Smart Home

The best smart displays of 2021

CNN —

Smart displays can do a lot: answer your questions like a smart speaker, control your home, play music, make calls and even act as mini TVs.

With models now available that range from devices that simply add a display to a smart speaker on up to full-fledged smart home hubs, we took a look at the latest models from Amazon and Google to find the best for your home. Ultimately, two stood out as the most impressive and versatile.

Best overall smart display

The Echo Show 8 is the best smart display we tested, with a versatile 8-inch screen in a build that really fits anywhere. It can do everything you’d expect from a smart display, and Alexa can respond to your queries both vocally and visually.

Best smart display for a nightstand

Google’s Nest Hub is the ideal smart display for your nightstand, as it lacks a camera. And in that spot it acts as a full-featured alarm clock with built-in sleep tracking functions.

Jacob Krol

Amazon’s Echo Show 8 is the best smart display we tested, with a versatile 8-inch screen in a build that really fits anywhere. It can do everything you’d expect from a smart display — Alexa can respond to your queries both vocally and visually — without fluff features that don’t provide any real value.

The 8-inch screen performed quite well in our testing — it’s neither the sharpest nor most detail-packed, but its compact size lets the Show 8 work in a variety of spaces from next to the sink in a kitchen, to an office desk, or even on a side table in the living room. When we ask for the weather, the Show 8 goes beyond a traditional smart speaker by showing an extended forecast, along with a verbal response of the weather for the day. The default screen also gives you a news feed along with the time and weather. The screen is big enough that it doesn’t lump the information too close together, and you won’t need to squint to make out text like on the more cramped Show 5’s display.

While we wouldn’t recommend taking in a full-length film on the Show 8 since the display isn’t as good as, say, the similarly sized iPad Mini’s, a number of streaming services — like Prime Video, Netflix and Hulu – are natively supported. This way if you want to watch an episode of something, you can simply ask Alexa. It’s not the most satisfying experience, but is is better than on the tiny Show 5 screen.

We found ourselves watching an episode of TV here or there, but for the most part we found the Show 8 more useful as a great tool in the kitchen for recipes (via Alexa or the Food Network Skill), for video calls with family or friends and for playing music.

You can also opt to have the Show 8 act as a digital photo frame, which is a nice touch if it’s in a living room. In a forthcoming update, you’ll be able to swipe and use widgets with select Alexa skills. And this will be the first chance to really customize the experience here.

The pyramid-like design of the Show 8 slants the display back a bit, which helps against some glares. It also gives the screen a built-in riser, considering it starts about 1 inch from the bottom of the device. It can counteract brightly lit spaces or direct fluorescent lights with the ability to get pretty bright. Similarly, it will dim the brightness and color tone of its visuals at night.

Physical controls for volume and the all-important mute button live on the top, along with a camera shutter switch. This way, you can decide when the 13-megapixel lens can see. And we’re seriously impressed with the lens on the Show 8, mainly because it’s the same one that’s used in the pricier Show 10. On video calls, we always appeared clear in the frame with no overexposure from lights. It will also work to keep you in frame with a digital pan and zoom functionality — much like Center Stage on the iPad, but noticeably slower here.

While the Show 8 has the right mix of features to satisfy most people looking for a smart display, it is not the best choice for doubling as a smart home hub, with only Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Amazon Sidewalk inside. We’d recommend you turn off the latter. Those looking for a display that can also be a smart home hub should get the Echo Show 10. That more elaborate model features Zigbee inside, which means you can quickly get a plethora of smart home gadgets (bulbs, wall plugs, etc.) online with ease. But if you don’t need those things, the Show 10 is likely overkill.

Jacob Krol/CNN

Google’s Nest Hub is the ideal smart display for your nightstand — where it makes sense as a very full-featured alarm clock — as it lacks a camera. And really — think about it — do you want a camera that close to you? It’s not as great a content-consumption device, with its small screen and single speaker, but after weeks of testing at our bedside, we found the Nest Hub ideal in this application — it even has built-in sleep tracking functions.

We really like the design of the Nest Hub, as its slim build takes up a lot less space than the Show 8. The 7-inch display appears to be floating, but in reality it’s latched atop the circular oval base. This design is smart, as it elevates the display, making it easier to see than the Echo Show 5 or 8 when you’re lying in bed and looking over to the nightstand.

The display is also quite sharp and can get quite bright along with a keen ability to dim down automatically when necessary. Overnight it switches to a simple screen showing time and date, along with an alarm time, that’s also color temperature accurate to your space. This view is not as jarring as other displays like the Show 5 or Show 8 when viewed at night while in bed.

The Nest Hub’s sleep tracking functionality uses a motion detection sensor embedded into the top bezel. And when enabled, it will monitor you for movements in the night, along with using the microphone to listen to breathing patterns and snoring, to track your sleep. It’s a neat approach and one that’s easier to get used to since you don’t need to wear something overnight. In our testing, it took about a week to get fully in rhythm, but it wound up delivering data that was in line with other sleep tracking devices. Here’s the catch, though — it’s currently a free feature, but Google said that could change in the future. We wouldn’t buy the Nest Hub just for its sleep sensing functionality.

