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The best smart display for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant

No surprise: They're made by Amazon and Google.
Wirecutter, @wirecutter
April 5, 2020
Rozette Rago/Wirecutter

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By Signe Brewster

This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter's independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and Engadget may earn affiliate commission. Read the full guide to smart displays for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.

If your phone lives on your kitchen counter and tends to be sauce-splattered, or if you just want an easier way to view photos or to control smart devices, try a smart display—a mashup of a smart speaker and a tablet. A smart display is great not only for streaming music and video or answering questions about the weather, but also for calling up recipes you can follow hands-free. We like the Amazon Echo Show and the Google Nest Hub Max—pick either model, based on your needs or your preference for Alexa or Google Assistant.

The Amazon Echo Show (2nd Gen) benefits from the deep well of Alexa-enabled Skills, which make it compatible with the widest range of music apps, recipes, and smart-home devices, as well as oddball voice-based games like Jeopardy! trivia. Its speaker produces clear audio and is powerful enough to fill a room, and we enjoyed watching full-fledged shows and movies from Prime Video and Hulu on its 10-inch display. The on-screen menus are less friendly and useful than those on Google Assistant devices, but since we relied on voice control for most interactions we didn't find that to be a huge issue. The Echo Show also includes Zigbee wireless for connecting to more smart-home devices.

The Google Assistant–enabled Google Nest Hub Max seamlessly reminds you of upcoming Google Calendar appointments and transforms into an attractive digital photo frame with a 10-inch screen that streams images from your Photos account. In our tests it excelled when verbally walking us through recipes, without forcing us to smudge its large and crisp screen with our ingredient-dirtied hands. It also plays music and allows control of smart-home devices, though not as comprehensively as the Echo Show.

The Amazon Echo Show 5 does everything the larger Echo Show can do but has a smaller, 5.5-inch screen that makes it a nice fit on a nightstand or a bathroom counter. Its screen adjusts to the room's lighting so it doesn't keep you up at night.

We recommend the Google Nest Hub (formerly the Google Home Hub) if you want a smart display but don't need or want a built-in camera. At 7 inches it's a little larger than the Echo Show 5, but it's still the right size for a bedroom or other space where a small screen feels less intrusive.

Why you should trust us

I've spent the past seven years writing about the future of technology, including how connected technology could transform homes and lives. I'm also a skeptic: Although I own an Amazon Echo smart speaker and three cloud-connected security cameras, I've been picky about what types of technology I allow into my home. I'm interested only in those devices that will truly improve my day—not novelties.

Who this is for

A smart display is a combination screen and voice-controlled speaker that sits on a counter, desk, or shelf and makes it easy to casually keep up with sports updates, watch photo slideshows, get calendar alerts, and more, depending on how you customize it. A smart display can also do all of the same tasks as a screenless voice-controlled speaker such as an Amazon Echo Dot or Google Mini, including controlling smart devices, streaming music and radio stations, alerting you to upcoming weather and events on your calendar, building grocery lists, playing games, and answering simple questions like how to convert from cups to tablespoons or the number of ounces in a jigger. Like a smart speaker, a smart display is always listening for commands or queries and can act like a handy second brain for storing your to-do lists. We found that recipe-focused home cooks particularly relish the ability to summon and view the nearly infinite variety of recipes online with a simple spoken request, to have the recipe read aloud as they go through all the steps, and then to save the recipe to a collection for future use.

But a smart display can also sit unused, rendered useless by the TVs, computers, and other screens you already have in your home. To decide if a regular voice-controlled speaker may be a better pick for your needs, read our guide to Alexa and Amazon Echo speakers.

The first decision you need to make when picking a smart display is whether you prefer the Amazon or Google ecosystem of apps and services. Some apps, streaming services, and smart-home devices may be exclusive to either Alexa or Google Assistant, so it's important to consider what you already own or plan to purchase down the line. (For more, read about our favorite smart-home devices to pair with an Alexa speaker and with Google Assistant.)

