Smart speaker or smart display: Which should you buy?

If you use smart assistants, then there is one you likely use more often than any other. In most cases, this will be a speaker. Maybe you have a Google Home Max in the living room for listening to music, or you use an Amazon Echo Show in the kitchen to scroll through recipes while cooking dinner.

But if you only had to choose one, is a smart speaker or a smart display worth your money? There are numerous factors to consider, but it boils down to budget. A smart display can do everything a smart speaker can do and more, but they also cost at least twice as much as a smart speaker.

A smart display embodies the concept of a “smart” home. A touchscreen, voice-activated display that shows visual data, as well as performing all the functions of a typical smart assistant is what Amazon set out to create with the original Echo Show, but other companies soon followed suit. However, you can’t discount the worth of smart speakers either — given how they’re generally the first introduction to a smart home for many people. Now there are brand-name smart displays and speakers on the market from both Amazon and Google, as well as a suite of third-party displays that support them.

Style versus substance

One major consideration for most people regarding a smart device is its appearance. Will it mesh well with the current decor? Or perhaps, is it a glaring distraction among the other things around it? Fortunately, both Amazon and Google spend quite a bit of money on designing the most aesthetically pleasing devices possible. After all, no one wants to use a device that sticks out like a sore thumb, no matter how functional it may be.

Pick up any mainstream smart speaker and you can see the design work that has gone into it. Fabric masks the speakers and gives it a chic look, while physical buttons have been reduced to as few as possible. The look of the devices has evolved over two or three generations.

Smart displays are, for the most part, on their first or second generation. Their look has not been as streamlined, but that’s not to say smart displays are unattractive; quite the contrary, in fact. Both the Amazon Echo Show and Nest Home Hub are stylishly built and provide as much screen real estate as possible. Smart displays are essentially stationary tablets with smart assistants built in. In fact, there are tablets that can double as a smart display. Lenovo has both Google Assistant and Alexa-enabled tablets that you can take with you on the go.

Since smart speakers are more reserved and discrete with their designs, they’re far easier to tuck away in places throughout the home without — to the point that their presence in the home can almost be invisible. You can easily tuck one away into a cabinet or behind a monitor. Smart displays, though, are more pronounced with their presence, especially when they still some degree of physical interaction.

Added functionality

Smart displays and smart speakers perform almost exactly the same tasks — except that a smart display is capable of displaying information visually. It’s the difference between listening to the steps of a recipe and reading it yourself. You can also ask the display to move to the next step so that you don’t have to touch the screen with sticky, garlic-covered fingers. The power of a smart display is further expanded when the ability to hold video chats and conference calls comes into play.

With so many people working from home, a smart display that lives on the office desk can make it easy to jump into impromptu video meetings thanks to services like Google Meet. When you aren’t in a meeting, your smart display can show information like stock prices or serve as a digital photo frame. If you have a smart doorbell or camera, you can view an instant livestream whenever someone comes to the door or the motion sensor is triggered.

Echo Show 8 video call

Smart displays also give a visual readout of the status of your smart home. This makes it easy to tell at a glance what devices are active and which ones are not. Some smart speakers, like the Nest Hub Max, has a built-in Nest Cam. This allows you to use the device not only as a smart display but also as a smart security camera.

But it’s not all about visual data, after all. If you’re an audiophile that uses their smart assistant as a medium through which to play music, then a smart display won’t have the audio quality audiophiles crave. Instead, a device like the Google Home or the Amazon Echo Studio would be a much better fit due to the devices’ improved audio quality. Sure, you can play music through something like the Amazon Echo Dot, but it just doesn’t compare. The Google Home Max and Amazon Echo Studio are high-quality speakers that have smart assistant functionality, not the other way around.

Budget

If you simply need a smart assistant to control devices around your house or to set timers, a smart display might be overkill. For example, an Amazon Echo Flex, the most affordable option for an Alexa device, is only $25. If you want to spend $25 more. the Echo Dot is just $50. The Amazon Echo Show 5 is $90, while the Echo Show 8 is $130.

On the Google front, a Google Home Mini is generally available for $40. The Google Home Mini is the previous iteration of the Nest Mini, but there are no functional differences between them. If you’re looking for a budget smart speaker, the Google Home Mini is the way to go; in fact, Google has literally given them away at times. Although, there are frequent sales where you can snag the newer model for the same price as the old one.

However, if you want the Nest Hub Max with a built-in Nest Cam, it will cost you. The smart display retails for $230. You could forgo the Nest Cam and opt instead for the lower-cost Nest Home Hub at a cost of just $90.

Timing has the biggest influence

In short, if you are on a budget and visual representation isn’t a deal-breaker, opt for a low-cost smart speaker instead of a smart display. But if you want a smart assistant that can double as a digital photo frame, a recipe guide, and possibly even a security camera, then a smart display is certainly worth the cost.

Lenovo Smart Display 7 side shot
John Velasco /Digital Trends

You can still find smart displays without breaking the bank, especially if you wait until Black Friday and other major holidays to grab them on sale. If you wait until several months or a year after release, a smart display can drop in price to the same level as a smart speaker. Take the Amazon Echo Show 5, for example. While more expensive than the Dot, it’s infinitely more affordable than something like the Nest Hub Max.

Purchasing a smart display is an investment for the future, too. As smart home technology continues to evolve and develop, smart displays will soon outstrip anything a smart speaker is capable of. The upfront investment for a smart display might be a bit more now, but it will pay off as the technology improves.

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