Android Central Verdict
Bottom line: A new nightlight and a more visible clock help the Essential stand out from smart displays and smart speakers as the useful little hybrid it is. A dedicated on-device alarm section also helps you sort out alarms without having to dig out your phone every night.
Easy to read across the room
Nightlight is bright
Makes it easier to set alarms
Can't turn clock completely off at night
Speaker gets tinny at higher volumes
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As someone who tosses and turns at night, it's not uncommon for me to peek at the time and then burrow back under my weighted blanket to avoid getting up for a few more hours. A couple of years ago, this wasn't hard to peek at the small clock on the Insignia Voice Google Assistant speaker, but the Voice is outdated and glitchy these days.
While Smart Displays certainly have their place in the smart home, I don't want another screen in my bedroom — my phone and my Lenovo Chromebook Duet are more than enough — so when Lenovo showed off the Smart Clock Essential during its fall briefing a few months ago, I instantly knew I wanted one for my nightstand. Now that I've used it for a couple of weeks, it's been a welcome alarm clock and timekeeper, and while it's moved from my bedroom to the living room, I think it'll be as perfect a fit for your home as it is for mine.
Not like, love
Lenovo Smart Clock Essential What I love
By ditching the small LCD panel for tried-and-true LED displays for the clock, temperature, and a few indicators, the clock is much, much easier to read on the Essential than it was on the original Lenovo Smart Clock. Whether I'm peeking at the clock from between my pillow and weighted blanket when it's in the bedroom or glancing at the clock from across the room when I put the Essential under my TV — I lose track of time easily — the Essential is easy to read both the time and the temperature. There's also a collection of weather condition LED icons that are harder to spot if you're more than three feet from the clock, but the temperature is large enough to easily glance at below the time.
There are four buttons atop the Essential's fabric-covered frame: volume down, volume up, play/pause, and alarm. Unlike many third-party Google Assistant speakers, long-pressing the Play/Pause button doesn't trigger Google Assistant to listen for a command, so you'll have to say "OK Google" each time. The play button does double as a snooze button for alarms, if you're the kind of person that uses a snooze instead of setting alarms for the proper time. The physical mute mic toggle is on the very back of the clock, hiding between the power cord and the USB-A port.
Also hiding around back is the new nightlight, which you can set at any brightness value between 0 (off) and 100. I found slipping "Nightlight at 10%" into my "morning alarm" scheduled routine — what I use instead of an alarm so I can add in extra actions like turning on the lights — was sufficiently bright enough to pull me from my slumber. I wish there was a physical switch to kick it on or off without Assistant, but at least "Nightlight at XX" is quick enough to rattle off half-asleep.
Getting back to alarms for a minute, the Lenovo Smart Clock Essential's dedicated alarm button allows you to quickly see when the next alarm or two is set for. You can also manually set an alarm using just the buttons on the Essential, something we don't see often on Google Assistant speakers, and you can even set the alarm to repeat on a specific day, weekdays, weekends, or every day. Unfortunately, alarms set this way are the default alarm chime, not something fun like waking up to music. (Seriously, how do people wake up to something other than music? Why torment your waking moments like that?!)
Lenovo Smart Clock Essential What I hate
As a proud creature of the night, I take great pains to sleep in an absolute abyss. Every LED on a charger is covered, and I even have a pair of socks covering the LED display and backlight power light on the table fan in the corner. I took for granted that the Lenovo Smart Clock Essential would just turn off when I gave the command and stay off until I turned it back on in the morning.
A dozen different phrasings and potential commands later, the Essential's clock was dim but refused to turn off. I eventually grabbed a spare S20 case and shoved it over the Essential's face, the way I did a decade ago with my Sony iPod alarm clock's always-on clock. Considering other smart speakers with clocks have had display off commands for half a decade now, I'm stunned that it's not working on the Smart Clock Essential, but I can go old-school to get my darkness.
The other small bummer for the Essential also struck at night. Like millions of others with noisy neighbors, I use sleep sounds to block out the world and sleep peacefully, and while I know I have been utterly spoiled having the Sony XB501G EXTRA BASS Google Assistant Speaker blasting out my thunderstorm sounds for the last two years, the same rumbly thunderstorm sounds were tinny on the Essential's small speaker. My morning music and Assistant's responses to questions all sound fine for this small speaker's size, but the sleep sounds were a little disappointing as I drifted off each night.
Lenovo Smart Clock Essential Competition
The Smart Clock's immediate competition would be the original Lenovo Smart Clock, which is down to $40 at Best Buy these days and features a 4-inch color screen but no nightlight. As I said earlier, I don't want another screen my bedroom, but if you prefer a more modern look and the ability to look at a pretty clock than the old fashioned LED clock on the Essential, it's certainly an option.
The other big competitor to the Essential is the newly-refreshed Echo Dot with Clock, which at $60 is a bit more expensive than the Essential's $50 list price. However, the Echo Dot with Clock has a richer sound to it, gives you two color options, and ties into Alexa rather than Assistant. While basically all retailers have the Essential down to $30 for Black Friday, though, the Essential and its larger clock easily win that fight.
Lenovo Smart Clock Essential Should you buy it?
No smart speaker is perfect, and in the $30-$50 range, the Lenovo Smart Clock Essential sits squarely in, perfection is impossible. The speaker could be louder and the screen should have an off command — and maybe an update down the line can add that — but for an affordable Google Assistant speaker that can double as an old-school, manually-set LED alarm clock, the Essential is a pretty great value that you shouldn't ignore.
4 out of 5
It's not the sexiest smart speaker in existence, but I could see this being a good gift — especially for those trying to ease a less-than-tech savvy family member into using Google Assistant. And if you need a Google Assistant clock for your nightstand, your home office, or just to sit under the TV like mind and remind you to go to bed before your binge-watching keeps you up till 3 AM, the Lenovo Smart Clock Essential is a compact clock that's perfect for the job.
Time to buy
Lenovo fills an Assistant ecosystem niche nicely.
Between overpriced and underpowered smart displays and a hundred inexpensive smart speakers sits the hybrid Lenovo Smart Clock Essential. This little clock may not be mighty of sound, but the functionality of the dedicated alarm menu and the voice-controlled nightlight help it earn that coveted spot on your nightstand.
Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.