Why the Google Pixel Tablet may kill the smart display

With the arrival of the Pixel Tablet with a charging speaker dock at Google I/O this week, Google did what it does best: killed a product. Only this time, it didn’t just kill its product; it foreshadowed the death of the entire smart display category. Ah well. 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 its dock like this: “It feels like a smart display, but it has one huge advantage … Android apps.” 

When one of really only two companies that make smart displays proudly proclaims that its shiny new smart home control device is not a smart display, the game is up. Yao also correctly pointed out one of two major problems with smart displays: their software is frustratingly limited. The other problem? Their hardware is bad, too. 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 to display additional information. In The Verge’s review of the first Echo Show, Dieter Bohn praised the device for not trying to be a tablet. “Its strength is in its simplicity,” he wrote.

Six years later, smart displays are anything but simple. Today’s smart displays attempt to do too much with too little and largely fail at everything. 

The Nest Hub (second-gen) is also a sleep tracker — using soli radar tech to measure your breathing.Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

Is it a smart home control interface? Is it a household calendar? Is it a tiny 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 am specifically ragging on smart displays here. Smart speakers are excellent devices. They’re better for playing music than smart displays (no giant screen to mess up the acoustics) and better at responding to voice commands (for the same reason) and, therefore, at controlling your smart home. In fact, the only thing a smart display really adds to a smart speaker is problems. My original Echo speaker from 2014 is still going strong, but I’ve had multiple 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 smart displays — Amazon and Google — have made them largely closed ecosystems that run poorly designed software on underpowered hardware. The one benefit of this is that they’re cheap — especially compared to a device that can actually do all of the above. The entry-level Echo Show 5 costs $85, and the Nest Hub is $99, and both are frequently available for much less thanks to aggressive discounting. An iPad, a Google Pixel Tablet, or this very cool-looking shared family tablet from Hearth start at around $300 and go up to $700.

Amazon, with its four smart displays, and Google, with its two Nest hubs, have tried and failed 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 nearly all of them security cameras (something no one was asking for), a lot has been thrown at the smart display, and very little has stuck. 

Obviously, Amazon is going to continue selling these things. Google might, too. But it’s clear we’ve reached an inflection point, and the industry has realized it’s time to move on. If the smart home is going to work, we need control devices that work, too.

All promise, no action

The main uses I have for a smart display are as a touchscreen option when I want to turn a light off, 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 on while they eat breakfast.

In theory, Echo Shows and Nest Hubs can do these things. But they are either so slow at doing them 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 only play Teen Titans Go in Spanish, resulting in me reluctantly allowing my kids to bring their tablets to the breakfast counter.)

The Echo Show 10 streams a live feed from a security camera. A great feature of a smart display that’s hampered by slow processing power.Photo by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge

Tablets and smartphones do everything smart displays do, and they do it better. But they’re personal devices, not ideal for family use. This is why I’m excited about the Pixel Tablet with its dock and communal user interface. It’s the next evolution of the smart display — the smart home tablet. It has the power to do all its jobs well, especially smart home control, thanks to a unique Home Panel feature that allows for quick access to devices and useful features like camera live streams.

Yes, I wish the Pixel Tablet did more for the smart home. That charging dock should be a Nest smart speaker / Matter controller / Thread border router. The screen needs to be smaller and less obtrusive on a kitchen counter or bedside table — useful places for smart home controllers with screens. I’m also not wild about its detachable nature — but that’s a personal preference. But thanks to a lot more power under the hood, a better touchscreen experience (hopefully), and apps that will let you intuitively control anything 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 better

The Pixel Tablet is not the first attempt at reimagining the smart display as a usable smart home controller. Last year, Samsung touted a nearly identical concept that had 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 easy as flipping a light switch.

Of course, you can also stick an iPad on your wall and try and shoehorn it into this role — something I tried but ultimately found lacking. But rumor has it that an iPad on the wall is not the final form for an Apple smart display. The smart home is primed for Apple to come in with a HomePod with a screen concept and say, “Look, guys, this is how you should have been doing 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 they’re all expensive devices. That’s because running a smart home is like running a computer; you can try and do it on cheap hardware, but it will be a bad experience.