As people continue to purchase tens of millions of smart speakers around the world, the Echo Dot and Home Mini continue to lead global sales by the numbers. But the new twist we collectively witnessed in the past year was the emergence of the smart display, a new category of devices that gives the likes of Alexa and Google Assistant a visual interface.
These new devices let you watch videos, see the latest photos of friends and family, and give you visuals when you ask questions — but there’s more to it than that. With nearly half of all Google Assistant interactions this year combining voice and touch to get things done, smart displays could be on the rise.
So which has the best features? Which is right for your home? In this article we draw on learnings from reviews of the Portal, Echo Show, and Home Hub and take a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages that each of these smart displays brings to market.
Amazon Echo Show
The first Amazon Echo Show was a bit meh. With speakers below the screen, design-wise it resembled an old television.
The second-generation released this fall got some real improvements, with a better quality display, a screen that grew from 7 to 10 inches, and speakers that moved behind the screen to give it a more streamlined, minimal look.
In a review published when the device became available for sale in October, the Echo Show received a 85/100 score.
Chief among new features: Video has become a much larger emphasis. The first-generation Echo Show could also play video, but after a short time on the market, Google revoked access to YouTube, greatly hindering the type of videos you can watch with simple voice commands.
To make up for it the second time around, Amazon introduced a partnership with Hulu as well as NBC so you can use natural language voice commands to watch a favorite show or recap Jimmy Fallon’s late night monologue.
Amazon also introduced Fire TV Recast this fall for watching live television and recording shows to watch later.
This all comes in addition to Prime Video. Each of the video services on Echo Show now has a dedicated landing page that makes it easier to search and explore content.
The Echo Show also got a new home screen display this year. Whenever you aren’t speaking with Alexa, the screen can be set to display a series of cards that includes your reminders and calendar alongside news updates and video from outlets like USA Today, Bloomberg, LA Times, and the Associated Press.
You can also treat the Echo Show like a digital photo frame, continuously rotating your favorite photos from Amazon Prime Photos when the device is not in use.
Another big addition: Swipe down on the screen of an Echo Show and you can control all your smart home devices on a single visual interface. Amazon continues to lead all competitors with the ability to control tens of thousands of smart home devices.
In fact, each time you say “Alexa, turn on the bedroom lights,” you will see an option to control your device on the Echo Show screen for a short period of time.
If you’re new to Alexa-enabled devices, the Echo Show is also helpful in that each time you say “Alexa, show me your skills,” you get a glance at the best of the more than 70,000 voice apps that have now been made for the Echo Show, especially popular visual skills like Double Jeopardy.
One of my favorite additions for the Echo Show is video calls with Skype. While the Echo Show was previously able to make voice calls through the Alexa app, Amazon never really made clear how many people actually use it, and people who don’t have an Echo weren’t likely to have the Alexa app.
But Skype is an app with 300 million users and one of the rare technologies, like Google for web searches and Snapchat for live stories, that has transformed into a verb.
Some other Alexa offerings available with the Echo Show: Alexa Guard made its debut last month and will periodically alternate smart home lights to make it appear as if you’re home, and when moved into Guard Mode will alert you if the sound of breaking glass or a security alarm is heard.
Though Google Assistant can control security systems, Alexa Guard is the only native security offering out there from AI assistants.
There’s also follow-up mode, which lets you ask a question once, then follow up with a question within the same context so you no longer have to think about interactions one at a time. This can change the way you speak with an assistant, giving your exchanges more of a conversational feel.
Another is Hunches, a proactive predictive Alexa feature that recommends you take specific actions, starting with the on/off state of your smart home devices. Should Alexa recognize that your door is unlocked after you say “Good night,” for example, she (Amazon only makes Alexa available with a female voice) might suggest that you lock that door.
Hunches will be a lot more interesting when proactive suggestions are made for music or video content, or maybe even local businesses.
There’s also whisper mode, which recognizes when you’re whispering and whispers back in kind.
The Echo Show is also unique in that it can now play a wider range of streaming music services from providers like Apple Music and Tidal.
