Gizmos

Is This the Future of the Tablet?

Smart displays are efficient tablet–smart speaker hybrids. Should you buy one?

A Lenovo Smart Display alongside an iPad.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Lenovo, Apple.

When Amazon announced the Echo Show, it had a simple premise: The device would be an Amazon Echo with a screen. Now, the Show seems to be among the first in a new category of connected home devices called smart displays. The latest to debut is Lenovo’s Smart Display, a Google Assistant–imbued countertop gadget with an 8- or 10-inch display and a proportionally large front-facing speaker grille. The device, like the Echo Show, is designed to give users news and information as quickly as they can speak a query out loud. Unlike a traditional smart speaker, which can only read back stats or information via audio, a smart display can also pull up text, imagery, and video to answer your questions.

Smart displays are starting to encroach on the domain of another screen—tablets. Tablet sales peaked in 2014, four years after the debut of the iPad. They have since been on the decline. Tablets have become more like laptops than smartphones, with a longer shelf life in consumer hands and homes. Price is likely a factor—the average tablet costs between $500 and $1,000. Tablets have also been hurt by the growing screen size of smartphones through the years. For many, they are a second screen used on the couch, bed, or kitchen, and mostly for reading or watching video. With that in mind, upgrading the device isn’t a priority.

Smart displays fulfill many of the same functions as tablets. They can come with a camera for taking photos or video chatting. Lenovo’s Smart Display even has a mechanical shutter to block out its 5-megapixel wide-angle camera, so if it’s placed in a bedroom or bathroom, you can feel confident it’s incapable of peeping. They can show useful information, such as the daily weather forecast, or play video clips discussing important news headlines. When not in use, some, like Lenovo’s, can run slideshows of images or photos from your Google Photos account. Voice commands, while doable on either device, make a bit more sense on a smart display because it’s not directly in your hands like an iPad.

Of course, tablets have some notable benefits over smart displays. They are more mobile; a smart display is designed to sit stationary on a countertop without the aid of a stand or mount. A smart display also isn’t a gaming device, and it’s not something you’d want to watch longform video on. The experience of a tablet is far more customizable, thanks to the huge number of apps it can run and other tweaks you can make on iOS or Android. On the Amazon Echo Show, you’re strapped with Amazon-developed interfaces and a smaller selection of third-party visual skills. On smart displays with Google Assistant built in, you’re stuck with Google-developed features and services.

But a smart display does feel like an evolution of a tablet. It takes the best parts of a larger-screen display and combines it with the growing utility offered by voice control and virtual assistants. This can particularly be felt while cooking a meal in your kitchen. Google Assistant can pull up some recipes and read them to you, but being able to visually see the steps and ingredients is more useful—and because it’s designed to be largely hands-free, interacting with that recipe can be a more seamless experience than trying to swipe or tap for navigation on a tablet. A smart display also intuitively knows when video content may be preferable to a simple auditory response; for example, when you ask a “how-to” type question, the Lenovo Smart Display can pull up a YouTube video for you. Smart-assistant integration takes the old tablet experience and simplifies it so that you don’t need to spend as much time with a screen in hand to get things done. And with so many screens commanding so much of our attention throughout the day, that can be a good thing.