It’s been a busy couple of weeks for smart displays, an emerging category of voice-activated touchscreens seeking a place in your living room or kitchen. First, Amazon introduced us to its new-and-improved, second-gen Echo Show. Then came Facebook, with the surprise announcement of a pair of “Portal” smart displays with cameras that can automatically track you as you move during video calls. The very next day: Google rolled out the smart-home-centric Google Home Hub.
That’s three, count ’em, three titans of tech battling it out to get you to buy in on their smart displays this holiday season (not to mention ones from Lenovo and JBL that already made their debut earlier this year, or ones from Sony and LG that are yet to arrive).
So, how do these new displays stack up against one another? Let’s start the best way I know how: With a sizable, borderline unwieldy chart that’s chock full of specs:
Amazon Echo Show (2018)Facebook Portal / Portal PlusGoogle Home HubScreen Size10.1-inch (256.5 mm)10.1-inch (256.5 mm) / 15.6-inch (396.2 mm)7-inch (177.8 mm)Resolution720p (1280 x 800)720p (1200 x 800) / 1080p (1920 x 1080)not listedDimensions (WxHxD)9.7 x 6.9 x 4.2 inches (246.4 x 175.3 x 106.7 mm)9.8 x 8.2 x 3.7 inches (249.9 x 208.3 x 94 mm) / 8.8 x 17.7 x 5.7 inches (223.5 x 449.6 x 144.8 mm) 7.02 x 4.65 x 2.65 inches (178.5 x 118 x 67.3 mm)Weight3.9 lbs. (1,765 grams)2.7 lbs. (1,250 grams) / 7.4 lbs. (3,360 grams)1.1 lbs. (480 grams)Wireless ConnectivityWi-Fi (802.11b/g/n/ac, 2.4GHz and 5GHz), Bluetooth speakers requiring PIN codes not supportedWi‑Fi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac, 2.4GHz and 5GHz), Bluetooth 4.2Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n/ac, 2.4GHz and 5GHz), Bluetooth 5.0Voice AssistantAlexaAlexaGoogle AssistantCalling and MessagingAlexa Messaging, Skype, direct dial (US and Mexico)Facebook MessengerDirect dial (US, UK, and Canada, outgoing calls only)Smart kitchen featuresStep-by-step recipe assistance; Amazon Meal Kits integrationLimited Alexa recipe assistanceStep-by-step recipe assistance with YouTube tutorial videosOnscreen smart home controlsYesNoYesBuilt-in CameraYes (5MP)Yes (12 MP)NoPrivacy ShutterNoYesn/aMicrophones4-mic array4-mic array (2 front, 2 rear)2-mic arraySpeakersDual 10W, 2-inch neodymium drivers with Dolby processing and passive bass radiator10W (2 full-range drivers) / 20W (2 tweeters, single 4-inch bass)”Full range speaker” (80 dB SPL @ 1KHz, @ 1m)Streaming Music ServicesAmazon Music, iHeartRadio, Pandora, Spotify, TuneIniHeartRadio, Pandora, SpotifyiHeartRadio, Pandora, Spotify, YouTube MusicStreaming Video ServicesAmazon Prime Video, DailyMotion, Hulu, NBC, VimeoFacebook Watch, Food NetworkYouTubeCompatible smart home camerasAmazon Cloud Cam, Amcrest, August Doorbell Cam, Blink, Canary, D-Link, EZVIZ, Logitech Circle, meShare, Nest Cam, Netgear Arlo, Ring Video Doorbell, Toucan, TP-Link Kasa Cam, Wyze Cam, ZmodoNoneD-Link, EZVIZ, Nest Cam, Netgear Arlo, Skybell Video Doorbell, Smartcam, Swann, TP-Link Kasa Cam, VivitarOther notable featuresBuilt-in Zigbee smart home hub; Integrates with Fire TV Recast to show live TV and DVR recordings; YouTube access via Silk or Firefox browsersAutomatic AI camera framing; Video chat filter effects; “Home and Away” location tracking; Facebook photo albums and birthday reminders; Interactive “Story Time” story books; 90-degree rotating display (Plus only)”Ambient EQ” automatic adaptive screen brightness; Digital picture frame via Google Photos with Live Albums;Color optionsCharcoal, SandstoneBlack, WhiteCharcoal, Aqua, Chalk, SandAvailabilityUS, UK, Australia, Germany, Canada, JapanUS only at launchUS, UK, AustraliaExpected ship dateOct. 11Nov. 13Oct. 26Warranty1-year1-year1-yearCost$230 $199 / $349$150
What sets them apart
There isn’t a clearly defined recipe for success in the smart display category yet — we haven’t had a Nest or Echo Dot-type breakout that’s really connected with the masses. That means that the companies making these smart displays are still trying to figure out how to sell people on this category — and none of them are taking quite the same approach.
