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Lenovo Smart Clock review: A small smart display that doesn’t display much


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Lenovo Smart Clock review: A small smart display that doesn’t display much

$89 gets you the most affordable (and limited) Google Assistant display available.

Lenovo Smart Clock review: A small smart display that doesn’t display much
Valentina Palladino

Google, Amazon, Facebook, and the like want to convince you that you need a smart display. But as we've explored in previous reviews, most smart displays are luxury versions of their screen-less counterparts. Everything that you can do with an Amazon Echo or a Google Home can be done with a comparable smart display, but the latter can show you visual information and (in some cases) videos. If you don't care much for visual information in such a device, why spring for a smart display? These devices are hard sells, particularly because most cost $150 or more.

 

That's not the case with Lenovo's new Smart Clock. It's the first Google-Assistant answer to Amazon's Echo Spot, serving as a tiny smart screen that shows the time by default and can be used to set alarms and do everything a regular Google Home device does. It could be an ideal device for someone who wants a virtual assistant at home and could use some visual information in their daily routine. But most importantly, it's great for those who don't want to spend a lot—Lenovo's Smart Clock costs $79, which is even more affordable than the $129 Echo Spot.

 

But a few big differences distinguish Lenovo's Smart Clock from Amazon's Echo Spot, and they will be make-or-break for some users. We used both devices for about a week simultaneously to see if a tiny smart display is the way to go and how the two compare to each other.

Design

Lenovo ditched the wood accents it used in its full-sized Smart Display and opted for a soft-touch fabric in the Smart Clock. It's understandable in a device that will likely live on a bedroom nightstand, and it ended up being a quaint addition to mine. It takes up about as much space as my cheap alarm clock does, and I could easily read the time on its 4-inch 480×800 touchscreen.

 

The embedded ambient light sensor automatically adjusts the screen's brightness so you won't be blinded by a harsh square of light in the middle of the night. There are 10 clock faces to choose from, too, so you have some control over the digital aesthetics of your alarm clock. You can even enable "dark mode" to give most clock faces a grayscale effect.

 

Specs compared: Lenovo Smart Clock vs the competition

Device Lenovo Smart Clock Amazon Echo Spot Amazon Echo Show 5
Price $79 $129 $89
Processor MediaTek 8167S ARM Cortex-A53 MediaTek MT 8163
Display 4-inch 480×800 IPS touchscreen 2.5-inch 480×480 touchscreen 5.5-inch 960×480 touchscreen
Camera None 1 x Front-facing 1 x Front-facing
Speakers 1 x 1.5-inch 3W speaker, 2x passive radiators 1 x 1.4-inch speaker 1 x 4W speaker
Buttons/ports 1 x mic mute, 1 x volume up/down, 1 x USB 2.0 port 1 x mic/camera disable, 1 x volume up/down, 3.5mm audio output 1 x mic disable, 1 x camera shutter, 1 x volume up/down, 3.5mm audio output
Connectivity 802.11ac WLAN, Bluetooth 802.11 a/b/g/n (2.4 and 5 GHz) Dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2.4 and 5 GHz) Dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Dimensions 4.483×3.14×3.11 inches 4.1×3.8×3.6 inches 5.8×3.4×2.9 inches
Weigh .72 pounds .92 pounds .91 pounds

 

Aside from the display, the Smart Clock has two top buttons for adjusting volume, a power port, a microphone disable switch, and a USB 2.0 port on its body. The latter makes charging smartphones and accessories easy because you can plug charging cables into it instead of an AC outlet or a USB port in a less convenient place next to your bed.

 

Mic-kill switches have become commonplace on devices like these because users increasingly care about their privacy in the wake of AI devices becoming ubiquitous. The Smart Clock doesn't have a camera at all, unlike the Echo Spot, so there's no need for a camera shutter or kill switch.

 

That may be the biggest selling point of the Smart Clock. The decision to leave the camera out of the original Google Home Hub (now called Nest Hub) was confusing because Lenovo's Smart Display included one for Duo video chatting. However, a device as small as the Smart Clock won't be the best video chatting tool, so a camera's usefulness is minimal.

 

Video calling with the Echo Spot will likely come in handy more if you have the device on your office desk. That way, it acts as a hands-free camera with which you can answer video calls using your voice. Placing video calls with the Spot isn't any different from doing so with the Echo Show, either—just ask the device to call a specific contact and, if the contact has an Echo Show or Spot or can be reached via the Alexa app on their smartphone, your video feed will start by default. Saying "Alexa, turn video off" will disable your camera and make the call voice-only.

 

You can also use Alexa's Drop-In feature to "call" other Echo devices in your home—and if one of those devices happens to be an Echo Show, you can video chat with your family in the living room just by using the Echo Spot in your bedroom. Like the Smart Clock, the Echo Spot includes a mic and camera-kill button that sits between the volume up and down buttons.

