The smart speaker market has just graduated to include screens — Google’s Home Hub and the Amazon Echo Show have both arrived... but with one or two exceptions, neither company has a good record when it comes to sound quality.

JBL, on the other hand, is a loudspeaker company that has got smart, selling frankly astounding numbers of its wireless speakers, then being very quick to implement Google Voice Assistant into its Link smart speaker range, and now bringing this touch-screen JBL Link View to market in Australia at a remarkable price of just $349 (indeed rather less as we write).

Is it a useful thing? Hell, yes. For a start you get everything you’d normally get with a Google smart speaker. Ask it questions, have it tell you jokes, bark like a dog, add things to your shopping list, and the thousand other things people demand of their preferred smart assistant.

For music, it has an audio Chromecast inside, so it works within the Google Home app, and can group easily for playback with other rooms. You can link your Spotify account (or Google play) to have it stream nearly all the world’s music on demand. Internet radio and podcasts are equally accessible for free. It has Bluetooth as well, for easy point-to-point streaming.

Now usually we suggest that if you use a Google Home or Home Mini, you set its default music output to something else — a Chromecast plugged into your hi-fi, say, or direct to an Android TV with an attached sound system. But at a desktop distance the JBL Link View’s speakers delivered an enjoyable standalone sound, firing forward in proper stereo, a passive radiator at the rear supporting a solid musical sound from YouTube or Spotify. It’s quite position dependent, so that, say, The Beatles’ White Album remixes sounded somewhat thin when it was out in free space but full enough when within a foot or so of the wall, though too close and it was bonus bass at the expense of bass definition. The lows went impressively just into the 40s of hertz with some peaks and dips up to 100Hz (a loud 75Hz test tone had it shuffling across the benchtop), and full strength from perhaps 140Hz up, its highest level between 300Hz and 600Hz, giving it a bright edge for detail which is notably missing from most smart speakers. We couldn’t find a Bluetooth button, so were impressed that saying ‘Hey Google, enter Bluetooth pairing mode’ was understood and implemented, and the tone was maintained sending music this way. With our iPhone, received calls simply silenced the Link View for the duration of the call, then it went straight back to Dear Prudence kicking out nicely, with both Lennon’s vocal and McCartney’s bass given impressive out-of-the-box size of presentation. Most smart speakers create just a little corner of sound; the Link View has quite the push.

MORE THAN MUSIC
Of course the point of a smart screen is that it allows more than just music. The Link View doesn’t work as a video Chromecast — you can’t throw anything you like to it from a Chrome browser or similar, as you can with, say, an Android TV. But the 8-inch touchscreen can be used to access YouTube, which brings a whole new set of things to do with a smart speaker. You could continue with the music, enjoying tracks with their accompanying videos rocking away. But we can also see a Link View as a great kitchen addition, serving up recipes through hands-free voice requests, showing how best to slice a pineapple, whatever takes your fancy. And the Link View is splash-proof, so you needn’t worry too much about keeping it near a wet zone.

If not the kitchen, perhaps the bedroom. Saying ‘Hey Google, tell me about my day’ will bring up an entire macro sequence of information including weather, the conditions for your daily commute, items on your Google calendar, and the morning news (or possibly the previous night’s news, depending on Google’s mood and preferences). Some of this information will, of course, depend on you using the likes of Google Calendar, and of Google knowing where you live and work. Those who inhabit a Google world, using Gmail, Google Calendar and the like, will therefore get the best targeting of results. Mind you, we can’t remember ever telling Google about our daily commute, and yet it knew where we wanted to go anyway. A bit spooky that...

What about the rest of the household? If you have different Google accounts, Google Voice Assistant can learn who is who, and will react accordingly, accessing separate calendars and personal information. This can be very useful for stopping children spending all hours getting your Google smart device to fart, or to play the same Wiggles song over and over.

We should talk privacy. You can’t discuss smart speakers for long without someone asking if they’re “always listening”. The answer is yes, they are always listening in order to catch the trigger phrase ‘Hey Google’, or ‘OK Google’. But they are not (says everyone who should know) storing or transmitting anything until the trigger phrase is heard. Yet while a smart speaker is easy to forget, a smart screen catches your attention, so that anyone worried about smart speakers “always listening” will likely be twice as paranoid, especially now that there’s a 5-megapixel camera on the front which could be “always watching” as well. The ‘camera off’ switch on the JBL Link View is interesting in being extremely prominent, and for putting a visible orange flap over the lens, to accentuate the fact that you’re not being watched. The privacy concerns of smart speakers have yet to create a backlash significant enough to damage their growth. But smart screens may find their prominence in the home, and especially in the bedroom, will work against them. We did find a smart screen to be rather more intrusive, sitting there with a screen always on, and taking up far more tabletop space than a smart speaker.

SMART CONTROL & CHAT
As with smart speakers, this Google smart screen can be used to control Google-compatible smart-home devices like smart plugs, smart lights, and Google-compatible security cams. There’s an obvious screen bonus with cameras in particular, and we’ve seen a Link View streaming images from a remote camera very successfully. You can also call up Google-stored photos and videos. Swipe down and press ‘broadcast’, and your message will come out of any Google speakers on your network: ‘Dinner time!’ And with that camera in operation you can make video calls using Google Duo (though not Skype or Facetime).

CONCLUSION
While these smart-screened speakers are the ‘latest things’, we think they’ll find a market alongside smart speakers, rather than replacing them. Their larger footprint and the always-on screen (even with a choice of time-out clock faces) count against them as bed-side devices, while their sheer visibility makes them a potential distraction compared with a small smart speaker.

But where they are useful, it makes sense to get a screen with a decent speaker array included. And that’s precisely where the JBL Link View scores over its rivals.

JBL Link View smart display
Price: $349 (lower on offer at time of press): DIRECT LINK: jbl.com.au

+ Smart screen as well as smart speaker
+ Hands-free YouTubing
+ Good speakers for music

- Larger and more intrusive than a smart speaker

Drivers: 2 x 51mm, passive rear bass driver
Screen: 20cm diagonal touch screen
Camera: 5MP front-facing
Inputs: Chromecast inside, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi
Dimensions inc. base (whd):
332 x 152 x 100mm (with curves)
Weight: 1.3kg