Smart assistants that take the form of a speaker or display in your home are becoming more popular. But which one is best – and which one suits your needs? Its many functions makes the Lenovo Smart Display the obvious choice as best smart speaker with a screen, and the Google Nest Audio is best in test for its neat format and great sound.
It isn’t easy to do consumer tests of smart speakers and smart displays with built-in voice assistants. Partly this is because their performance depends on your needs when it comes to questions, and the services you connect them to. And partly because it’s actually mostly about the product rather than the voice assistant. This is because in the voice assistants tend to be identical, with identical functions, regardless of the hardware you’re using to talk to them. So it’s more important to look at the hardware itself, and particularly to make sure the microphones are well positioned and pick up your commands.
That said, there are a couple of parameters that we’ve taken into account when we tested smart speakers both with and without built-in displays:
Microphone: A smart speaker continuously listens for its wake word or phrase. So it’s important that the microphones are good at picking up sound. Both to hear the wake phrases and to hear your commands, and in both quiet and noisy environments.
Sound: The actual speakers are very different depending on the type of product. Obviously a mini speaker not much bigger than a box of matches can’t be expected to deliver hi-fi sound. But it’s very important that the sound is appropriate for the product price and specialisation.
Design and user-friendliness: The speakers are designed to be visible for optimal performance. So it’s important that the speaker or screen fits into a normal home.
Hardware: Even if you primarily talk to the assistant, the hardware should be solidly built. If the speaker has a screen it needs to be of good quality, and if there are buttons or touch-sensitive controls they need to feel good to use.
We take all factors into account and the speaker's performance is weighed against its price. The product value determines the final score.
We tested a selection of the market’s most popular smart speakers. Compare prices for all smart speakers listed on PriceRunner.
Tough to position well but intelligent
Type: Smart speaker with display Supported voice service: Google Assistant Speaker: 2x10W + 2 tweeters Screen: 10.1 inch (also available in 8 inch), 1920x1200 pixels Microphone: Yes Camera: 5 megapixels, 720p video Connection: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Dimensions: 173.87x311.37x136.02 mm Weight: 1.2 kg Controls: Touch screen, microphone switch, camera switch, volume control
The Lenovo Smart Display takes advantage of the new trend for smart assistants with screens This isn't new, either from Google or from its main competitor, Amazon's Alexa, but after a difficult start Google have relaunched their concept. In comparison to Google's own Nest Hub, Lenovo's solution feels more complete, and so we name it as best smart display just now, despite its problems.
The Lenovo Smart Display is available in screen sizes of 8 and 10 inches, but the design and the majority of specifications are identical regardless of the size. The unit consists of a screen with speakers on the left-hand edge and a cheap feeling wood veneer-effect sticker on the back.
While a Google speaker can be tucked out of the way quite easily, the display unit is intended to sit on a kitchen worktop or similar, and in this respect it’s really not particularly attractive. On the back, about half of the unit is covered by a triangular bulge that houses the electronics and also means you can set the speaker up vertically. However, everything in the interface, except for video calls, is set up for horizontal mode. The slightly odd shape makes it tricky to position the unit well.
If you're used to Google’s smart speakers, you’ll recognise a lot here. The voice control works well and all of these commands function exactly as they do in a normal Google speaker. The sound quality ends up somewhere between the small and large Google speakers. In other words, it’s fine for phone calls, recipe videos and a bit of background music, but can’t replace a bigger speaker. The difference is, of course, that the commands are all shown on the screen, which in some cases can also display supplementary text or images.
The big thing about this unit is that the screen can also be used for video calls (only Google Duo), videos (primarily YouTube) and can display a calendar or switches for your smart lamps. The screen can also be connected to Google Photos so that it displays a slide show of “your top moments” when it's in idle mode. It’s not clear how it chooses these top moments.
At the same time, it's clear that the screen is a new area for Google’s voice assistant. Nor does it currently offer services like Netflix. The games you can play with your voice so far have no equivalents that use the screen, which otherwise seems to offer great potential. This isn’t Lenovo’s fault, but it means it feels a bit like a first generation product that needs time to mature.