 

While a camera is a convenient feature to have on the Echo Spot, it makes more sense to include on larger smart screens like the Echo Show or the Nest Hub. If you're resigning yourself to video chatting on a small screen, you might as well just use your smartphone—and with Alexa's mobile app, you can video chat with or Drop-In on any contacts just like you can on any standalone Echo device.

Google Assistant vs. Alexa: Tiny screen edition

While hardware differences are important, the great divide between the Lenovo Smart Clock and the Echo Spot comes from their virtual assistants—Google Assistant and Alexa, respectively. We've dived deep into both platforms in previous reviews, so we're not going to rehash everything here. However, we paid particular attention to the features that one would expect a smart clock to excel at, namely waking you up, showing and telling personal information, and connecting to smart home systems.

Alarms and routines

Despite their geometric differences, the Smart Clock and the Echo Spot do similar things with their displays, with telling time being the focus for both. On the Smart Clock, swiping up from the bottom reveals quick-setting icons for changing brightness, volume, and other aspects of the on-screen UI like the clock face. Swiping down from the bottom reveals even more quick settings including icons to edit your alarms, set a nap timer, play music, and control smart lights (if you have any paired through the Google Home app).

 

When an alarm is active on the Smart Clock, a tiny icon appears at the top-right corner of the clock face. When that alarm's time approaches, a larger oval appears underneath the current time that states how much longer until the alarm goes off. This is particularly useful in the mornings when you glance at your alarm clock wondering how many more minutes of precious sleep you have before you need to wake up. You can quickly disable the alarm by tapping on that oval, so if you're like me and frequently wake up five minutes before your alarm goes off, you can spare your partner the rude awakening.

 

smartclock2-980x654.jpg

 

The Echo Spot doesn't have the same on-screen mechanism, but it does show your alarm's time below the current time whenever an alarm is set. You can also disable it before it goes off, but you need to tap on the alarm's time and then tap "cancel alarm" to do so. Both devices also have numerous preset alarm tones, and you can also have either device wake you up to your favorite song or artist if you connected your preferred music source (like Spotify, iHeartRadio, and others).

 

Instead of barking multiple, individual commands at the Smart Clock when you wake up each morning, you can set a Good Morning routine full of tasks that the Google Assistant will complete in succession after you say the appropriate command ("OK Google, good morning" or something similar). Alexa has customizable routines as well, and both let you hear weather and traffic information, automatically turn on smart lights, and play specific playlists without you lifting a finger.

 

As with any routine, you need to do all the creation and customization in the Google Home or Alexa mobile app. These smart clocks aren't smart enough to let you drastically edit a routine using their touchscreens.

 

The biggest differences between devices like Lenovo's Smart Clock and the Echo Spot come out when you're customizing a routine or doing anything that involves connecting other devices and accounts to your smart display. The Google Assistant and Alexa can connect to multiple third-party services and devices, but you need to do research before investing in one platform or the other to see if your favorite services are supported. For example, I subscribe to Apple Music—the Google Assistant currently cannot connect to it, but Alexa can. That means all of the music I could play on the Smart Clock had to come from my ad-supported Spotify account.

 

We talked about video chatting previously, but the Smart Clock and the Echo Spot can also show camera feeds from home security devices that you may have around your home. While Alexa can connect to a host of smart security cameras, the Google Assistant only supports Nest cameras at this time. That means that, if you have any cameras that aren't from Nest, you'll have to turn to the accompanying mobile app to check live feeds and recorded footage.

 

Otherwise, the Google Assistant and Alexa both support a wide variety of smart home devices, and there's a lot of overlap. It's worth checking if your current smart lights, thermostats, door locks, and more will work with one or both platforms before deciding which to invest in, but you likely won't have to worry about your devices not being support by either. Both the Google Assistant and Alexa let you create rooms in addition to routines, so you can group smart home devices as you'd like and control some or all of them with the appropriate commands.

Personal and visual information

While the small screens on both Lenovo's Smart Clock and Amazon's Echo Spot aren't the best for video chatting or watching videos, they are good for displaying bite-sized pieces of information that can help you during your morning routine.

 

One of the first things I asked both devices was for the day's weather forecast—I got the same answers but in very different ways. The Echo Spot took one or two seconds to tell me the high and low temperatures along with sun and cloud icons showing that day's weather forecast. The Smart Clock had most of the same visual and audible information, but it took a whopping 15 seconds to give it to me.

 

This slowness persisted whenever I asked the Google Assistant on the Smart Clock to do anything, including play a song on Spotify, turn on the bedroom lights, or tell me the day and time of the next Raptors' game. It rarely failed to do what I asked it, but it was significantly slower to execute than Alexa was on the Echo Spot despite being on the same Wi-Fi network and positioned next to each other on my nightstand.

