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a Google Assistant speaker that’s a (time)keeper

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The Lenovo Smart Clock Essential is a clock radio. A glorified clock radio. A more sensible, smart clock radio. But a clock radio nonetheless. It tells the time and weather and it’s a Google Assistant speaker to boot. I’ll even go out to say that it’s a well-made, well-intentioned product. But is it one you’d want to bring home? That depends on what you want out of your Assistant devices, but I like the Smart Clock Essential.

Design, hardware, what’s in the box

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If you took last year’s Lenovo Smart Clock, which has a 4″ screen, and squished it down, you’d basically have the Smart Clock Essential. You could probably call its footprint downright cute. Instead of a 16:9 LCD, you’ve got LEDs lighting seven-segment displays for the time and temperature with support for 12-hour, 24-hour, Fahrenheit, and Celsius readouts. There are lines of icons for the day of the week and weather conditions as well.

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Wrapped around the polycarbonate housing is a soft fabric that’s in fashion these days, but it should be low-to-no-maintenance. There are buttons on top to control volume, playback, and alarm settings — you can set multiple alarms for single days of the week, weekdays, and weekends. There’s also a new nightlight at the back edge of the housing that is turned on and off exclusively by voice command.

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Output-wise, there’s a 1.5″ (38mm) driver that is slightly larger than the 33mm unit found in last year’s Smart Clock. On input, we’ve got some microphones, a mute switch for said mics, a full USB port for your phone-charging pleasure, and an A/C port fit for that power cord included in the box.

Audio quality and features

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As with most Assistant devices, setup is simple: you get your phone or tablet with Google Home app and help the clock connect with your Wi-Fi network. From that point, the clock syncs up with server time and the latest local weather info.

If you read Android Police, I’ll go as far as to presume you know how a Google Assistant speaker works. Its mics picked up my “Hey Google” commands reliably, even through my music and podcasts, but it had to compete with a few phones and another Assistant speaker. You can use it as a portal to controlling all of your smart home appliances, group it with other speakers for room-filling synchronous playback, make audio calls using Duo — the works. You’ll be building a personal data trail with every request you make, but there are ways to control that stack. The privacy stakes and trade-offs are pretty clear.

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With all that said, the “clock” part of the Smart Clock Essential may not be as clock-y as you may want, even though it looks the part. Maybe you’re the type to set the clock 5 minutes ahead or behind because you’re always late to appointments? Nope, can’t do that here, not unless you set your phone or tablet up to behave the same way. There ain’t a quartz crystal in there and no backup battery, either, so if you’re prone to power cuts, this is probably not your wake-up caller.

Another anti-clock aspect to this clock and one that I’m missing the most is that none of the lights will flash with an alarm — not the nightlight nor the display lights. The lights themselves aren’t extremely bright, but they suit their purposes well be it making their numbers legible, lighting up a nightstand, or giving off a pleasant accent to a shelf.

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You can control the brightness of the LED display by saying “Hey Google, set screen brightness to 73” or any other number between 0 and 100. The same thing goes for the nightlight, too, with the right words. With that in mind, though, I’d like to see those vectors become consistent with Google’s own 0-to-10 scale for volume. Who needs 100 points of differentiation for a nightlight?

All of the criticisms I’ve laid out above, though, only amount to nitpicks. I actually appreciate having a reliable place to look at and see the time. Yes, I know it’s 2020 — the time’s on my computer, on my phone, on all of the devices I spend my time on, but I’m sure we’ve all had that bit of cognitive dissonance where we’ve had to turn something back on because oh, I forgot to check the time, why did I put it back in my pocket damnit, wow, it’s already that late, maybe I shouldn’t have been on TikTok for that long. I dunno, maybe that’s just me. It’s just nice to have someplace to glance at the time without any distractions.

By far the biggest positive to come out of Lenovo’s more affordable, more essential smart clock is the sound. While our Corbin Davenport described last year’s clock audio as “tinny,” this clock runs more balanced and reasonably loud. Its driver is back-firing, but what it produces has a similar fidelity to a Google Home/Nest Mini, though its treble overperforms its bass by a considerable margin. Funnily enough, I find the inverse to be true for my Nest Mini and had a splendid time experiencing both speakers playing Talking Heads simultaneously.

Should you buy it?

Lenovo Smart Clock Essential

7/10

Maybe. Unlike the Lenovo Smart Clock with yet another screen to pollute your house, this is clearly just a smarter alarm clock with actually decent speakers and some help from Assistant. It carves a unique space between dedicated smart speakers and smart screens.

If you enjoy having the time of day visible in a constant, reliable spot, then get the Smart Essential Clock. I consider $50 to be a solid value against a comparably-priced, old-fashioned alarm clock, but you should also look out for deals as the original Smart Clock was quite often on sale.

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Buy it if:

  • You want a stationary timepiece.
  • You want a decent Google Assistant speaker.

Don’t buy it if:

  • You want a smart display.
  • You’re looking for a designer alarm clock.

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