A single swipe dims the screen, which then just shows a digital clock. The screen itself does its job regardless of lighting, even though it could have reduced the brightness a bit better in dark rooms.
One major advantage compared to the Nest Hub, Google’s own speaker with a screen, is that there are two switches on Lenovo’s screen – one for the camera and one for the microphone (Google’s version only has one for the microphone). This gives more control over when the unit is allowed to see and hear things.
The Lenovo Smart Display does its job, even if the design makes it feel both bulky and hard to position. Just like the voice part of Google Assistant, the screen part needs to mature quite a bit. But if you have the need and can live with the shortcomings we’ve mentioned, the Lenovo Smart Display isn’t a bad choice.
Reliable and enough sound for music
Type: Smart speaker Supported voice service: Google Assistant Speaker: 2X4.5 inch woofer, 2x0.7 inch treble Screen: No Microphone: Yes Camera: No Connection: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Dimensions: 96.3x96.3x142.7 mm Weight: 477 g Controls: Microphone switch, touch controls
Google Home is the original smart speaker from Google. It’s the same age as the Mini edition, but with a better foundation that means it still stands up today.
The speaker is relatively small. We’d describe the design as minimalist, stylish and functional. The top of the unit is a touch display. One tap on it pauses whatever you’re listening to, a longer press starts the assistant function and by swiping in the middle you increase and reduce the volume.
On the back of the unit is a button that allows you to switch off the microphone if you don’t want it to listen all the time.
Overall, it’s a really good listener. It understands our commands correctly and the range of things it can help with is large and growing all the time.
One major disadvantage is that it has difficulty hearing instructions when there’s background noise, for example if there’s music on or somebody’s talking in the background. But it does really well in quiet environments, even if you’re far away and talking in a normal conversational tone.
If you’re several rooms away, you can use the Google Home app on your phone to communicate your voice commands.
Google Home performs OK on the sound front. It certainly can't match the slightly better dedicated Bluetooth speakers in the same price range, but still produces quite good pressure in the sound.
Unfortunately the bass drowns the mid-range at slightly higher volume, and the sound instantly becomes more shrill when there’s only treble and bass coming through. You have to play on medium volume to get reasonable sound quality. But it doesn’t sound like it costs in excess of £100 – more like a good bit less.
As a speaker, it works best if you connect it to a slightly higher quality wireless speaker system. Now you can also connect multiple speakers in a group. This allows you to enjoy multi-room audio with Google speakers, even though the app isn’t the most convenient way of controlling speaker groups.
Overall, Google Home is a great assistant for anyone who’s started expanding their smart home. And it’s also a reasonable speaker. But it’s the smart functionality and Google’s really great assistant that’s the big advantage. Being able to turn on and off lights or turn the music down with your voice and also get voice notifications are all really useful. The price tag feels perfectly reasonable. Google Home is a good buy.
Not real HK sound quality, but lots of features
Width: 14 cm Height: 18.8 cm Depth: 14 cm Weight: 2 kg Connection: DAB antenna, USB, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, AUX 3.5 mm, Chromecast, Airplay (2) Drivers: 1 x 20 mm tweeter, 1 x 89 mm woofer. Battery capacity: Battery life: Noise level: - Miscellaneous: Multi-room function, Google Assistant, built-in Qi charging
The basic idea is fantastic: Harman Kardon's excellent Citation series plus a clock radio plus Google Assistant. However, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Admittedly, our judgement is based in part on what we’ve come to expect when it says HK Citation on the box, namely gorgeous design, easy operation, and – perhaps above all – crisp and elegant sound.
It's hard to find many clock radio-like smart speakers that tick all these boxes in a good way, but we hadn’t expected HK to miss the target with this device.
No, it doesn't sound bad. But it doesn’t sound that good either. The sound is markedly tinny, with a smoothed out treble and a definition that isn’t even close to what the Citation One speakers are capable of, for example. OK, so maybe we’re being a bit fussy. After all, this is a smart clock radio. Not a fully-fledged Sono competitor to replace a proper hi-fi speaker in a multi-room solution. This is just a complement. But all the same.
