LG Xboom WK9 review: Boomy bass can’t make up for Google Smart Display shortcomings

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Facebook’s Portal. Amazon’s Echo Show. Smart displays — tablet-like touchscreen devices with built-in voice assistants — aren’t exactly on the cusp of ubiquity, but they’re following in the market footsteps of the Echo and Google Home. At least, that’s what manufacturers seem to be hoping.

Facebook and Amazon chose to adopt an in-house approach — their smart display operating systems and the hardware on which they run are wholly first-party affairs. But Google’s opted to have it both ways. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, it partnered with three original equipment manufacturers — Lenovo, JBL, and LG — to showcase its freshly announced Google Smart Display platform. And in October, it launched the Google Home Hub, its (notably camera-less) take on the nascent product category.

Now LG’s throwing its hat in the ring. Roughly nine months after the South Korean electronics giant first demoed the LG Xboom AI ThinQ WK9 to members of the press, it’s bringing it to market for a suggested retail price of $299. For $50 more than the forthcoming JBL Link View, $100 more than the Lenovo Smart Display, and $150 more than the Google Home Hub — all three members of Google’s small but growing smart display club — the WK9 delivers stereo speakers codesigned with British company Meridian, a sometime LG collaborator.

After spending about a week with the thing, I’m not entirely convinced the premium’s worth it.

Design

There’s no doubt about it: Compared to its competitors, the LG Xboom WK9 has a substantial footprint. It measures 14.5 inches wide, 9.5 inches high, and 5.2 inches deep — significantly larger than the Google Home Hub (7.02 x 4.65 x 2.65 inches) and Lenovo Smart Display (10.4 x 4.4 x 5.9 inches). And at around 4 pounds, it’s also heftier — nearly double and quadruple the weight of the Lenovo Smart Display (2.2 pounds) and Home Hub (1.1 pounds), respectively.

Suffice it to say, you’ll have to clear off some counter space for this puppy.

The Xboom WK9’s twin front-firing speakers make up the bulk of its enclosure. They’re paired with passive radiators on the back, which make use of resonance chambers to create deep pitches without having to move a ton of air. Unlike the Google Home Hub, which conceals its single driver within a mesh cloth base, these speakers are on full display: There’s no mistaking the grilles on either side of the 8-inch touchscreen for anything else.

The utilitarian look isn’t for me, quite frankly. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Xboom WK9’s chunky design looks unattractive — just inelegant. One publication compared it to a kitchen-top TV set without an antenna, and I think that’s an apt description. The screen bezel, although not noticeably thicker than the Home Hub or Lenovo Smart Display’s, is made more conspicuous by the WK9’s dark gray plastic enclosure. The two rubber insulating pads on the bottom are veritable dust magnets. And the angled stand jutting out from the rear too easily gets in the way of the power cord running to the plug underneath.

That said, the Xboom WK9 feels sturdy, solid, and a lot less plasticky than the Lenovo Smart Display — despite its angled resting position, you’d be hard-pressed to knock it over accidentally. And while the LCD screen’s a smidge dimmer than the Lenovo Smart Display at maximum brightness (and a tad too reflective for my taste), its resolution bests that of the Home Hub (1200 x 800 pixels versus 1024 x 600 pixels).

The 5-megapixel camera is another nice-to-have — it taps Google Duo, Google’s video chat app, for video calls — as is the physical privacy switch. Also much-appreciated: an ambient light sensor that adjusts the brightness automatically (and dims the display when the lights are off) and a prominent mute button on top (between capacitive volume adjustment buttons) that disables the far-field microphones.

The Xboom WK9’s proximity sensor is also pretty nifty, in theory — it’s supposed to brighten the screen when it detects a presence — but I couldn’t get it to work consistently.

