With the arrival of the Pixel tablet with a speaker charging dock this week at Google I/O, Google did what it does best: kill a product. Only this time it didn’t just kill are Product; it foreshadowed the death of the entire smart display category. Oh yeah. They had a good run, but folks, it’s the end of the line. The precise time of death was when Google exec Rose Yao described the new Pixel tablet on his dock as follows: “It feels like a smart display, but it has one huge advantage… Android apps.
When one of really only two companies making smart displays proudly announces that its shiny new smart home control device is not a smart display, the game is ready. Yao also rightly pointed out one of the two biggest problems with smart displays: their software is frustratingly limited. The other problem? Their hardware is also bad. That’s a powerful double blow.
So, where did it all go wrong?
The original idea of the smart display was a smart speaker with a screen on it display Extra information. In The edge‘s review of the first Echo Show, where Dieter Bohn praised the device not trying to be a tablet. “Its power is in its simplicity,” he wrote.
Six years later, smart displays are anything but simple. Today’s smart displays try to do too much with too little and largely fail at everything.
Is it a smart home control interface? Is it a household calendar? Is it a small TV? Is it a smart speaker? Is it a video calling device? Is it an alarm clock? Is it a digital photo frame? Yes. Does it do any of those things really well? No. (Well, maybe a digital photo frame – I’ll give them that.)
To be clear, I’m specifically talking about smart is displayed here. Smart speakers are great devices. They’re better for playing music than smart screens (not a giant screen to mess up the acoustics) and better at responding to voice commands (for the same reason) and thus controlling your smart home. In fact, the only thing a smart display really adds to a smart speaker is problems. My original 2014 Echo speaker still works fine, but I’ve had several smart displays bite the dust.
The only thing a smart display really adds to a smart speaker is problems
The two companies that make most of the smart displays — Amazon and Google — have largely turned them into closed ecosystems running poorly designed software on substandard hardware. The only advantage of these is that they are cheap, especially when compared to a device that can do all of the above. The entry-level Echo Show 5 costs $85, and the Nest Hub is $99, and both are often available for much less thanks to aggressive discounts. An iPad, a Google Pixel tablet, or this very cool shared family tablet from Hearth starts at around $300 and goes up to $700.
Amazon, with its four smart displays, and Google, with its two Nest hubs, have been trying to find compelling use cases in our homes for their increasingly multitasking gadgets. From sticking a creepy rotating screen on one and turning another into a sleep tracker to making almost all of them security cameras (something no one asked for), a lot has been thrown at the smart display and very little has remained to hang.
Obviously, Amazon continues to sell these things. Maybe Google too. But it is clear that we have reached a turning point and the industry has realized that it is time to move on. If the smart home is going to work, we need control devices that also work.
All promise, no action
The main uses I have for a smart display are as a touchscreen option when I want to turn off a light, lock a door or adjust a thermostat without using my voice, a video intercom for security cameras, a family calendar / whiteboard, and a countertop screen for my kids to watch a show while having breakfast.
In theory, Echo Shows and Nest Hubs can do these things. But they are So slow to do it or make it too complicated to set up that I invariably reach for my smartphone or tablet to get the job done. (Then there were those two months when the Nest Hub Max would just play Teen Titans go in Spanish, which made me reluctant to allow my kids to bring their tablets to the breakfast table.)
Tablets and smartphones do everything smart displays do, and they do it even better. But they are personal devices, not ideal for family use. That’s why I’m excited about the Pixel Tablet with its dock and common user interface. It’s the next evolution of the smart display: the smart home tablet. It has the power to do all its work well, especially smart home control, thanks to a unique Home Panel feature that allows quick access to devices and useful functions such as live streams from cameras.
Yes, I wish the Pixel tablet did more for the smart home. That charging station should be a Nest smart speaker / Matter controller / Thread border router. The screen should be smaller and less obtrusive on a countertop or bedside table — handy spots for smart home controllers with screens. I’m not wild about the detachable nature of it either, but that’s a personal preference. But thanks to a lot more power under the hood, a better touchscreen experience (hopefully), and apps that let you intuitively control everything in your smart home without learning a new interface, the Pixel Tablet is a good step in the right direction.
Tablets and smartphones do everything smart displays do, and they do it even better
The Pixel tablet isn’t the first attempt at reimagining the smart display as a usable smart home controller. Last year, Samsung touted an almost identical concept that got me all excited but never launched. There’s the Ava Remote, which takes the concept and shrinks it down to an even more familiar format: a TV remote (at $1,300, it won’t catch on). Then there are devices like Brilliant’s touchscreen switches, $400 panels designed to make smart home control as simple as flipping a light switch.
Of course, you could also hang an iPad on your wall and try to slide it into this role – something I tried, but ended up missing. But rumor has it that a wall-mounted iPad isn’t the definitive shape for an Apple smart display. The smart home is ready for Apple to come in with a HomePod with a screen concept and say, “Look guys, this is how you should have done it all along,” similar to what it did to the tablet market with the iPad and the smartwatch market with the Apple Watch.
The common theme with these smart home controllers is that they are all expensive devices. That’s because running a smart home is like running a computer; you can try it on cheap hardware but it will be a bad experience.