If all these new features don’t seal the deal, the Echo Show also allows you to edit your to-do lists and shopping list.
At $229, the Echo Show offers something in the middle of the road compared to the $349 Portal+ and $149 Home Hub.
Add Alexa, arguably the most mature of the assistants, and the Echo Show might deliver the best value of any smart display on the market.
Google Home Hub
The biggest distinction between Home Hub and its competitors may be price. At $149, it’s unquestionably the lowest priced smart display.
However, the Home Hub has significantly lower sound output and quality compared with its competitors, and no video call capabilities.
Beyond the Home Hub, there are other smart displays with Google Assistant inside from Lenovo, JBL, LG, and soon Sony, and strangely, and each of these — unlike the Home Hub — are able to make video phone calls with Google’s Duo app.
That being said, there are a lot of upsides to the Home Hub.
An RGB sensor means the device adopts the color profile of any room it’s placed in, purposely blending into the background.
My favorite feature might be Live Albums for the ambient screen. Live Albums were introduced this fall and automatically use facial recognition software to recognize the faces of people whose photos you want to highlight.
The Google Photos album tends to recommend photos be shared based on the people who appear in them. Let’s say you want to make a photo album that your siblings and family add to in order to keep up with the latest from everyone. With Live Albums, you just select the faces you want included and grandma can get continuous, automated updates of her grandbabies. No need to post on social media to populate the album as is the case with Facebook’s Portal, and no need to bother routinely sifting through your camera roll.
Another big distinction is access to the Google ecosystem. If you use Google Maps and an Android phone, ask your Home Hub for directions somewhere and they will be displayed on the screen, then sent to your phone.T
Choosing Google Assistant over its competitors if you have an Android phone also means exclusive features for other apps, as well as assistant access even when the phone is locked.
Home Hub also lets you do quick video searches with YouTube. Subscribe to YouTube TV for $40 a month and you can watch live television.
There is some overlap between the Home Hub and Echo Show. Like the Echo Show, the Home Hub provides instructional videos from Allrecipes and Food Network for anyone interested in cooking with a smart display as sous chef. A screen means you can follow ingredient gathering and step-by-step instructions easier.
Both Google Assistant and Alexa are able to carry out Routines, a feature that lets you carry out multiple actions with a single voice command.
Another advantage for the Home Hub or Echo Show: Both can be added to an audio group. Statistically speaking, most consumers will buy multiple speakers, not just one, and the ability to connect a group of devices means you can play the same audio all over the home. This is nice to have when you’re walking from your bathroom to your bedroom or kitchen in the morning and listening to the news, and it’s also a great addition when you’re having a party and want to maintain the mood no matter where you are in the house.
A network of speakers throughout your home changes the way you think of voice computing. It moves your mindset from the idea of having an assistant that can help when you’re within shouting distance to being able to just yell instructions anywhere to add an item to your shopping list, turn out the lights, or get things done.
While both devices can be used to send audio messages throughout your home, one unique thing you get with the Home Hub that you don’t get with the Echo Show: broadcast replies. That means you can talk back when mom says over the intercom, “You ready for school?”
Another unique feature added recently: Swipe right away from the photo album or clock display and you can get recipe recommendations. Should you find a recipe you want to make, you can tap the screen to get started immediately or save recipes on the Home Hub to use later.
Home Hub also provides news video recommendations from outlets like CNN.
Home Hub and smart displays with Google Assistant inside also offer suggested responses. So let’s say you ask “What’s the biggest mammal in the world?” or “What’s the capital of Kenya?” In addition to your answer, on the screen you will see recommended follow-up questions.
This takes advantage of Google’s deep understanding of conversational AI and language. Also part of Google’s great understanding in this space: support for bilingual conversations. Nobody else does this yet, even though there are tens of millions of bilingual households out there.
Globally, Google Assistant is now able to speak more than 30 languages. That’s more than Apple’s Siri, Samsung’s Bixby, Amazon’s Alexa, and other competitors.
The Portal and Portal+ are Facebook’s first consumer devices made in-house. To leverage its existing family of apps, Portal is tethered to Facebook Messenger, a chat and video call app with 1.3 billion monthly active users.