Audio

To be fair, audio — not design — is the Xboom WK9’s real draw. LG has historically reserved the Xboom branding for its LED-sporting, boombox-style party speakers, but going forward, it’ll use it to denote select mid-market devices with premium audio components. The Xboom WK9 is one such device, and its two 20-watt speakers produce close to 75 decibels of sound at max volume. It’s overkill for the conference room where I first heard it demoed — and for my tiny New York apartment, for that matter.

LG says the WK9 takes advantage of Meridian’s “bass and space” technology to deliver a superior listening experience no matter where you’re situated around the screen. The company also claims that Smart Display boasts lower distortion and a wider sound field than its competitors.

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That’s all well and fine, and stereo is a welcome step up from the Home Hub and Lenovo Smart Display’s one-channel setups. But I found the sound reproduction to be lacking in places.

LG Xboom WK9

Voices come across as muffled, no matter the genre, as if the vocalists had recorded their tracks using cloth-covered microphones. The severity varies depending on the quality of the recording — it stands out more in Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” than George Watsky’s “Strong as an Oak,” for example — but never goes away.

Vocals are cleaner and crisper on the Lenovo Smart Display’s two passive tweeters, as are brass sections (on the high end of the frequency spectrum). That said, I preferred the Xboom WK9’s treatment of string sections (in John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates,” for example) and its powerful, floor-thumping bass. The WK9 wipes the floor with the Lenovo Smart Display when it comes to drum and rhythm sections — anything low-frequency, basically. And given its namesake, that’s not surprising.

Software

The Xboom WK9 display runs Android Things, a stripped-down operating system purpose-built for internet of things products. But Android Things doesn’t have an interface — rather, on Smart Displays like the Lenovo Smart Display and WK9, it shows a single application — the Google Smart Display app — that’s updated and managed by Google. That arrangement doesn’t leave manufacturers much room for customization, but comes with the promise of updates for three years.

We’ve delved into Google’s Smart Display app previously, but it’s worth mentioning a few of the spotlight features.

Setup

If you’ve ever configured a Chromecast or Google Home speaker before, the Xboom WK9’s onboarding process will seem pretty familiar. Plug it in and power it on, and the next time you launch the Google Home companion app on an iOS or Android device, you’ll see a setup prompt. Tapping it will instruct you to connect the WK9 to your Wi-Fi network, link your Google account, and specify a few preferences.

LG Xboom WK9

It’s here that you’ll choose from several “ambient modes,” the items that display onscreen when the Xboom WK9’s not in use. For now, you’re stuck with one of three choices: pictures from various accounts (more on that later), art and professional photos from the web, or a clock.

Once you’ve completed the basic steps, you’re free to tweak more granular settings, like device address, night mode (which reduces the speaker volume during specified times), Duo’s knock-knock (which shows the caller’s video before you pick up and lets other people see your video while their phone rings), YouTube search results, and more.

Navigation

The Xboom WK9 is decidedly voice-centric from a navigation perspective — it is a smart display, after all — but the touchscreen isn’t just for show. Tapping the screen wakes it from sleep, and a double-tap takes you to the home screen, which shows the clock, date, weather, upcoming calendar events, and recommended content from YouTube, Google Play Music, and other apps.

Swiping from the left edge of the display acts as a universal exit gesture — closing any onscreen app. A swipe up, meanwhile, exposes the volume and brightness controls.

It’s an intuitive-enough scheme, for the most part, but I wish the UI didn’t feel so sluggish — particularly when scrolling through lists. It seems to be a platform-wide issue — the Lenovo Smart Display occasionally exhibits the same jitteriness — but one I’d expected would’ve been resolved by now. Here’s hoping the next Smart Display update hones in on performance.

Digital Wellbeing and other new features

Google recently rolled out an update to the Lenovo Smart Display and JBL Link View that brings with it some notable features, including Home View, improved device control, grouped speakers, and support for Google’s Digital Wellbeing feature. The Xboom WK9 ships with these out of the box, and that’s good news, as they add much-needed polish to the platform.