Smart displays

Illustration: Wirecutter

In our testing we found that Alexa smart displays are generally better for managing smart homes and watching videos, while Google Assistant models are better attuned to performing cooking tasks and using Google's suite of apps, such as Calendar and Photos. We liked speaking with Google Assistant more than conversing with Alexa, as you can use more natural language in how you ask Google Assistant questions instead of having to hit the precise formula of words that Alexa recognizes. We also appreciated that the Google Assistant models displayed our question at the top of the screen, so we could easily tell if Google Assistant had misunderstood us. Overall, though, Google Assistant and Alexa were able to hear and respond similarly to most simple questions (such as "How many tablespoons in a cup?" and "What's the weather?").

No matter which assistant you prefer, we think you should buy a smart display only if you plan to use it for at least a few of the following features:

Following recipes hands-free: A display can show online recipes and read the ingredients and cooking steps aloud, so you never have to worry about smearing the screen. We liked using a smart display in place of scrolling down a phone screen, though we did find ourselves missing the beautiful pictures that cookbooks and recipe websites often include; the recipes served up on the displays are stark text on a white background. Although an interesting water-resistant option could be on the way (you can read about the KitchenAid Smart Display in the What to look forward to section), keep in mind that you'll still have to keep our recommendations clear of splash-prone areas.

Managing smart-home devices: A smart display can serve as a convenient hub for controlling cameras, lights, and speakers around your home. It's especially useful if you have a lot of cameras in your home, as you may be able to pull up a live stream of the front door or an infant's crib, for example, or any other spot where you have compatible cameras installed.

Watching videos: Depending on the display, you can download apps, such as for Hulu or YouTube, to turn your smart display into a small television.

Displaying photos: Most smart displays have a screensaver mode that shows photos you've uploaded, turning the screen into a digital photo frame. If you've ever considered purchasing a digital photo frame, a smart display gives you lots of extra features for just a bit more money. Less tech-savvy owners might like that relatives can add new photos remotely.

Video chatting: Depending on a smart display's brand, you can use it to place video calls to other owners via the Alexa app, Google Duo, or Facebook Messenger. It's a nice hands-free alternative to using a laptop or a tiny phone screen. It's also an interesting option for checking on an infant, say, or an elderly parent who doesn't know how to pull up Skype on a computer. However, if you don't already do a lot of video chatting, a smart display isn't likely to persuade you to start (and we were surprised to learn how limited the calling options are for some devices).

How we picked and tested

Smart displays

Photo: Rozette Rago

We read reviews from websites such as PCMag, CNET, and Wired, plus owner ratings on Amazon and the Best Buy site, and from there we picked the best-reviewed and most popular smart displays. We looked specifically for displays that were compatible with Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant and had the following features:

  • Privacy options: We reached out to companies about their policies on collecting information from the owners of smart displays, and we did our best to confirm that those policies weren't more invasive than what's standard for the industry. The ability to turn off a display's camera and microphone is a plus.
  • An HD, 10-inch display for offices and kitchens: You're buying a smart display for its screen, so it's worth the investment to choose one big enough for you to watch a movie or read through a recipe with ease. A 10-inch screen nearly matches the size of an iPad Air's display, a size that we think is ideal for most people.
  • Alternatively, a small but readable screen for bedrooms: When you don't want a display to change the feel of a room, a small screen that's still easy to read can be a better fit. It should automatically dim itself when you turn out the lights, too.
  • A powerful speaker: A smart display should be able to fill a room with music. None of them can compete with the bass or clarity of high-end speakers, but the speakers on your smart display should be brawny enough to keep you company while you cook or read a book.
  • A camera that is at least 5 megapixels: A better camera makes for better video chatting.
  • Style: Although we didn't find any smart display to be especially handsome, we appreciated options that looked sleek and weren't too clunky.

For this round of testing, we timed how long it took to set up each smart display and link it to an iPhone app. We also noted how well the display walked us through the setup process along with the various capabilities of the companion Alexa and Google Home apps. In addition to evaluating each display's ability to play back multimedia from various supported streaming services and its overall sound quality, we also linked a Netgear Arlo Q or Arlo Pro camera to view a live stream and tested video calling.

On a more subjective level, we took into consideration how well each smart display supported interaction by voice, gesture control, and on-screen touch, and also how often we turned to the smart displays instead of a screenless Amazon Echo smart speaker also installed in our test home. And to experience the marquee ability of these displays to make recipe-based cooking more convenient, we baked cookies following the hands-free recipes (and realized just how common it is to splatter these screens with sauce and other things when you place them on a kitchen counter).

