Lenovo Smart Clock Essential Review: Mediocre smart speaker, superb alarm clock

The night light is surprisingly handy and the simple LED works great

Lenovo Smart Clock Essential with a fake succulent

The Pros

  • LED display is informative
  • Nightlight is a helpful addition
  • Excellent alarm clock

The Cons

  • Speaker is subpar
  • LED can be too bright a night
  • Some issues in a wider smart home setup

Lenovo’s tiny Smart Clock is perhaps one of my favourite Google Assistant-powered smart speakers to date. It doesn’t sound particularly great, and the screen quality is abysmal, yet it’s been one of the most-used smart additions to my home.

What makes the Smart Clock so great for me is that it’s essentially a Google Nest Mini with a tiny screen slapped onto it, making it a near-perfect bedside clock. However, Lenovo seems determined to take control of people’s night tables with its new Smart Clock Essential.

The Smart Clock Essential is, for all intents and purposes, the Smart Clock, but instead of the tiny IPS screen, it has a small LED display just like what you’d find on a traditional alarm clock.

It may seem like a step back to drop a fully-functional, touch cable IPS display for a static LED capable of showing the time and little else. However, in practice, the LED is almost a perfect replacement for the Smart Clock’s IPS panel. You see, in almost all of my time with the Smart Clock, I almost never touched the display and rarely looked at anything other than the clock.

Smart Clock Essential (left) and Smart Clock (right)

Smart Clock Essential (left) and Smart Clock (right)

Sure, if I asked it about the weather, the Smart Clock would show a little animation of what was going on outside. But more often than not, I’d ask the question and listen to its response while getting dressed and without even glancing at the screen.

So, dropping the often unnecessary IPS panel for an LED makes a lot of sense for this product. Maybe less so on something like a Nest Hub, where the point is the larger touch display — here, all I need is a clock. And the Smart Clock Essential pares it down to just that essential.

The little LED that could

But, that sells the LED short. Lenovo put a surprising amount of thought into this little clock, especially in the LED screen. Not only does it show the time, but it also passively displays the day, temperate and illuminates one of eight weather icons to give you an idea of what’s going outside without even asking.

The icons include sunny, windy, rainy, foggy, cloudy, snowy, thunderstorms and a general bad weather symbol.

Above the clock and date, the panel also features four white LEDs that illuminate and pulsate when you wake it up with the ‘Hey Google’ hotword.

On top of that, the LED can also display an icon when there’s an alarm set, as well as an icon when the mic is muted. Is it as smart as an IPS panel? No, but it’s surprisingly capable.

My biggest gripe with the LED is that it’s incredibly bright in a dark room. I had hoped that it would be less bright than the IPS panel on the regular Smart Clock, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. If you prefer keeping your bedroom as dark as possible, I’d advise getting the regular Smart Clock instead.

A very helpful speaker

Rear of Lenovo Smart Clock Essential with night light

Aside from the LED, the Smart Clock Essential includes a few other excellent features. Perhaps my favourite is the nightlight — the back of the Smart Clock Essential features a small light on the rear. You can turn it on by long-pressing the volume-down button on the top of the device or with your voice.

The inclusion of a nightlight was super smart and very clever — with a touch or a spoken command, it made it easy to see when getting up in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, the nightlight also proved to be one of my biggest annoyances with the Smart Clock Essential.

I have my bedroom set up with a few smart lights, which I can turn on and off using Google Assistant. Unfortunately, when I ask Google to turn on the bedroom lights, it turns on both the smart lights and the nightlight on the Smart Clock Essential. While that’s not the end of the world, it does give me problems when turning the lights off from another room in my apartment.

For example, in the morning I tend to get settled into the office to start working and realize I’ve left the lights on, so I ask Google to turn off the bedroom lights. However, the Smart Clock Essential isn’t considered a light, so other smart speakers can’t control its nightlight. The result is Assistant turns off every light in the room except the nightlight and tells you there’s an issue reaching the device.

In the grand scheme, it’s a relatively minor problem and one that not everyone will encounter, especially if you haven’t widely adopted smart home tech. Still, it’s worth keeping these incongruencies in mind when considering the Smart Clock Essential.

Close up of Smart Clock Essential screen

Along with the night light, the Smart Clock Essential sports a USB-A port, which I find quite useful for charging my smartwatch. There’s a mute switch on the back as well, and the buttons up top make it easy to adjust the volume, play music or set an alarm without needing to shout ‘Hey Google.’

Unfortunately, sometimes you’ll still find yourself yelling at the speaker anyway. I love using it as an alarm clock because it’s super simple to ask Google to wake me up as I’m crawling into bed at night. In the morning, however, snoozing or stopping the alarm can be frustrating. You can snooze the alarm by tapping the buttons on the top of the clock, but in practice, I found this didn’t always work. The alternative is asking Google to snooze the alarm, but my spouse didn’t always appreciate me yelling at Google early every morning. Stopping the alarm is easier, requiring you to simply say ‘Stop.’

Not the best smart speaker, but a great alarm clock

All in all, the Smart Clock Essential is an excellent little clock, albeit not perfect. It's not a great speaker, but I never really used it for listening to music anyway. It's also perhaps not the smartest -- the display can't show you the weather or what's on your calendar -- but I rarely needed to see those details anyway. For someone looking to get a basic alarm clock that happens to work with Google Assistant, it's hard to go wrong with the Smart Clock Essential.

This is especially true right now since the clock is on sale for an incredible price. Typically, it costs $69.99, but both Best Buy Canada and the Lenovo website are offering the clock for just $35 right now, which is an absolute steal. The original Lenovo Smart Clock is available for $49.99 (also on sale) so if you want the full IPS panel, it's not much more to get it. But for a basic alarm clock with some added smarts, you can't go wrong with the Smart Clock Essential.

For someone looking to get a basic alarm clock that happens to work with Google Assistant, it's hard to go wrong with the Smart Clock Essential.