There’s a nice tension in the bass, although it’s not very deep. This can be put down to the form factor and of course isn’t a problem in the true sense, because this is just a clock radio replacement. It’ll primarily be played at moderate volume, and function is more important than bass. But we would at least have liked to see a clearer treble and a much less hollow mid-range.
So isn’t it at least attractive, then? Weeell... Same thing here. It's not ugly, exactly, but the Oasis is by no means as stylish as the Citation One speakers. It’s oval and chunky and has a fairly large display on the front. But it’s not very futuristic or "Danish furniture trend" in its visual style (even if it has woollen fabric from the Danish brand Kvadrat on the outside). It feels very much like… well, yeah… a clock radio.
We also experience a lot of problems when we try to connect the speaker via the Google Home app. Exactly why is difficult to say, but only after the fourth attempt does the speaker finally connect to our Wi-Fi, which otherwise works flawlessly. Although we named the speaker “Dining Room” (we’re testing it in the kitchen), it’s still called HK Citation Oasis in the list. We repeat the installation a couple of times and have the same problem, no matter where we place it. We try out connecting it via the Google Home app both on a Huawei Mate 20 Pro and via an iPad. And we get the same result, no matter where we place the Oasis.
It finally works as it should and has all those smart functions that make it really helpful as a clock radio. It has everything from DAB support to Google Assistant and wireless charging (place your phone on it overnight), with all that means in terms of convenience in this context (“Hey, Google… set the alarm for 06.30”). But given that it says Harman Kardon on it and costs the best part of £200, we can’t give it more than an average score.
For a higher score, it would have needed significantly better definition and treble, and a cooler appearance. A little disappointing, at least by HK standards. But that still goes a long way.
Pared down and rather limited smart display
Type: Smart speaker with display Supported voice service: Google Assistant Speaker: 1.57” woofer + 1 treble Screen: 7 inch, 1024x600 pixels Microphone: Yes Camera: No Connection: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Dimensions: 178.5x118x67.3 mm Weight: 479 g Controls: Touch screen, microphone switch, touch control
The Google Nest Hub is the smaller of two smart displays from Google.
Just like everything from Google Nest, the device comes with an oversized and really rather bulky mains adapter. Apart from that, you get a long cable and a well-designed product that’s easy to position.
The 7 inch screen rests on a rounded foot housing the speaker and electronics. The entire construction is as stylish and discreet as other gadgets from Google’s flora of smart devices.
The size of the screen is as much an advantage as it is a disadvantage. It makes it easy to position, but a 7-inch screen needs to be quite close for you to actually see what’s going on in a YouTube video, for instance. But it’s excellent for reading recipes on.
Unlike the 10 inch Nest Hub Max model, this one doesn’t have a camera. This is an advantage if you don’t want a camera where the screen is going to be positioned, but it’s also a disadvantage because a smart screen is perfect as a device for video calls in your home. Video calls work, but only in that you can see the person you’re talking with, and not the other way round.
One advantage is that a Nest Hub can easily replace a Nest/Google Home Mini, for example in the kitchen, and with significantly better sound into the bargain. It’s still not quite as good as Google’s normal Home speakers, but you won’t be ashamed of playing background music on the Nest Hub.
The actual installation as straightforward as ever. Once it’s going, you have far more choice in terms of the settings. You can set Google Photo to display images on it, like a photo frame, and also choose various settings for how the screen should save power. The screen adapts to the ambient light and actually looks really good in most circumstances.
The Google Nest Hub suffers from not having a camera for video calls (with a shut-off button like the one for the microphone, of course). Other than that, it’s a really attractive and competent smart display for the home.
Small but good updates to Google’s smallest speaker
Type: Smart speaker Supported voice service: Google Assistant Speaker: 1x40 mm Screen: No Microphone: Yes Camera: No Connection: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Dimensions: 42x98x98 mm Weight: 173 g Controls: Microphone switch, touch controls
The Google Nest Mini is a second generation, or update, to the Google Home Mini. Google is now grouping everything within the smart home under its Nest subsidiary, which also explains the name change.