Wirecutter takes security and privacy issues seriously and investigates as much as possible how the companies we recommend deal with customer data. As part of our vetting process for these smart displays, we examined the security and data-privacy practices behind our picks. In future guides, in the "Flaws but not dealbreakers" section, we'll note any such issues we think you should consider before buying.

Our pick for Alexa users: Amazon Echo Show (2nd Gen) with Alexa

Smart displays

Photo: Rozette Rago

The Amazon Echo Show (2nd Gen) passed every one of our tests. Its Alexa platform is compatible with the widest range of apps and services. It has a big touchscreen, a nice speaker array, and a decent camera. It's an especially good choice if you already use Amazon services such as Alexa, Prime, and Prime Video, or if you need a Zigbee-compatible hub for running a smart home. However, finding people who already use Alexa for video chatting is difficult, so we don't recommend the Echo Show for anyone who wants to video-chat with many different people.

Once you set up the Echo Show and its companion Alexa app on your phone, it can become a hub for your household. You can use voice commands to view the family's calendar, flip through streams from your connected security cameras, add and delete items from shopping or to-do lists, and pump music through a room. Because of its powerful speaker and on-screen information about the current song playing, the Echo Show was the only smart display I consistently turned to as a music player instead of the Echo speaker I already owned. It also makes sense to keep the Echo Show on a well-trafficked kitchen counter, where you can use it to access recipes and members of the family are likely to pass by it several times a day.

The Echo Show uses Alexa as its brain, which allows you to add any of the 80,000-plus (as of early 2019) available Skills to the display—think anything from turning on your Xbox One to ordering Domino's pizza—through the Alexa app. Like other Alexa devices, it has the broadest smart-home device compatibility: Both the Echo Show and the Nest Hub Max are compatible with Philips Hue bulbs, the SmartThings hub, Nest thermostats, Sonos speakers, and Roomba vacuums, but the Echo Show also works with the Honeywell Home Lyric thermostat, Rachio and Garagio devices, and D-Link smart plugs. (You can find an official list of Alexa-compatible devices, as well as a corresponding list of devices for Google Assistant.) It took us less than three minutes to find and install the Netgear Arlo Q Skill, which allowed us to live-stream the Arlo camera's view of the living room on the Echo Show's screen. You can also enable the free Alexa Guard Skill to send you alerts if your Echo Show hears breaking glass or a smoke alarm.

To watch or listen to media, you're restricted to Skills you can find in the Alexa app, though there are more options available than for Google devices. You can use the Echo Show to play music on Spotify Premium, TuneIn, and Pandora, the same services available for the Nest Hub Max. You can't access Google Play or the free version of Spotify, but you can stream audio from both Amazon Music and Apple Music. Alexa devices also allow you to access a lot more streaming video services, including Amazon Prime Video and Hulu, though notably not YouTube. I got the most mileage out of my Echo Show when I set it up on my craft table and used it as a small TV screen, giving myself the power to skip to the next episode of House Hunters without taking my hands off my sewing project.

Alexa did a fine job telling us jokes, the weather, and current events, and helping with everyday math calculations. We were able to quickly find new Skills and create groups of devices using the Alexa app. For example, saying "Play music everywhere" prompted Alexa to play Spotify on both the Echo Show and the Echo speaker in our home.

The Echo Show's 10-inch display tied for the largest we tested (the Facebook Portal Plus's 15.6-inch display is the largest we know of, though we didn't test that model). You can comfortably watch a show if you're sitting right in front of it, and you can read the name of a song from 10 feet away. It's also more pleasant to video-chat on the Echo Show's large screen than on a small phone screen: During a video chat with a friend and her 2-year-old son, I was able to see both of their facial expressions clearly—something that would have been lost on a smartphone screen.

To our amateur ears, the Echo Show's speaker was second only to that of the sound-oriented JBL Link View, but not by much. Voices sounded clearer, and we could detect more bass than we did on the Nest Hub Max. The speaker is powerful enough to fill a room with loud music, and you can link the display up with other Echo, Sonos, and select third-party smart speakers for a whole house of sound. The Echo Show also did an okay job of listening; I was able to speak in a normal voice and have Alexa respond from about 15 feet away. When I spoke from around the corner in the next room or when loud music was playing, however, I had to raise my voice to a near shout.

