Smart speakers are popular, and for good reason: In addition to playing music, you can ask a smart speaker a question, and it answers back. But speakers are limited to telling you what you want rather than showing you. The concept of “show, don’t tell” is a fundamental rule for writers, and it’s also an important guideline for technology. If you want a voice assistant to show you things instead of just telling them to you, you need to take a step past smart speakers to smart displays.
Smart displays are effectively smart speakers with touch screens attached to them. They offer the same hands-free voice assistant features, letting you play music, check the weather, and control your smart home devices just by talking. But the screen adds a whole new level of information and control on top of that. When you want to play music, you can see album art or watch the song’s music video. When you want to check the weather, you can see upcoming temperatures and conditions for the week at a glance. When you want to control your smart lights, you can tap or slide your fingers to dim them to just the level you want.
Since Amazon spearheaded the smart speaker concept with the first Echo, it only makes sense that the company did the same with smart displays in the form of the Echo Show. And, like the Echo, the company updated and expanded its line with a number of new models. Now, there are several smart displays on the market, spanning two voice assistant platforms and a number of manufacturers. We’ve gathered the top models we’ve tested here, along with a guide to each platform.
Echo Smart Displays
Amazon Alexa is available on the company’s own Echo Show smart displays, which includes the Echo Show 5, the Echo Show 8, and the Echo Show 10 (all named for the size of their screens). That’s only the start. Facebook has gotten in on the action with its Portal series of smart displays, which include the Portal, Portal+, and Portal Mini. All of these devices use the Alexa voice assistant, but how they work varies.
With the Echo Shows, you get full access to all of Alexa’s capabilities. They can show or tell you anything you want to know (within Alexa’s powers to answer). They can also play video from Amazon Video and a handful of third-party services, and they even have a fully functional web browser. They also offer touch-screen control of smart home devices, and can show live feeds from compatible home security cameras. You can even make phone calls through them.
The Echo Show 10 has an added, unique benefit: a motorized base. It can rotate to follow you around the room, swiveling the camera and the screen to stay pointed at you. It’s a very handy feature, especially if it’s placed on an island or table in the center of a room. However, because of this feature, the Echo Show 10 is the most expensive device on this list.
Facebook’s Portal smart displays are capable communication devices, even if we have concerns about Facebook’s issues with privacy and data. Communication is their first and foremost function, with other smart display features coming second. Video chat is straight through Facebook, so you’re covered if you want to talk over Messenger, Whatsapp, or Workplace. But you can’t make phone calls or use Amazon’s Drop In messaging.
The Portals feature Alexa voice control, but the implementation isn’t as comprehensive as it is on the Echo Show. They can’t play Amazon Video, or show lyrics through Amazon Music (though they can play music through Amazon Music, along with Internet radio services). It’s Facebook first, Alexa second.
Amazon Fire Tablets and Show Mode
Amazon’s Fire HD tablets also include Show Mode, which makes them act just like the Echo Show. Amazon even offers a charging dock that automatically puts the tablet in Show Mode (or you can simply use your own tablet stand). It’s a functional solution and a handy option if you don’t want your Fire HD to be sitting flat and unused when it’s charging.
However, a tablet’s sound isn’t nearly as good as the Echo Show’s, and it lacks the sense of permanence a smart display offers.
Google Nest Hubs
Interestingly, the initial Google Assistant smart displays weren’t made by Google. JBL and Lenovo hit the market first. Google didn’t release its own Nest Hub until after the third-party smart displays came out. Now there are two models, the $99 Nest Hub (2nd Gen) with a 7-inch screen and one speaker driver, and the $229 Nest Hub Max with a 10-inch screen and stereo speaker drivers with one woofer and two tweeters.
You won’t find a web browser on any of these devices, but you can access YouTube, including live TV through YouTube TV and music through YouTube Music. Curiously, Google Assistant prefers accessing media through those services instead of Google’s own Play Music and Play Movies & TV stores. All Google Assistant smart speakers and smart displays are also Google Cast compatible, so you can easily stream media to them from any compatible mobile app.
The usual information and smart home features are also available, and while Google Assistant’s selection of supported home automation devices isn’t quite as massive as Alexa’s, it’s a bit better at dealing with natural language and less picky about syntax. You can also make phone calls with these smart displays, and video chat through Google Duo.
What About an Apple Smart Display?
It took Apple a few years to dip its toe into the smart speaker arena with the HomePod, and since then the most we’ve gotten is the more budget-friendly HomePod mini. It’s up in the air whether Apple ever will release its own smart display. For now, you can use your iPad or iPhone on a stand and just talk to Siri, or get an Apple TV and speak into the remote, but that’s as far as it goes.
If you want a bigger screen than a smart display to show you information and movies, take a look at our list of the best TVs. If the screen size is right, but you want to be able to take it on the go, start shopping for one of our favorite tablets.