In terms of size and appearance, it looks like its predecessor. The most obvious thing on the outside is that there is no USB port for power – instead there’s a normal power adapter. This is explained by the fact that the power consumption has almost doubled, from 9 to 15 watts. We’d have rather had a USB-C connector.
On the back is another new addition that was previously a popular accessory for the Google Home Mini – a bracket to simplify wall-mounting the device.
After an installation that's as exemplary as always with Google's smart speakers, we find the next new feature. There are now touch controls on top of the speaker (hidden under the speaker fabric) to activate the assistant and change the volume. A convenient solution, but at the same time maybe not something you’re going to use very often because you still primarily talk to the speaker.
The main reason to get excited about the Nest Mini is on the inside. It now has an extra microphone, which makes quite a difference to the assistant hearing pretty much everything we say and reacting to almost every “Hey Google” we use to activate it.
It also has better sound, primarily in the form of more bass than before. It’s a good upgrade from the previous one, but at the same time you’re never going to fool yourself that this speaker will replace a dedicated larger one. At low volume you can have it as a radio in the background, but beyond that the sound quickly becomes far too limited.
It also has an AI chip to handle some of the voice searches locally, which is meant to speed them up. During our test period, we didn’t notice any difference in terms of speed, but according to Google your most common questions should get faster answers.
At the same time, we can’t get away from the feeling that the Nest Mini really should have had siblings. The competing Amazon system has a range of small speakers in different price classes and with different special functions. Google’s speaker would have benefited from this too, because as it stands this is still a high entry price for the ecosystem.
But the Google Nest Mini is a relatively complete and well-equipped entry level speaker for Google’s voice assistant, which is improving all the time. The upgrades here aren’t reason enough to get rid of your earlier Google Mini speakers, but this is certainly a worthy successor.
Convenient assistant with thin sound
Type: Smart speaker Supported voice service: Google Assistant Speaker: 1x40 mm Screen: No Microphone: Yes Camera: No Connection: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Dimensions: 42x98x98 mm Weight: 173 g Controls: Microphone switch
The Google Home Mini microphone switch microphone switch is the smallest of Google’s smart speakers, and it’s about the same size as a doughnut (a jam one without a hole in, of course). The size makes it very easy to position almost anywhere in your home without it having to be visible or take up space.
The cable included is also a good length to allow for easy positioning. Unfortunately, something that's the hallmark of all Google's home gadgets is a ludicrously badly designed power adapter that takes up far too much plug space. Fortunately, this speaker is energy-efficient enough to be run on pretty much any USB charger – but it would be nice to include that in the package.
At the same time, there’s only one button – to switch off the microphone – on the speaker. If you want to wall mount it you need to buy the accessories separately, and you can only control it via your voice or with the app. In other words, there are no volume or other buttons. Then again, it is a speaker designed for a voice assistant, so perhaps that’s not so important in this context.
Installing the Google Home Mini is very simple. Plug it in, start the Home app and add it – that’s it. Beyond that, there isn’t much you can do with it. You can change the settings for volume, bass and treble.
But then, as we’ve already said, you don’t need more than that. This part usually works really well, and at least 9 out of 10 times we say “Hey Google” the speaker picks it up. This is even true if we put the speaker on top of a cupboard or something.
The sound when the assistant talks is really good. It’s clear and with surprising depth in the voice.
Of course, it’s not so impressive when you try to play music. In purely physical terms, a jam doughnut-sized speaker doesn’t offer much when it comes to sound resources, and you can hear that regardless of the musical genre. On low volume as a desk radio it’s OK, but no more than that. But the Google Home Mini still represents a simple first step into the world of Google smart speakers. During the year we’ve been testing it, the assistant has developed enormously, as have the accessories that support the system. The Google Home Mini is a really good voice assistant in a relatively OK speaker – but not such a good choice for anyone looking for a really good speaker with built-in voice assistance.
