Lenovo's latest smart clock adds Alexa

Lenovo’s latest smart clock adds Alexa

I spent a week with the Lenovo Smart Clock Essential with Alexa on my bedside table, and I still don’t know why this product exists. A digital alarm clock you can control with your voice, the $69.99 Essential is a smart speaker combined with a traditional LED alarm clock. But it’s not a particularly “smart” smart clock, and there are plenty of great smart alarm clocks out there, even some made by Lenovo. It’s not one of them.

The only use case I can see for the Essential is if you specifically want an Alexa voice assistant by your bed, you don’t want a display with a camera (all Echo smart displays have onboard cameras – a bit dodgy in a bedroom), and want a larger LED clock than what’s offered on the excellent Echo Dot with Cameraless Clock ($60). If you’re flexible on any of these, there are better options (which we’ll get to).

Otherwise, this clock looks like Lenovo’s half-hearted attempt to capitalize on Alexa’s popularity. It’s Lenovo’s first smart clock that uses Amazon’s voice assistant – its other top models are all Google-based. (You won’t find Google-powered smart speakers for sale on Amazon; go ahead and give it a try.) But it misses the mark in many ways.

The Lenovo Smart Clock Essential with Alexa is a smart digital alarm clock with Amazon’s voice assistant built-in. It works via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and is powered by a wall outlet with a nice five-foot long cable. It has a four-inch segmented LED display that reliably auto-dims and is enclosed in a fabric-wrapped vertical body that measures 4.46 inches wide and 3.67 inches high. It has a decent onboard speaker and a far-field microphone array to pick up your Alexa commands.

Although the name says it’s the same as the $50 Lenovo Smart Clock Essential (which is still available but only comes with Google’s Assistant), this Essential actually has the same design as the Lenovo Smart Clock 2 (also Google only). But, instead of this device’s color touchscreen, this Essential has a non-touch monochrome LED display. The display shows you the time (24 hour or standard) and the current outdoor temperature and humidity reading. There is also the option of a decibel meter. I still haven’t found a reason to need a decibel meter in my bedroom, but I’m open to suggestions.

The Lenovo Essential reacts with two flashing digital eyes when you invoke the Alexa voice assistant.

The Essential with Alexa comes in a bright red color or a more subdued blue, and when you issue a command to the voice assistant, the screen shows two blinking zeros that look like eyes. Given that “cute factor” and color choices, this could be an option for a kid’s room – where you might not want a small video-capable screen (like on the Echo Show 5 and the Nest Hub – other good smart wake options). But at $70 – $20 more than the first Essential and the same price as the full new version of the smart display – it’s an expensive alarm clock for a kid.

The smart clock’s 1.5-inch 3W front-firing speaker sounds surprisingly decent, better than most alarm clocks of its size and about as good as an Echo Dot. It also has a volume range wide enough to allow you to wake up gently or jump out of bed. The physical snooze button worked reliably and you can use the speaker as a Bluetooth speaker.

There are also pogo pins under the clock, which seem to work with Lenovo’s Smart Clock dock. This is a great product, which I have already reviewed. It adds a 10-watt MagSafe-enabled wireless charger and LED nightlight to the clock for just $20 more. However, according to Lenovo spokesperson Katie Dungan, the docking station only comes with the Lenovo Smart Clock 2 and cannot be purchased separately or with the Essential. If they corrected this obvious oversight, I would be more inclined to recommend this clock.

That leaves the Essentials’ only real selling point: the built-in Alexa. In my testing, the clock’s voice assistant was much slower to respond to voice commands than the latest Echo devices. And while you can do standard things with the voice assistant – set timers and alarms, listen to music and podcasts, control smart home devices, use Alexa skills – as a third-party speaker, it lacks a lot of basic Echo functions. For example, it does not work as an intercom (except with other Lenovo clocks) or with Alexa call functions. You can’t set it as the default speaker for your room in the Alexa app, and it didn’t work in a multiroom music setup in my testing.

The Lenovo Smart Clock 2 has the same form factor as the Essential but also works with the Lenovo Smart Clock Dock.

You can use Alexa Routines with the Essential. I tested one that is triggered by dismissing an alarm. It worked reliably to turn on my bedroom smart lights, read my calendar for the day, and start a radio station. But it only works once an alarm has sounded and you ignore it.

If you want to be woken up by a specific song or station, you must first use voice to set it up. Then it will appear in the choice of alarm sounds in the Alexa smartphone app, which includes a wide variety of standard alarm tones. You can also activate a skill and ask, for example, The Real Housewives or Samuel L. Jackson to wake you up.

Unfortunately the Essential doesn’t work with any of the new ‘sound’ triggers the Echo devices have for routines, where you can have the sound of running water or snoring trigger a routine. I installed an Echo Dot with Clock in my bathroom to listen to the sound of running water. When I turn on the shower, it starts a routine that reads the weather and my calendar, then plays the radio.

Four buttons on the top control the clock. There’s no tap to repeat; Instead, you press the Alarm button.

A physical mute switch is on the back and the clock uses a DC adapter (there is no battery option).

Arguably the Essential’s biggest flaw is that it doesn’t have a touchscreen. Since the almost identically designed and priced Lenovo Smart Clock 2 has a touchscreen, I don’t understand why they chose to forego this convenience. While its four-inch monochrome face is less distracting than a non-touchscreen smart display, the Essential relies on voice or the Alexa app to schedule alarms. Voice isn’t always appropriate in the bedroom and the Alexa app isn’t intuitive. There are three separate settings screens for the Essential Clock in the app, each offering different options.

The Essential also doesn’t hear as well as the other Echos, and I struggled to summon the assistant, often resorting to pressing the button to get its attention. The only controls on the device are for volume and microphone mute, as well as the button to summon Alexa and another to snooze or show your alarm.

There are three separate settings menus for the Essential in three independent sections of the Alexa app, which makes controlling it frustrating.

The Essential is designed for those looking for a simple, no-frills alarm clock with the added bonus of a built-in smart assistant. But, if that’s you, chances are you also expect your simple alarm clock to have battery backup. (I’ve written before about how annoying I find it that smart alarm clocks don’t offer this.) Then it’s not “essential” enough for you.

The display shows a reading in decibels below the time (standard or 24 hour format). Or you can opt for the current outdoor temperature and humidity.

If you’re not fussy about the voice assistant in your room and just want a good camera-less digital screen to stare at, the Nest Hub (second gen), which is $99.99 but often on sale for much less, is a better bedside companion, adding sleep tracking and a smart touchscreen. It is also an excellent digital photo frame.

If that’s too big for your table, the Lenovo Smart Clock 2 ($69.99) with Google is a better choice than the Alexa version. It’s the same size as the Essential but with a color touchscreen that can act as a digital photo frame and show you a live feed from your security camera if anything happens in the night. It also costs the same as the Essential.

If you’re ready for Alexa, there’s no compelling reason to consider the Lenovo Smart Clock Essential with Alexa on Amazon’s Echo devices. The Echo Show 5 with its color touchscreen (it has a camera, though it includes a physical shutter to block it) and the Echo Dot with clock both make excellent bedside companions. And while Lenovo’s smart clocks are often on sale, most Alexa devices also regularly see price drops. I’ve seen Show 5s for as little as $35. The Lenovo Essential with Alexa is currently $50. At its total price of $70, it’s a definite no-no. But it might be worth considering as a smart clock for your kid if you can find it for $30.

Photos by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy/The Verge

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