While you can interact with Google Assistant by voice as you would with a smart speaker, the visual interface on the Nest Hub is pretty different from an Echo Show, as it’s really designed to be a smart control panel to a degree. It’s split into different tabs: “Your Morning/Your Evening,” wellness, home control, media, games, communicate, family and discover. You can swipe in between these with your finger, though we will note that the Nest Hub reacts slowly to input, taking a second or so to respond.

If you use smart home devices within the Google Home ecosystem, the Nest Hub interface can easily control all your devices, though it doesn’t necessarily help you get devices online faster, with only Wi-Fi and Bluetooth readily available. The device does technically support the Thread standard with a border router inside, but that feature hasn’t been activated yet on the current model, so we’ll have to wait for future updates.

The Nest Hub isn’t the best smart display for content consumption. While it has native support for YouTube (you can find videos, browse channels or ask for suggestions via Google Assistant), the 7-inch display isn’t great for long-form content. Similarly, the single speaker inside just doesn’t get very loud. It’s a balanced mix, but it had some serious difficulty filling up even a smaller bedroom. It’s fine for morning alarms, though, and will wake you up. You’ll control the volume with your voice or with a physical volume rocker on the back. The only other button is a mute switch.

After deciding on our testing pool and all of the smart displays arriving, we began our testing. And a primary focus of our testing centered around convenience, beginning with the setup process for each display.

We paid close attention to the onboarding process and how much could be completed on the device itself versus using the companion app for Android or IOS. As we expected, to use an Echo Show or a Nest Hub, you need an Amazon and Google account, respectively.

After setup, we started using each smart display as any person would — the only thing is we tried them in a range of locations within an apartment. In the kitchen, living room, office, bathroom and bedroom. And in any of these spots, a smart display should help you get more done. We tested to make sure we could quickly get the attention of the display and for it to deliver a prompt response back. Given that these are smart displays, we also tested the same prompt a few times or a variation to see the possible visual answers.

To test the display quality we tried a range of content like TV shows, movies, lyric playback, Alexa responses and games among more mundane use cases. We noted how vibrant the display could get in a particularly bright environment, along with how dim it could get in lower-lighting conditions. We also examined how the display could handle glare from a variety of light sources.

We looked at the materials used and how they look in a home environment in terms of design. We paid close attention to the physical buttons included and if there was a dedicated button to block the camera’s view.

We also looked at whether each device had a warranty and, if so, what it covered.

Echo Show 5 ($89.99; amazon.com)

The Echo Show 5 is the smallest smart display in Amazon’s lineup, with a 5-inch display that really focuses on being an advanced alarm clock. It doesn’t offer the sleep tracking smarts of the Google Nest Hub, so it isn’t quite as good in that capacity, but as a smart display it’s just as fast as the bigger Show devices with Alexa responses, both audibly and visually, but with a smaller screen, the presented information is more packed together. We wouldn’t recommend taking in a film on this smart display. And while the 2-megapixel lens is passable for video calls, it won’t present you in your best light. It’s the cheapest Echo Show, and if you keep the camera covered, it might just earn a spot on your nightstand as an Alexa-powered alarm clock.

Echo Show 10 ($249.99; amazon.com)

The Echo Show 10 has a seriously impressive display that fits a kitchen, living room, office or den. Its 10-inch screen can automatically rotate to always be in your line of sight, and that’s a real bonus for taking in content, chatting with friends and even cooking in the kitchen. There’s a certain bliss from having it on a countertop in the kitchen and having the recipe always be in our line of sight. It also delivers rich sound that keeps it facing the user and has a lot of connectivity inside. It’s also an ideal pick for a smart home with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Zigbee. However, we don’t think most people looking for a smart display will need what it has to offer, and it’s priced much higher than other models that will satisfy most users.

Nest Hub Max ($229.99; bhphotovideo.com and walmart.com)

We like the Nest Hub Max for its slim design and bright 10-inch display along with the simple access to the Google Assistant. Like the Nest Hub, it’s fully integrated with all things Google, and those living in that world will appreciate the functionality and its knowledge. Responses are quick, and if you’re using it for playback, the Hub Max still offers some of the best sound to be found from a smart display. It’s quite expansive with strong bass for a well-rounded mix. Our main qualm, aside from price, is there’s no physical shutter for the camera. Yes, you can click the mute button, which also disconnects the lens, but we’d prefer a physical shutter to block off the view.

Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing:

Google’s Nest Hub is the ideal smart display for your nightstand, as it lacks a camera. And in that spot it acts as a full-featured alarm clock with built-in sleep tracking functions.

Source: https://www.cnn.com/2021/10/06/cnn-underscored/best-smart-display/index.html

Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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