That’s a hell of a lot more than video call services compatible with Alexa or Google Assistant, though both Alexa and Google Assistant can make phone calls and send text messages.
With support for calls with up to 7 users, Portal is the only one of the smart displays available today that can handle group video calls.
This comes in addition to Smart Camera, which uses AI to zoom in and out and automatically frame video calls. This creates the feeling that the camera is following you around the room, different than virtually all prior video call options. Smart Volume also adjusts to make sure sound is consistent wherever you are in the room.
The Highlight feature means you can select the face of one person (grandma wants to see her grandbabies, not so much you). This feature will be a lot cooler when you can make it follow a dog around the room.
The Portal got an 87/100 review in a review published when the device became available last month, but admittedly, that score was lifted in part due to the device’s potential, not what’s available today.
Setting itself apart from its competitors, the Portal vision is to build a third-party ecosystem for in-call experiences with augmented reality.
This starts with Storytime, the ability to read stories 3-5 minutes long to children, using effects like putting a cat on your head, dress like an astronaut in space, or bundle up like Santa Claus.
Neither Amazon nor Google have made many strides by way of video calls, and none at all in the department of in-call experiences. If a developer ecosystem grows, it could be a definitive, ongoing distinction between Portal and all of its competitors.
However, in order to be more than a novelty, Facebook is going to have to find ways to make in-call experiences enticing to adults beyond reading stories to kids.
In addition to video call enhancements and in-call experiences, last week, Facebook rolled out several new features for Portal worth considering, including a web browser, Instant Games, and custom camera control for video calls.
All that being said, Portal is fairly behind its competitors in dozens of ways.
If you’re interested in a Portal because you’re a Facebook power user and you think this will help you stay social or add things to your Instagram feed, for example, think again.
To keep people from being too concerned about inviting a company with a poor privacy record into your home, you can’t take photos or record video with Portal, and at launch Portal cannot share anything or connect with the broader family of Facebook apps.
The Superframe app that competes with Google’s Live Albums can be pretty cool because it shares Facebook photos you and your close friends are tagged in, but you get nothing from Instagram or WhatsApp, and no Stories, a feature used hundreds of millions of times a day across Facebook’s family of apps.
The Portal assistant is also extremely limited at launch, basically only able to make voice calls.
That’s probably why you get Amazon’s Alexa inside every Portal. This extends Portal’s abilities to do things like set a timer, add things to your shopping list, check the weather, or launch Alexa skills. But to be clear: This is Alexa Voice Service, and therefore cannot be considered the exact same as Alexa in an Echo speaker.
This is really weird, actually — not just because Facebook is a social company, but because if you start messing with camera effects during a Messenger call on a smartphone, the Portal user interface suggests you take pictures.
Another major disadvantage for Portal is that it does not connect with a streaming video device like Google’s Chromecast or Amazon’s Fire TV stick. Both can stream video from a number of services, and turn Alexa and Google Assistant into remote controls.
To address this lack, Facebook is reportedly working on its own device for streaming video due out next year.
If true, it would compete with the likes of Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, and even legacy players like Comcast, each of which offers voice control as a selling point.
The Portal+ goes for $349 and Portal for $199.
So which is best for you? Google Home Hub brings the lowest price, but Amazon Echo Show may have the most well-rounded experience of the three, and Facebook Portal has a lot of potential.
So if you’re the kind of person who wants to make great video calls and use a smart display to stay in touch with family, maybe Portal is the right choice for you.
If you’re the owner of an Android smartphone and want to stay inside the Google universe and maybe even buy a Home Hub and a few Home Minis to go with it for audio around the house at the price of a Portal+, you should get the Home Hub.
If you want the best value for your money, with a smart assistant, a nice screen, and good sound for music, maybe you want the Echo Show.
Ultimately, each of the makers of smart displays isn’t just selling a screen with an AI-powered assistant. It’s also selling you on exclusive features from its wider family of apps and services, from Prime Video to Google Photos Live Albums to AR camera effects from Facebook, and making out its best pitch for why you should stay inside its ecosystem over offerings from competitors.