I spent a week with the Lenovo Smart Clock Essential with Alexa on my nightstand, and I still don’t know why this product exists. A digital alarm clock that you can control with your voice, the $69.99 Essential is a smart speaker paired with a traditional LED alarm clock. But it’s not a particularly “smart” smart clock, and there are plenty of excellent smart alarm clocks out there, even some made by Lenovo. This is 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, don’t want a display with a camera in it (all Echo smart displays have cameras on board – a bit unreliable in a bedroom). ), and wants a larger LED clock than what’s offered on the excellent, camera-less Echo Dot with Clock ($60). If you’re flexible on any of these points, there are better options (which we’ll discuss).
Otherwise, this clock feels like a half-hearted attempt by Lenovo to capitalize on Alexa’s popularity. It’s Lenovo’s first smart clock to use Amazon’s voice assistant — the other, better models are all Google-based. (You won’t find any Google-powered smart speakers for sale on Amazon; go ahead – try). But it misses the mark in many ways.
The Lenovo Smart Clock Essential with Alexa is a smart digital alarm clock with built-in voice assistant from Amazon. It works via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and is powered by a plug with a nice, long 1.5 meter cable. It has a four-inch segmented LED display that automatically dims reliably and comes in an upright, fabric-wrapped enclosure measuring 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.
While the name implies that 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 just for Google). But instead of the full-color touchscreen of that device, this Essential has a monochrome non-touch LED display. The display shows you the time (24 hours or default) and the current outdoor temperature and humidity. There is also the option of a decibel meter. I still haven’t found a reason to have a decibel reader in my bedroom, but I’m open to suggestions.
The Essential with Alexa comes in a punchy red or a more muted blue, and when you give a command to the voice assistant, the screen displays two blinking zeros that look like eyes. Given this “cute factor” and the color choices, this could be an option for a nursery – where you might not want a small screen that can play videos (like on the Echo Show 5 and Nest Hub – other good smart alarm clock options). But at $70 – $20 more than the first Essential and the same price as the newer version with full smart display – that’s an expensive alarm clock for a kid.
The smart clock’s 1.5-inch 3W front-firing speaker delivers surprisingly good sound, better than most alarm clocks of its size and about as good as an Echo Dot. It also has a wide enough volume range to wake you up gently or get you out of bed with a jolt. 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 look like they work with Lenovo’s Smart Clock dock. That’s a great product, which I’ve reviewed before. It adds a 10-watt MagSafe-compatible wireless charger and LED nightlight to the clock for just $20 more. However, according to Lenovo spokesperson Katie Dungan, the dock only comes bundled with the Lenovo Smart Clock 2 and cannot be purchased separately or with the Essential. If they’ve fixed this obvious oversight, I’d be more inclined to recommend this clock.
That leaves the only real selling point of the Essentials: the built-in Alexa. In my testing, the voice assistant in the clock was much slower to respond to voice commands than the latest Echo devices. And while you can do basic 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 many basic Echo features. For example, it doesn’t work as an intercom (except with other Lenovo clocks) or with Alexa calling functions. You can’t set it as the default speaker for your room in the Alexa app, and it didn’t work in a multi-room music setup in my testing.
You can use Alexa Routines with the Essential. I tested one that is triggered by ignoring an alarm. It worked reliably to turn on the smart lights in my room, read my agenda for the day and start a radio station. But this only works if an alarm has gone off and you’ve rejected it.
If you want to be woken up to a specific song or station, you need to use your voice to set it up first. It then appears in the choice of alarm sounds in the Alexa smartphone app, which includes a wide range of default alarm tones. You can also enable a skill and for example The real housewives or Samuel L. Jackson wakes you up.
Unfortunately, the Essential doesn’t work with any of the newer “sound” triggers that Echo devices have for routines, where you can have the sound of running water or snoring start a routine. I placed 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.
Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of the Essential is that it doesn’t have a touchscreen. Since the nearly identically designed and priced Lenovo Smart Clock 2 has a touchscreen, I can’t understand why they chose to forgo this convenience. While the monochrome four-inch face is less distracting than a smart display without a touchscreen, the Essential relies on speech or the Alexa app to program alarms. Voice isn’t always appropriate in the bedroom and the Alexa app isn’t intuitive. There are three separate Essential clock settings screens in the app, each offering different options.
The Essential also doesn’t hear as well as other Echos, and I had a hard time summoning the assistant, often resorting to pressing the button to get his attention. The only controls on the device are for volume and microphone mute, plus the button to summon Alexa and another to snooze or show your alarm.
The Essential is designed for those who want a simple, no-nonsense alarm clock, with the bonus of a built-in smart assistant. But if you are, chances are you also expect your humble alarm clock to have a battery backup. (I’ve written before about how annoying it is that smart alarm clocks don’t offer this.) In that case, this isn’t “essential” enough for you.
If you’re not picky about which voice assistant is in your bedroom and just want a good camera-free digital display to look at, the Nest Hub (2nd generation), which costs $99.99 but can often be bought for considerably less. a better bedfellow, sleep tracking and a smart touch screen 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 double as a digital photo frame and show you a live feed from your security camera if it encounters something at night. It also costs the same as the Essential.
If you’re all set for Alexa, there are no compelling reasons to consider the Lenovo Smart Clock Essential with Alexa over Amazon’s Echo devices. The Echo Show 5 with its color touchscreen (it does have a camera, although it includes a physical shutter to block it) and Echo Dot with clock are both great bedfellows. And while Lenovo’s smart clocks are often on sale, most Alexa devices also see regular price drops. I’ve seen Show 5s for as low as€35. The Lenovo Essential with Alexa is currently $50. At the full price of $70, it’s a definite 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