Smart displays cover all angles to rise above the chatter

With their fall product launches, Amazon, Facebook, and Google have all offered their take on smart displays. But the privacy-testing small screens have big differences in design focus and user distraction.

The Amazon Echo cracked a longstanding challenge for tech companies striving for maximum engagement: How do you embed stationary tech access points around the home in a relatively non-disruptive way? The smart speaker resonated because it provided an ambient attention-free alternative to dragging the illuminated slab from your pocket and twiddling with it long enough to get the weather or music you wanted.

Not content with leaving the home to purely auditory exchanges though, tech giants are seeking to expand the success of smart speakers into smart displays. These devices use a screen to augment or confirm information relayed through requests as well as act as tablet-sized TVs for smaller rooms, because how can people be expected to carve pumpkins without having Stranger Things playing inches away?

Also: Amazon Echo Show Review: A smart speaker that shows up

More seriously, smart displays certainly seem like a win for providing more of the benefits of smart speakers to the hearing impaired. They also offer significantly more utility than the digital picture frames that rose and fell a decade ago, only to mount a recent comeback from companies such as Nixplay and PhotoSpring. But, as is often the case in new categories, we are seeing companies approach the market with diverse value propositions. even when the core designs of the products have similar dimensions.

Visual Echos, Take Two

The Echo Show pioneered the modern smart display. As was typical of Amazon's Echo product rollouts, the company wasn't afraid to push the envelope in terms of functionality and price. The second-generation Echo, with its streamlined design and larger screen, matches the original's price of $229. However, Amazon has helped to justify the premium by establishing an effective model for use of the display in an audio-first device. The result is a well-rounded experience that works as well for basic information as it does for home automation

Also: Google to device makers: You do you, and I'll do me

Speaking of well-rounded products, and in light of the Echo Show's screen spread, the spherical Echo Spot may best represent the future of the smart display categories. Now that Alexa is taking root in devices with far better audio quality, the more transactional nature of its usage can be effectively augmented in a device that fits better on a nightstand and other cramped spaces.

A Portal into Facebook

It's no surprise that smart speakers, which include powerful microphone arrays and can potentially unlock doors, raise privacy and security concerns. That makes for dangerous terrain for a company that has endured much scrutiny in the past year around these topics. The result cast a cloud over the launch of Facebook's smart display, which is not only optimized for video chat, but uses computer vision to track one's presence around a room. To allay concerns, Facebook took pains to note that the Portal never stores details of audio or conversations, and the company even includes a removable cover for its camera that seems to have a high likelihood of getting lost.

Also: Facebook Portal alternatives you can buy right now

However, the bigger question surrounding Portal is how appealing its core features are when the camera is being used as intended given that the Echo Show -- as well as any modern tablet or laptop -- can also host video chats. And in a category where both Amazon and Google are carefully minding the footprints of their devices to conserve table space, Facebook is rolling out a version of the Portal that includes a 15-inch display.

Google Nests in Your Home

You might expect the stewards of the most widely licensed operating system in the world to take a platform approach to new device. Google did this when it coined (or repurposed) "smart displays" to represent devices adding a visual layer to speakers like Google Home -- with Lenovo signing up. That effort encompassed a broad array of tasks not coincidentally answering the focus of the Echo Show.

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However, at its Made by Google event this month, Google unwrapped its own flavor of the tabletop screen, the Google Home Hub. Developed by the Nest and adopted by Google proper, it emphasizes home control and access to YouTube and Google Photos, with a focus on being unobtrusive in a range of lighting conditions. The latter is a slap of Amazon, which has been banned from showing content from the massive video repository on its Echo Show. Google is also competing against its rivals with a lower price ($149 versus $229 for the Echo) aided buy a smaller display (7-inch vs. 10-inch) and lack of a camera, which also helps allay privacy concerns.

While that makes for a more specific take on functionality than the Smart Display, Google considers the Home Hub simply a more Google-optimized variant on the device category. Indeed, it has advertised it on television as such. It is also considered part of the broader Google Home speaker family, much as the Echo Show is considered part of the Echo smart speaker line.

Smart speakers face a paradox at present. On one hand, developers have imbued Alexa-based products with thousands of skills despite virtually no ways to directly monetize them. On the other hand, discovery remains a major challenge. Even the morass of the smartphone app stores look like a well-lit holiday display window at Macy's by comparison. Smart displays could make it easier to expose these capabilities.

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However, while they typically provide touch screens, third parties are just beginning to support them and there have been renewed shenanigans when it comes to crossing ecosystem borders. The Echo Show has shown that a display can be a useful augmentation to the functionality of these devices, while Google is hoping to prove that these displays can be optimized for enjoyment when they are active (as a Google Photos digital frame) and unobtrusive when are inactive. That's one of the lines that these products will have to straddle to prove their value over generally less expensive smart speakers.

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