Home View is a bright, touch-friendly, scrollable menu of smart devices organized by room, with contextually relevant submenus for lights, deadbolts, and other device categories. For example, tapping into the lights submenu surfaces a list of options — brightness and color — while diving into the color sub-submenu yields a list of hues to choose from. Devices with bespoke integration, like Nest Hello Doorbell and Dish Network’s Hopper, offer more granular options. (In the Nest Hello Doorbell’s case, it’s a live video feed and a virtual switch that allows you to respond to visitors over the device’s speakers.) Additionally, select TVs, set-top boxes, speakers, and smart remotes have universal controls with power toggle, volume adjustment, and playback controls.

Digital Wellbeing — Google’s cross-platform suite of apps and options that aim to “help [people] understand their tech usage” and “create healthy habits” — made its debut on Android 9.0 Pie, but a number of elements have made their way to Smart Displays. An optional filtering component allows you to restrict what content can be played in YouTube, YouTube Kids, and YouTube TV, Spotify, Google Play Music, and YouTube Music and lets you block calls and restrict actions on the Smart Display. Downtime, meanwhile, blocks all responses, music and videos, and timers and alarms for a specified time window.

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Photos

The WK9 has Google Photos’ recently launched live albums feature in tow, which automatically creates a rotating selection of pictures from tagged family and friends. (It updates as you take new photos of the selected people.) Alternatively, you can choose from a manually created album or “recent highlights,” which automatically curates highlights from the past three months — taking care, of course, to avoid blurry and poorly lit pics.

LG Xboom WK9

The WK9 can also pull in photos from Facebook and Flickr, though both currently bear an “experimental” tag. The two services afford you a selection of albums and allow you to pick multiple albums if you so choose.

Google Photos integration goes beyond ambient mode. It’ll respond appropriately to on-demand location- and time-specific commands, like “Hey Google, show me photos from 2017 in New York City.” And during a slideshow, tapping on the grid icon in the top-right corner of the screen pulls up a scrollable gallery of photos from the album on display.

Videos

YouTube content is front and center on the WK9. Swipe to the right, and you’ll see recommendations tailored to your viewing habits (in my case, smartphone reviews). Browsing videos via voice is even easier: Saying something like “Hey Google, show me videos of cats” pulls up a carousel of choices. Even niftier? You can select any of those videos (“Hey Google, play the second one”) or queue up the next array of search results (“Hey Google, show me more”) with a voice command.

YouTube on the WK9 becomes even more powerful with a YouTube TV subscription. Saying a channel name (“Hey Google, play ABC on YouTube TV”) starts a livestream, and asking for a specific show (“Hey Google, play Cupcake Wars on YouTube TV”) surfaces replays from current and past seasons.

CBS, the CW, Wiki, and HBO Now round out the selection of video services on offer, but Netflix isn’t supported. And unfortunately, it’s anyone’s guess whether it’ll come to Google’s Smart Display platform — Google’s head of Home and Nest, Rishi Chandra, recently told the Verge in an interview that Netflix is “being conservative” and adopting a wait-and-see approach.

Audio

Google Play Music works flawlessly via voice (“Hey Google, play Maroon 5”), as does Spotify, YouTube Music (in the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Mexico), Spotify, Pandora (in the U.S.), TuneIn, iHeartRadio, and Deezer Premium+. Casting that content to a compatible speaker, television, or Chromecast device on your local network, meanwhile, is as easy as saying “Hey Google, cast Bob Marley to my [gizmo of your choice].”

Beyond basic playback controls, playing music on the WK9 is a lot like casting music to a TV, which is to say exceptionally bare bones. I would’ve liked to have seen visualizers and a queue of upcoming songs, but to be fair, those decisions aren’t up to LG — they’re Google’s call.

