Lenovo is best known for its popular ThinkPad laptops and Yoga convertibles, and you may even remember that it makes smartphones too. But the Chinese company is branching out from notebooks, handsets and wearables with a push into smart home gadgets, starting with an Amazon Echo clone. The creatively named Lenovo Smart Assistant offers Alexa in a taller, rounder and more colorful speaker than the Echo, and starts at a cheaper $130, to boot. The new device is available in basic and premium flavors, with the latter offering Harman Kardon audio enhancements for $50 extra. I checked out prototypes of both models here at CES, but despite being impressed by the volume of the music it pumped out, I’m otherwise struggling to see its appeal.
That may sound harsh, but it’s frankly difficult to imagine a scenario in which you’d pick the Smart Assistant over the Echo, Echo Dot or one of the plethora of devices that let you interact with a digital helper, even without a speaker. If you want a more affordable option than the Echo, you can choose the $50 Dot, which is cheaper than the basic Smart Assistant. If you want better audio quality, which is the clear selling point of the Harman Kardon-enhanced model, you can also get the Dot and attach it to a high end speaker you already own. So unless you’re a hardcore Harman Kardon fan or someone who doesn’t yet own a Bluetooth speaker and is considering one with Alexa integrated, the Smart Assistant probably won’t appeal to you.
I could see someone picking the Smart Assistant over the Echos thanks to Lenovo’s taller, skinnier silhouette, but even that is a matter of personal (ahem, bad) taste. The Smart Assistant looks like someone took the Echo, stretched it out, and slapped Google Home’s color scheme on it. Like Google’s smart speaker, the Lenovo offering also comes in a greater variety of color options. The basic model is white, with three interchangeable bottom covers in grey, brown and teal, while the premium version only comes in black. Those trying to quit smoking should probably avoid the white/brown combo, though — that thing looks exactly like a giant, chunky cigarette.
Another reason you might prefer Lenovo’s speaker is how loud it gets. During our brief demo, we asked Alexa to play the Star 107.9 radio station when it was set to top volume. The sounds of NSYNC’s Bye Bye Bye were loud enough to hear from another room, and we needed to raise our voices to hear each other speak. People who have trouble hearing Alexa on their regular speakers might want to consider the Smart Assistant.
The audio on the Harman Kardon version gets muddled as the volume gets louder, but to be fair the devices we saw were pre-production units. Alexa was also several seconds slower to respond to commands than on similar Echo devices, but a Lenovo rep claimed that WiFi troubles and the fact that the devices were not production ready were the likely culprits.
In addition to the Smart Assistant, Lenovo also rolled out a new connected hard drive that it calls Smart Storage, which wirelessly backs up your mobile content and lets you access the data wherever you are. The two new devices are part of the company’s plan to move into the smart home category, and we’ll have more announcements to look forward to later this year. Meanwhile, Lenovo has proven that it is capable of making a smart speaker, even if it’s a pointless “me-too” device. Let’s hope Lenovo’s future products in this category are as well-designed as its ThinkPad laptops.