To cam or not to cam?
The most obvious differentiator is the way these displays handle cameras. Amazon and Facebook both include front-facing cameras for voice-activated video chats, and the cameras in the Facebook Portal displays use AI to automatically follow you during calls, freeing you to move around the room without worrying about the framing.
Meanwhile, Google didn’t put a camera in its smart display at all, telling CNET, “It’s a comfort thing… We wanted to make sure that you could use this anywhere in the home.”
Time will tell which approach connects the best with consumers, though it’s also worth noting that the Facebook Portal displays also come with physical privacy shutters that cover the cameras when you’re not using them. There’s no physical shutter on the Amazon Echo Show, though you can “mute” the camera along with the mics by pressing a button on the top of the device.
We’re seeing an interesting variety of designs in the smart display category, but a lot of them seem to be trending toward 10-inch, flatscreen-style displays that hide the bulk of the speaker in the back. That’s what you get with the Echo Show and with the smaller, 10-inch version of the Facebook Portal (not to mention the likable Lenovo Smart Display).
The 15.6-inch Portal Plus gets a lot more distinctive, with an iMac-looking raised monitor approach that rotates 90 degrees between portrait and landscape modes. For my money, I think it’s the neatest smart display design to date, especially coupled with the nifty camera-tracking feature — but after mass account breaches and scandals involving blatant mistreatment of user personal data, will people really trust Facebook enough to bring this product’s camera and microphones into their homes?
Then there’s Google. Aside from the bold omission of any camera at all, the Home Hub stands out for a pint-size design that isn’t even 5 inches tall. I’ll be very curious to see how people react to the smaller design and screen — the size feels appropriate for a bedside gadget, but I think I’d want something bigger in the kitchen or living room.
Smart home front and center (or not)
Amazon and Google are each betting that you’re going to want to use these smart displays to control your various smart home gadgetry. Both the Echo Show and the Home Hub include dedicated, on-screen smart home controls for turning lights on and off, adjusting your thermostat, and more. The Echo Show even includes a Zigbee radio that lets it pair directly with things like smart locks and Philips Hue smart bulbs, no extra hub necessary. On Google’s end, the Home Hub will automatically connect with Bluetooth smart bulbs from GE.
With Facebook, the focus is almost purely on those video calls. The Portal does offer access to Alexa, but it doesn’t appear that you’re getting the same user interface as the Echo Show. From the sound of it, the onscreen controls for things like smart home gadgets and guided recipe assistance are going to be more limited than what you’ll get with an Amazon device, but we’ll let you know for sure once we’ve had a chance to test the Portal’s controls out for ourselves.
Another smart home point of note: Both the Echo Show and the Home Hub will let you view the feed from a compatible smart home camera (you get plenty of options with both platforms, though Amazon’s still ahead of Google here). The Facebook Portal displays include Alexa voice controls, but they don’t share the same visual user interface for Alexa that you get with the Echo Show. That means that you can’t pull up the feed from Alexa-compatible camera feeds at all.
We’ll know much more about these displays as soon as we’ve had the chance to test them all out (as of now, we’ve only gotten our hands on the new second-gen Echo Show). Stay tuned for full reviews of everything in the coming weeks.
Updated 10/11/18 at 4:30 PM EST to include information about the weight of Facebook’s Portal displays, along with confirmation that they will not display the feed from Alexa-compatible cameras.
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