The Echo Show can do video chat but only through Alexa Messaging or Skype (see Flaws but not dealbreakers); you can also use voice to direct-dial a phone for an audio call. In our tests, a video chat with a friend over Alexa Messaging looked and sounded clear enough for both parties to understand each other easily, but it didn't look to be of a higher resolution than a video call we made using a smartphone (like most of the displays we tested, the Echo Show has a 5-megapixel camera). Still, the larger screen means your speaking companion appears larger, which is helpful and more comfortable. (You also don't have to hold up a phone for an hour.) I used the Echo Show to "Drop In" on my grandfather; instead of him having to answer my call, the two-way video conference began immediately after I initiated a chat. Although my grandfather struggles to use a smartphone, he can see when I pop up on his Echo Show and walk over to speak with me, which is effective (though he sometimes can't hear me yelling "Grandpa! Grandpa!" over the noise of his television). You can turn the "Drop In" feature on or off, depending on your privacy preferences.

Since none of the smart displays we tested look particularly stylish, we like that the Echo Show looks like a tablet from the front, with its pyramid-shaped speaker hidden behind the screen.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

The Echo Show is mostly focused on voice control, giving you fewer opportunities to control apps using the touchscreen than Google Assistant devices do. That's fine if you know how to use Alexa, but it could be confusing to someone who expects to flip between apps by touch, as on a tablet. And there isn't much hand-holding during the setup process to help new owners overcome their confusion. The easiest way to learn about the display's skills is to open the Alexa app and explore.

The Echo Show's on-screen menu is poorly organized, and it's not immediately clear what you can control on the screen versus through the Alexa app. For instance, we never did figure out how to make the Echo Show scroll through images we had uploaded to Prime Photos as a screensaver. Google does a better job of building features such as recipe search and smart-home control directly into the on-screen interface.

I rarely video-chat, but when I do I'm likely to use FaceTime or Facebook Messenger. I don't use Skype or Alexa Messaging, and so I found few people I could contact via the Echo Show. The people I know who bought an Echo Show primarily for video chatting also purchased one for the person they intended to chat with the most—a pricey compromise—or at the very least asked their contacts to download the Alexa app. So the practical value of video chatting on the Echo Show may be questionable for some people.

We also found the Echo Show's video-chatting resolution to be low. That was the case for all of the smart displays we tested, though the Facebook Portal's video stream looked noticeably better than what we saw from the competition. Stick to a high-end webcam if you need something that looks high resolution.

Unlike our other picks, the Echo Show can't read the level of light in a room and automatically adjust. Instead, you can set a schedule for when it should enter Night Mode. You can also tell it to dim its display by voice or touch at any time.

Like the Apple HomePod and other tech devices with silicone pads on their bases, the Echo Show can leave marks on wood surfaces. Ours left a large triangle on a butcher-block countertop.

Our pick for Google Assistant users: Google Nest Hub Max

Smart displays

Photo: Rozette Rago

If you plan to use your smart display for recipes or want better integration with Google Assistant, Calendar, and Photos, the Google Nest Hub Max is your best option. You can easily search for and find recipes, and its large and crisp screen displays them in a simple-to-read way. One unique feature of the Nest Hub Max is facial recognition: It serves up Calendar reminders, posts security alerts, and scrolls through images uploaded to Photos based on who it sees (though only if you register your account first).

The Nest Hub Max can stream music from Spotify (including the free version), TuneIn, and Pandora, as well as Google Play. You can also play YouTube and YouTube TV videos—and even stream the display's screen to a Chromecast-compatible TV, a neat feature if you don't already have a streaming media box. The Nest Hub Max is also the first smart display we tested to incorporate gesture controls; you just hold up your hand to pause or resume music or videos. The feature feels a little gimmicky, but we found it useful when we were cranking a Glass Candy album a little too high and didn't feel like shouting "Hey, Google!" over the vocals. It worked consistently, too, and we couldn't trick it by waving our hands, brushing hair off our face, or making other hand gestures. Google might expand the range of supported gestures in the future.