Smart speaker vs smart display: what’s the difference?

Work out which is right for you

When it comes to kitting out your home with affordable, friendly, helpful gadgets, a smart speaker or smart display will be somewhere near the top of any shortlist – but what exactly are the differences between them? And why would you end up choosing one over the other?

Two images side by side, on the left is the Google Nest Hub Max and on the right is the Amazon EchoCredit: Google / Amazon

Here we’re going to break down the strengths, weaknesses, and features of smart speakers and smart displays, so if you are spending any money on these devices you know exactly what you’re getting and where your investment should be going. There’s a lot of overlap between them, but also some clear distinctions that need talking about.

We’ll also take a brief look at some of the most popular options in both categories, to give you a better idea of what’s out there at the moment. Both smart speakers and smart displays can add a lot to your home tech setup.

What are smart speakers?

They can listen and they can speak

Amazon created a brand new smart speaker product category when it launched the very first Echo back in 2014. It took some getting used to at first: a tall, black, cylindrical object with no display and very few buttons, which you mainly interacted with using your voice.

On board the Echo was Amazon Alexa, a smart digital assistant that could understand what you were saying and reply accordingly.

Since then, the role of a smart speaker hasn’t changed all that much: you speak out a question within range of its microphones, and you get an answer back.

Amazon Echo smart speaker on a side next to a cocktail shaker and whiskey glass.Credit: Amazon
Amazon’s Echo smart speaker has been refined over the years into an orb

You can ask these devices what the weather is going to be later, about the latest result for your favourite sports team, or how old a particular celebrity is. They can also be used for phone calls.

Smart speakers can seem like magic, but they’re really just clever search engines that you interact with using your voice. They take your words and dig into online databases to get the information you’re after, just as if you were getting the answer from Google – it could be the answer to a sum, or the definition of a word, or the date of an historical event. There isn’t much that can leave these smart speakers baffled.

Once these devices get synced to your various accounts, they can do even more: look up your schedule for the day, for example, or even read out your text messages and control the smart lights in your home.

Five HomePod Mini descending in size from left to right, all a different colour.Credit: Apple
There are lots of smart speakers to choose from, such as Apple’s HomePod Mini (above)

You can get them to tell stories, explain recipes, tell you when your flight is about to leave, and so on and so on – if the information is available, the best smart speaker can usually give it to you.

There’s also the speaker part of the smart speaker as well. These devices can play music, podcasts and audiobooks on demand, either through a voice command or via an app on your phone. Telling a gadget in your living room to play some classical music and then having it piped back to you really does feel like the future.

How smart displays differ

It’s all in the screen

Smart displays arrived as a natural next step for the smart speaker, and everything we’ve said above about smart speakers also applies to smart displays. They can be operated using your voice, queueing up music, controlling other devices, and generally acting as founts of useful knowledge.

There is one key difference though, which you’ve probably spotted in the name: the display. With a screen attached, these gadgets can show you the weather in pictorial form as well as telling you about it, give you a visual recipe guide as well as reading out instructions, and bring up your calendar on the display in addition to talking about what’s coming up on your agenda.

Amazon Echo Show 10 sitting on a kitchen counterCredit: Amazon
The Echo Show 10 sees Amazon’s smart speaker tech fused with a large display

Audio calls can become video calls with a smart display, and you can access a variety of video services as well, from YouTube to Netflix (though not all video apps are available on all smart displays). You can use a smart display to watch the news as well as listening to it, and to see album art and playback controls for your music.

Smart displays give you another way of interacting besides using your voice too: you can reach out and tap the screen to turn a smart light on or off, for example, or to set an alarm. They can also be used as digital photo frames, scrolling through a selection of your favourite pictures when they’re not in use.

With all this extra functionality, you might be wondering why anyone would buy a standard smart speaker instead of a smart display. Well, the speakers are typically cheaper, and more compact, and can be put anywhere (because you don’t need to see them) – that means in some scenarios and for some people they’ll be better options.

Your buying options

A trio of assistants, a plethora of devices

There are three main digital assistants out there ready to do your bidding, and they match up with the three main brands you can pick from for your smart speakers and smart displays: there’s Amazon Alexa and the Echo devices, Google Assistant and the Nest gadgets, and Apple Siri and the HomePod (as yet, Apple doesn’t have a smart display).

You will find these digital assistants embedded into smart speakers and smart displays made by other companies too. A variety of Sonos speakers, for example, come with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant on board, so you can choose which assistant app you want to use to answer your queries and do your bidding.

A top-down view of a Nest Mini speaker speaker on a kitchen counter.Credit: Google
Google’s Nest Mini (above) is one of the cheapest smart speakers available

Your choice of smart speaker or smart display is likely to come down to which other devices you have around. If you have an Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K attached to your television, then it makes sense to invest in an Echo or an Echo Show; if you’re an iPhone user, then a HomePod Mini is going to play very nicely with it.

And talking of interoperability, if you buy several smart speakers and smart displays from the same manufacturer, they’ll all work seamlessly together. You can have music following you from room to room if you want, or broadcast a message from the kitchen to all the other speakers around your home.

It costs less than you might think to start your smart speaker and smart display collection: both Amazon and Google have their simplest devices on sale for £25 at the time of writing. Spend more and you’ll get better audio performance for your music, as well as a display if you think that you’re going to need one.

David Nield

Written by David Nield

Updated:

Dave is a freelance tech journalist who has been writing about gadgets, apps and the web for more than two decades. Based out of Stockport, England, you’ll find him covering news, features and reviews, particularly for phones, tablets and wearables.

David has by-lines at leading publications including TechRadar, Wired, The Guardian, Gizmodo, T3, PopSci and a few other places besides, as well as many years editing the likes of PC Explorer and The Hardware Handbook.

When he’s not busy writing, he enjoys watching football and long walks in the countryside.

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