Smart speakers get screens
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.
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.