of amusing anecdotes!
It doesn’t feel as good a quality as the Portal Mini but behaved much better and was easier to get on with!
I loved, loved, loved, the onscreen lyrics! (with a free account!)
The bigger the Echo Show, the better the speaker and sound quality.
If you link an email account it will read and reply to emails for you! This is a definite plus point for people with VI.
You can easily order things (from Amazon!) using just your voice, though this does require an Amazon Prime account (£79 a year / £7.99 a month)!
You can set it up so that you can do an order from Tesco, Morrison's or Sainsbury's on it.
It doesn't miss an opportunity to remind you of its various Amazon subscription services! In fact it gets annoying in its 'naggy-ness'. It's a significant negative for me.
As with free, non-subscribing accounts on Echo Alexa Smart Speakers, you cannot choose specific songs without a paid Amazon subscription.
Facebook Portal Mini (The Bad) £129.99
Portal Mini Specific Summary:
Feels like quality and the best of the three to look at, plus great video-calling. It is however stunted, frustrating and limited in several other areas.
The Portal Mini is very good at doing video calling for your Facebook and WhatsApp contacts. It did it smoothly and it did it well. The pan and scan camera is a nice touch, though it could be a little slow to respond at times.
It has the nicest 'Photo Frame' of the three.
It has a reassuring weight about it, suggestive of quality.
At present, I would only recommend the Portal to ardent Facebook users as it would easily add all your Facebook contacts and make for an easy, seamless way to video call them!
The Portal Mini broke after two days! It just showed a black screen and wouldn’t turn on – I will be generous and say I was perhaps just unlucky.
I could not get the Portal Mini to play Amazon free music despite having linked it in my Alexa App. The only free music I could get it to play was through a Deezer account and that didn’t appear to support lyrics.
I suspect the Portal Mini needs more updates to make it better to use – there seem to be more options available to you (i.e. ability to 'Hey Portal') if you are in the US/Canada.
As with free, non-subscribing accounts on Alexa Smart Speakers, you cannot choose specific songs without a paid Amazon subscription.
Lenovo 7 inch Smart Display (The Ugly - but DO NOT judge a book by it's cover!) £79.99
Lenovo 7 inch Smart Display Summary: (My favourite)
Its spirit is brazen and bold and it does many things well but boy, is it ugly. Easiest and most intuitive to use, has the best music and YouTube skills but sadly let down by poorer speaker quality.
This, unashamedly and unlike the other two, does not have an onscreen keyboard. It doesn’t want to be seen as a pared-back tablet attached to a speaker – it wants to be controlled largely by voice with a bit of touchscreen action and what a good job it does. It was the most straightforward device for me to use and get to know out of all three.
The ability to ask for *specific* songs on Spotify Free or YouTube Music Free (ad supported) with no extra subscriptions is just great and easily makes it better for getting the music you want, than either of its rivals.
The Google assistant (licensed in this case to Lenovo) does not seem at all ‘stunted’ in the way that the Alexa version licensed to Facebook for use on their Portal is.
The Google assistant is the superior AI and is noticeably better at answering specific questions and gives more comprehensive answers along with images where relevant.
For YouTube lovers, with its native YouTube app, this is way better than the Echo Show or Portal Mini - a YouTube lovers no-brainer choice.
You can set it up so that you can order Tesco and Asda shopping.
It’s a shame that onscreen lyrics do not work as well as on the Echo Show. (This may change with a subscription and full access to Google Play music?)
Poor speaker sound on this 7 inch model in comparison to the other two.
Only supports Google Duo video-calling which isn't as popular as other options.
Does not support reading of your email or doing general, non-food, online shopping (unless you are in the US - this should mean that this is a feature that will come in time to the UK.)
NB: Bizarrely I could not play specific songs on Spotify free with my Google Nest Home Smart Speaker using Googles AI – both devices with the same free account linked to them?! The Google Smart speaker instead tried to play me songs based on the one I requested.
For people who like all the detail, click below for my full table of comparisons:
Disclaimer: These opinions are my own as the IT Support Specialist for Enrych Connect. Where appropriate and irrespective of my experiences with these devices, Enrych Connect would always strive to connect the right device to the right person! We have received no free equipment in this trial, nor been influenced in any way by any particular companies marketing team!