 

Multiple people can use both the Smart Clock and the Echo Spot thanks to voice recognition. Google's Voice Match is the more comprehensive of the two, though. This lets the Google Assistant recognize who's speaking when a command is given so it can spit out the proper calendar, photo, flights, and media information. It's a handy feature to have in a smart clock that will be used by more than one person regularly. And now with GSuite integration (currently in beta), the Google Assistant can read off work calendar appointments in addition to appointments scheduled on your personal calendar. Amazon's technology works similarly, but it connects to fewer pieces of personal information (music and shopping lists among them) than Google's Voice Match.

 

Lenovo's Smart Clock may be designed for your nightstand, but you could put it anywhere in your home just like you could the Echo Spot. However, the Smart Clock isn't as useful as Lenovo's full-sized Smart Display or even Google's Nest Hub when it comes to visual information. Take recipes: those larger smart displays can show numerous recipes for chocolate-chip cookies, allowing you to choose from and follow instructions by either using the touchscreen or your voice to advance to the next steps.

 

That's not possible on the Smart Clock—asking how to make chocolate-chip cookies forces the Google Assistant to choose the first recipe it finds in its search and dictate the instructions to you. That's not abnormal for a smart speaker because Amazon's non-display Echo devices give recipes a similar treatment. However, the Echo Spot acts just like a smaller, round version of an Echo Show, creating a list of chocolate-chip cookie recipes complete with photos and videos for you to swipe through and choose from before you begin cooking. You can either have Alexa read the instructions to you, or you can follow the steps written on the Spot's screen.

 

You'll get similar results when asking the Smart Clock a question that could yield a YouTube video answer on Lenovo's larger display or the Nest Hub. Instead of a carousel of video options to choose from, the Smart Clock will only answer you audibly. These inconsistencies make Lenovo's Smart Clock more limited than any Google Assistant smart display. While you may expect to give up some features in a more affordable device like the Smart Clock, it doesn't bode well for the device in the long run—those who thought they were getting a shrunken version of the Nest Hub will be in for a nasty surprise.

Mobile apps

Devices like the Smart Clock and the Echo Spot act as executors for preferences that you customize within the Google Home and Alexa mobile apps. Neither app is that pleasant to use, but the recently redesigned Alexa mobile app remains leaps and bounds better than the Google Home app. What was once the only true interface for Google's Chromecast is now a confusing amalgamation of every smart home setting you could possibly need. Ars' Ron Amadeo lamented the app's copious menus, endless pages, and duplicated settings when he reviewed the Google Home Hub, and not much has changed since then.

Instead, Alexa's mobile app opens to a general homepage that includes weather information and info cards with things like the last Audible audiobook you listened to, your recently accessed to-do list, and suggestions for Alexa Skills and voice commands to try. You can easily navigate to your contacts in the Communicate tab, music and other media in the Play tab, and all of your connected devices (Echo and others) in the Devices tab. If you're more of a list-menu person, you can access everything there as well in addition to lists, alarms and reminders, and a log of your Alexa activity.

Visualizing time, but not much else

Lenovo's Smart Clock and Amazon's Echo Spot are appealing because they combine conveniences of a virtual assistant with a piece of technology that almost everyone needs. Tiny smart displays could make useful smart alarm clocks purely because we all need something to wake us up each morning. Lenovo's Smart Clock could make a good first Google Assistant device for those who want a device they know they'll use regardless of how much they actually use the assistant itself.

 

But if you already have a Google Home or a Google Home Mini, Lenovo's Smart Clock doesn't provide much in the way of information visualization. You could ask both a Smart Clock and a Home Mini for the same information and the visual aspects the Smart Clock provides wouldn't make that information any better than straight audible information.

 

However, the Google Assistant needed a device like Lenovo's Smart Clock because it helps it compete with Alexa, which now has two tiny smart displays in addition to a slew of other devices. It's clear that Google and Lenovo want to undercut the Echo Spot on price to attract those who want an entry-level Assistant device that provides a little more than the regular Home Mini thanks to its display.

 

But make no mistake, the Echo Spot is a more capable device both in hardware and software. Lenovo's Smart Clock forgoes some key features that make the Nest Hub a decent visual machine while the Echo Spot takes what's great about the Echo Show and shrinks it down to a more versatile size. Both the Echo Spot and the Smart Clock force you to make sacrifices, but you make significantly fewer if you get the Echo Spot.

The Good

  • Small design that fits easily on a desk or nightstand.
  • USB port for charging other devices.
  • No camera.
  • Speakers get quite loud, and sound quality is decent for such a small device.

The Bad

  • Slow performance.
  • Currently can only show feeds from Nest home security cameras.
  • Google Home app is still a mess.

The Ugly

  • Cannot show all of the visual information that the larger Nest Hub or Smart Display can.

 

 

Source: Lenovo Smart Clock review: A small smart display that doesn’t display much (Ars Technica)

 

(To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)

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