In recent years, digital assistants in the form of smart speakers in the home have become increasingly popular. But what do they actually involve? What’s available? How do they work, and do they really listen to everything you say? Let’s start from the beginning.
Smart speakers, smart assistants, voice assistants, smart monitors… what's the difference? All of the different terms in this area can be confusing to start with, and it can be hard to know what means what. But if we start from the basics, the whole thing is quite simple.
The foundation is a smart assistant, digital assistant or voice assistant, which are different terms for the same thing. This is essentially a computer system that can process questions and look for the answers, and may have several parts connected to it. What the system looks like depends on how you interact with it.
The method that gets all the attention is, of course, voice control. You say a command or ask a question and the system gives you an answer depending on what it knows or the services you’ve connected to it. You can achieve the same result by typing on a keyboard or touching a screen.
For example, you can ask a question: “What will the weather be like on Sunday?” The question is sent via the internet to the servers and data centres that contain the assistant system. There it’s interpreted and processed and the answer comes back to you in the blink of an eye. The speaker's voice assistant might answer something like: “On Sunday it’ll be sunny and 20 degrees”. It’s just like searching on Google but using voice communication.
Another example is linked services. For instance, you might have remotely controlled lights in your home that you’ve connected to your digital assistant. When you say “turn on the kitchen light”, the command is sent in the same way but also goes to the light you've designated as ‘kitchen light’.
All of the above involves the assistant, whether it's Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa or whatever.
The next issue is how you access the assistant, and that’s where smart speakers come in.
Because you have almost exactly the same assistant with almost exactly the same features regardless of whether you're talking to your phone, TV, bedroom speaker or anything else, as long as they communicate with the same assistant. So if you have Google Assistant on your phone, it's the same
Google Assistant with the same features as the Google Assistant on your smart speaker. That's why it's important to know which assistant you want to use – or maybe even already use – and which devices can interact with that assistant.
Today there are five major players in the field of digital assistants. Three of them specialise in particular areas, while two of them are working hard to get into every corner of your home and be able to control everything.
Google Assistant. Search giant Google's assistant, along with Amazon’s Alexa, are the assistants that are striving to get everywhere. Google Assistant is available through Google's own speakers and screens, but also in every phone with the Android operating system and a wide range of speakers, monitors, TVs and so on from other manufacturers.
Amazon Alexa. Amazon is also investing in being everywhere and being able to control everything in much the same way as Google, but has far more of its own options for different kinds of products to fit into different parts of your home.
Apple Siri. The original voice assistant has fallen behind quite a lot in recent years, with significantly fewer voice commands and an ecosystem that’s limited to Apple's own products. Apple’s home speaker is called Homepod. This is easily connected to Apple's Homekit smart home system and can control quite a lot of things within the smart home.
Microsoft Cortana. If you're using Windows, you've probably run into Cortana here and there. Microsoft's digital assistant is far less well developed than those on Google or Apple devices, particularly since Microsoft has stopped producing its own phones.
Samsung Bixby. Samsung too has its own assistant, best known from having had its own button on many recent Samsung phones. It's also built into TVs and other Samsung products. And it really lives and works best on Samsung's own products.
This works a little differently depending on the service you're using. But generally for the smart speakers in your home, you need to say an activation phrase – what’s known as a wake word or phrase – first to wake up the assistant. It indicates that it's picked up your words with a small sound or a light on the device (or both). After that, you can ask your question or speak your command.
If we take Google as an example, you wake it up by saying “Hey Google”, and then you can talk to it.
Do I have to update something to get new functions?
Nope. The assistant itself primarily lives ‘in the cloud’ – in other words, in each company’s data centres. So new features are added there and not to your specific device. This means it can be useful to keep an eye on the new things the assistant learns over time, because they’re constantly being updated.
Pure smart speakers are always connected to the internet, so they can run updates themselves without you having to do anything. The ones built into a TV or similar often get updates when the rest of the machine is updated. These always relate to things like improved sound, better microphone performance or other things that directly affect the hardware.