Podcasts come courtesy of Google Podcasts (third-party podcast services aren’t supported yet, which is a bummer), and news in both video and audio form from an ever-expanding list of sources, including CNN, Reuters, Cheddar, CNBC, and Bloomberg,

Recipes and search

Google’s recipe library sources millions of time-tested favorites from Food Network, Betty Crocker, King Arthur Flower, BuzzFeed’s Tasty, New York Times Cooking, Delish, and more. Saying “Hey Google, show me recipes for [item]” shows a list of top results, and tapping on a recipe brings up a page with reviews, ingredients, and cooking instructions.

Once you make your selection, you’ll get a more detailed list of ingredients read aloud, playback of which can be controlled with voice commands or button taps. Helpfully, the ingredients and instructions are divided into two lists that scroll independently of one another, making it easy to check ingredients while cooking.

LG Xboom WK9

Sadly, video accompaniments are nowhere to be found. By comparison, Alexa on Echo Show devices is able to play instructional video from Food Network and Allrecipes — a feature I sincerely hope comes to Google’s Smart Display platform soon.

On a positive note, the search experience on Google’s Smart Display platform remains best in class. Queries bring up not only relevant text, audio, and image galleries, but smart suggestions, which recommend follow-up questions — asking  “Hey Google, what’s the capital of Peru?” shows relevant facts and figures, plus recommended searches for flights and hotels. And results for nearby businesses and restaurants display corresponding reviews, hours, and other information.

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Calls

Calling is yet another nice-to-have feature, and the WK9 handles it seamlessly. Both Smart Display and Google Home devices support free mobile and landline calls in the U.K., Canada, and U.S.; saying “Hey Google, call” pulls up a scrollable list of contacts. When you’re on the phone, the in-call screen puts a dial pad, “end call” button, and mute button at your fingertips.

Google’s Smart Display platform defaults to Google Duo for video calls, and they’re similarly straightforward — saying “Video call” yields the aforementioned list of contacts, and while on a call you’re given the choice of muting audio and disabling video. Unfortunately, you’re also forced to contend with a lot of unused space — the Duo app on phones only supports portrait mode, which the WK9 sandwiches in the middle of its landscape screen with thick colored borders.

Google Assistant

Like Google Home speakers and the Google Assistant on iOS and Android devices, Google Assistant on the WK9 can carry out multiple tasks at once in Routines, set timers and alarms, give turn-by-turn directions (and copy the map to your phone), add reminder and calendar events, translate words into different languages, perform calculations and currency conversions, and tap into millions of third-party apps and skills.

The experience isn’t perfect, though. As my colleague Khari Johnson noted, Google Assistant would benefit from the My Activity feature for tracking your history with the AI assistant, or some other way to recall recent interactions.

Another annoyance? Smart Displays don’t yet support Continued Conversations, a Google Home feature that reopens the microphone briefly after every response to listen for follow-up questions. As a result, every query and command you shout in the Xboom WK9’s direction has to be prefaced with “Hey Google,” which quickly becomes irritating.

Conclusion

Smart Displays make killer photo frames and media hubs and double as miniature monitors, universal translators, and interactive cookbooks in a pinch. So do tablets and smartphones, it might be argued, but they’re by and large designed around touch, while Smart Displays are voice-driven. That’s why they’re a natural fit for the kitchen, where hands are often occupied.

But Smart Displays lack features — notably Continued Conversations, Netflix support, and a history of requests — that seem like no-brainers. Software updates might someday address them, but there’s no guarantee.

As for the WK9 in particular, its differentiating feature — Meridian-tuned dual drivers — deliver on the Xboom promise, you might say. But not everybody wants a boomy party speaker (or smart display), and their tonal imbalance is bound to put off a few would-be buyers.

That’s all to say that at its current asking price of $299, the Xboom WK9 is tough to recommend. If you’re looking to dabble in Smart Displays, the Google Home hub is a smarter choice — it’s cheaper, much more compact, and packs a nifty Ambient EQ feature that significantly enhances the aforementioned ambient photo mode. But if you’re on the fence, it might be worth holding off until the dust settles. It’s still early days.

Source: VentureBeat

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