Amazon’s Echo Show is getting some new competition from Google — and that could be just what the market needs.
One of the main concerns, or perhaps criticisms, of voice shopping is that consumers are reluctant to buy things they can’t see. The lack of screen might not matter when it comes to ordering household goods or basics — think paper towels or a pack of white undershirts — but it’s a trickier proposition for visually oriented products like jewelry, shoes and fashion. But pair a display with voice assistant technology, like Alexa or Google Assistant, and the scenario shifts.
Until now, Amazon was essentially the lone tech giant pursuing home-based voice assistants with screens. But more development and competition tends to draw more attention to a space and drive popularity.
Enter the Google-powered Lenovo Smart Display.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Google revealed that it was partnering with device makers on a new line of display-oriented Google Home devices. Now Lenovo officially becomes the first to give the Google Assistant some visual punch. Its new appliance, revealed Thursday and available on Friday, is pure Google on the inside — or more specifically, Android Things, a lightweight variation on Android software. The hardware, or product design, is basically all Lenovo, which crafted two versions with an 8- or 10-inch display. The 8-inch model sells for $199.99 and the 10-inch version costs $249.99.
The units beg comparisons to Amazon’s gadgets.
For the Echo, all shopping ties into Amazon’s marketplace, so users can tell their speakers to add things to their shopping lists or even complete the purchase, depending on the settings. With Echo Show, they can also visually check out the item. Owners of the Lenovo Smart Display will be able to do the same, but across multiple retailers — basically any stores that are connected to Google Express. People can browse options from stores like Walmart, Target, Overstock and Costco.
“You can already shop with the Google Assistant on voice-only devices, including the Google Home and other speakers that support the Google Assistant,” said Bibo Xu, product manager for Google Assistant. “Shopping on Smart Display builds on that experience by offering multiple product options at once, images, reviews, and touch commands to select and add items to your cart.”
But there’s a notable difference in the experience: Unlike with Echo, the action stops short of the final transaction. So users can call up products by talking to the device, see or scroll through items via voice, even add products to their shopping carts. But when it comes to actually buying, the system refers them to their phones or computers.
In that way, Google’s voice-and-visual experience is a bit half-formed, at least for now. But the Android maker has been paying attention to the retail sector this year, so it’s likely taking a hard look at ways to improve the consumer experience.
Like Echo Show, the Lenovo Smart Display can control some smart home devices, place video calls, and pull up traffic, news, music streams and weather. It can also trigger a routine or string of various actions by voice — like automatically turning on the lights, starting the coffee pot and playing NPR when the user says, “Good morning.” Along with the action, relevant images, video or text can scrawl across the screen.
There are numerous similarities to the Echo Show, but the most intriguing aspects lie in the differences. While the Amazon gizmo could be mistaken for a Sharper Image alarm clock circa 2001, the Lenovo appliance features modern lines and an aesthetic sensibility that respects the fact that it will live in people’s living rooms or kitchens.
The 10-inch version has a white bezel in front and a sleek bamboo backing, while the 8-inch model comes with a muted gray back.
The unit features a smooth, triangular base that sits the device up horizontally or, for video calls, it can stand upright vertically. The shape also helps acoustics travel. In person, it looks like a very sleek, sophisticated device.
The Smart Display can cast music or video to Chromecast-enabled devices, as well as receive and play media sent from phones. One nifty feature is that owners can search recipes by voice, and the system will read the instructions aloud and show the directions step by step, for a hands-free cooking experience.
Speaking of content, there’s one consideration that’s almost impossible to ignore: While Alexa’s voice powers are somewhat limited to built-in functions from Amazon and its partners, or particular Alexa Skills, the Google Home device lets users find and display any YouTube video or searchable content in Google.com. That means it comes with an incredible load of content on day one.
And, in a nod to today’s heightened privacy concerns, Lenovo’s product design also folds in manual, physical controls that can shut off the microphone or cover the 720p camera lens.
Whether that camera will one day capture outfits or even whole wardrobes remains to be seen. When it comes to questions about whether Google might take on Amazon in pursuing the fashion space, Google’s Xu demurred, simply saying, “Nothing to share right now.”
As it is, perhaps the mere fact that two tech giants are now vying in the same voice-enabled display space speaks volumes — and makes voice shopping look more and more like an inevitability.