Smart speak­ers get screens

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Google’s Home Hub (above left) will be bring­ing the idea of a screen-equipped smart speaker right to the fore­front of Aus­tralian con­sumers’ minds head­ing into Christ­mas. Pro­moted as a ‘Con­nected Home Dis­play’, it de­liv­ers use­ful (hope­fully) vis­ual in­for­ma­tion via a seven-inch touch­screen.

But it is far from alone. JBL/Har­man pre­viewed its JBL Link View (be­low) at IFA in Berlin back in Septem­ber, and as our Award in this is­sue in­di­cates, we reckon it’s got the edge in at least one key area. Ama­zon has just made the Echo Show of­fi­cially avail­able here in Aus­tralia (pic­tured above right), join­ing the Echo Spot, with its small cir­cu­lar screen. And out­lier Len­ovo in fact beat them all to market here with its large 10-inch Smart Dis­play; an 8-inch ver­sion is also avail­able.

GO­ING GOOGLE

The Google, JBL and Len­ovo mod­els all use Google Voice As­sis­tant and Chrome­cast tech­nol­ogy. As we’ve seen in smart speak­ers, Google it­self can gain from its market position — so while all the Google-equipped ‘screens’ can play YouTube videos, Google is giv­ing pur­chasers six months of free ac­cess to YouTube Pre­mium, so YouTube Mu­sic and gen­eral YouTube can be en­joyed with­out any ads break­ing in and re­quir­ing a press (or shout) to be dis­missed.

JBL, on the other hand, has demon­strated a con­sis­tent lead in au­dio qual­ity on its smart speak­ers, and now we have the Link View in for re­view, we can re­port that its sound is in­deed im­pres­sive, no­tably well im­bued in the bass, and able to play at some level with­out dis­tor­tion spoil­ing the party.

The smarts oth­er­wise seem pretty evenly as­signed to the Google-equipped de­vices, with a a Chrome­cast inside for au­dio stream­ing (none of them of­fers a video Chrome­cast, how­ever). Both will be able to link with Google-com­pat­i­ble smart home de­vices, in­clud­ing se­cu­rity cam­eras.

AMA­ZON’S ECHO SHOW

By con­trast Ama­zon’s screen-equipped Echo Show mod­els don’t do YouTube at all. You can watch sub­scrip­tion Prime Video and “video Flash Brief­ings from Sky News Aus­tralia, Fox Sports and more”.

The Ama­zon de­vice uses Alexa, of course, which puts it in a dif­fer­ent eco-sys­tem en­tirely. But Alexa’s market lead­er­ship in the US has seen it adopted by a good many smart-home com­pa­nies and re­cently au­dio com­pa­nies too — it can be used to con­trol HEOS de­vices from Denon and Marantz, for ex­am­ple, and re­cent Yamaha prod­ucts too. Ama­zon’s Echo Show (sec­ond gen) has a tablet-sized 10-inch dis­play, match­ing the larger Len­ovo, while the Echo Spot screen is a mere 64mm-di­am­e­ter cir­cle.

THE CAM­ERA AN­GLE

Both JBL and Len­ovo’s Google de­vices have a 5MP front-fac­ing cam­era. That al­lows you to make Google Duo video calls, which may make sep­a­rated fam­i­lies very happy, though you can’t Skype or, of course, Facetime, so ev­ery­one will need to get with the Google pro­gram. The Echo Show has a cam­era, en­abling calls to the Alexa app or an­other Echo de­vice with a screen. But it seems Google’s

Home Hub is cam­era-free, with its cen­tral lozenge car­ry­ing not a cam­era but an ‘am­bi­ent EQ light sen­sor’ to en­sure the screen dims to match the light­ing in your room.

NOT SO SUB­TLE

While th­ese smart-screened speak­ers are the ‘lat­est things’, per­haps we should not as­sume that ev­ery­one will be­gin shift­ing from smart speak­ers to smart screens. For one thing they are more in­tru­sive, sit­ting there with their screens al­ways on, and tak­ing up far more table­top space than a smart speaker. While a smart speaker is easy to ig­nore, a smart screen catches your at­ten­tion, so that any­one wor­ried about smart speak­ers “al­ways lis­ten­ing” will likely be twice as para­noid, es­pe­cially now that cam­eras on some mod­els mean that they could be “al­ways watch­ing” as well. (The ‘cam­era off’ switch on the JBL Link View is not only in­ter­est­ing in be­ing ex­tremely pro­minient, it also puts a vis­i­ble or­ange flap over the lens, to ac­cen­tu­ate the fact that you’re not be­ing watched.) The pri­vacy con­cerns of smart speak­ers have yet to cre­ate a back­lash sig­nif­i­cant enough to dam­age their growth. But smart screens may find their promi­nence in the home, and es­pe­cially in the bed­room,

will work against them.

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