If we look at Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and, to a certain extent, Apple Siri, they can actually cope with two different branches of the same tree. One is asking the assistant about things, such as:
Asking questions: What’s the weather going to be like in Cardiff on Saturday? When was Mozart born? In other words, common questions and for the most part common answers.
Setting timers: Never mind fiddling with the egg timer, you can tell the assistant to keep track of the cooking time for the pasta, the time you want to get up in the morning or whatever.
Writing things down: If you ran out of pasta while you were cooking it, add it to the family’s shopping list or directly to the supermarket order. Or ask the assistant to remind you to take your workout clothes with you when you leave in the morning.
Calendar: Add Saturday's theatre trip to your calendar with a voice command, or ask the assistant to remind you what you have in your diary today.
Games and jokes: You can have some fun with the assistant too. So for instance you can ask it to tell you a joke or play 20 questions with it.
There are also various services you can connect to it:
Smart home. Turn lights on and off, check the temperature outside on the balcony and so on. Everything depends on which compatible products you have in your home.
Watch TV. Ask the assistant to show you the latest episode of your favourite series on a specific TV. Or find a YouTube clip using your voice and play it back on a screen in the kitchen.
Music. Spotify and most other music streaming services can be linked to digital assistants. So you can ask the assistant to play your favourite playlist, or tell it to wake you up with a specific track.
Smart home...again. Say ‘Clean the kitchen’ to the assistant to send the robotic vacuum cleaner off to do the job. Or ask the assistant to show you the picture from the security camera in the back garden on your TV to see if someone’s sneaking around out there. The possibilities are endless.
As an extension of the services you link to your assistant, you can also create different types of routines and automation with the assistant. For example, you can switch on some lights and play music from particular speakers to wake you up in the morning. Or you might say “Goodnight” to the assistant to switch off all the lights in your home and turn off relevant devices. Or a specific command when it's time to watch a film, which turns on the TV, selects the right channel and turns down the lighting in the room.
That’s where smart assistants are starting to get really intelligent and helpful.
It can be a good idea to choose the device according to how you’re going to use it in a particular part of your home.
If you take the kitchen as an example, you can quickly Google a recipe on a device with a screen, or watch a series while you’re cooking. Even when you're not using it, it can act as a photo frame and play back images from any album you choose.
You can also make video calls with it, which gives you the advantage of having a camera built into the smart screen (a good one also has a physical switch to turn off the camera if you want to be sure it won't be filming when you don't want it to).
If both ends of the conversation have a camera, of course they can both see each other. If only one caller has a camera they're the only one who is visible (and they get the equivalent of a voice call from you).
The big question that worries many people is whether the smart speaker picks up everything that’s said, only what comes after the wake word or phrase has been spoken, or nothing at all?
“More than you think” is probably the most accurate and rather unpleasant answer. And you might also wonder how much is actually saved and how you can keep track of it.
A good smart speaker (or similar device) always has a physical microphone switch so you can turn it off for a while whenever you want. Otherwise the microphone is always on, so it can listen for the wake word or phrase.
There are thousands of examples of smart assistants starting to talk about something at random and without warning. Either because it’s been listening to the conversation and thought it heard the wake phrase or because it’s suddenly answering something even though the room is completely silent. It’s not always clear which of these are software bugs and what’s actually being stored.
You can access your account linked to the assistant to both view and delete the phrases you have spoken to it. You can also see some of those times the assistant reacted randomly – but not all of them.
So yes, you put a microphone in your home that essentially listens to everything you do. At the same time, it works with a service that you don’t actually pay for, except by buying the speaker. Things you say to it are stored and can be used to improve the assistant’s ‘hearing’. Without evidence one way or the other, it goes without saying that this is a service that can be misused. So you simply have to weigh up the pros and cons.
If you’re worried about this type of privacy issue, a smart speaker may not be your thing (just like smartphones in general and social media might not be your thing either). But if you think you’ll benefit from the functions offered by a smart assistant and that these are more important than your privacy concerns, carry on!
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