Lenovo Smart Clock Essential review: a slightly smarter clock radio

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There is no shortage of devices that you can stick on your bedside table to use as a voice-controlled alarm clock. You can, of course, just use your phone, but you can also put a small smart speaker, such as Amazon’s Echo Dot, Google’s Nest Mini, or Apple’s new HomePod mini there and bark commands at it to set an alarm, tell you the weather, or snooze for ten minutes. If you want something more fully featured, devices like the Echo Show 5, Lenovo Smart Clock, or Google’s Nest Hub have full-color touchscreen displays that can play video, show camera feeds, or be used as a digital picture frame.

Lenovo’s latest entrant in this space, the $49.95 Smart Clock Essential, sits somewhere in between all of that. It’s a voice-controlled, Google Assistant smart speaker with a simple, black-and-white segmented LED display. It displays the current time, weather conditions, day, and your currently set alarms. The display will automatically adjust its brightness depending on the light levels of the room, so it’s not blinding you in the middle of the night. But it’s not a touchscreen, doesn’t display photos or video, and can’t be used for monitoring camera feeds. It’s effectively what you’d get if you combined a modern smart speaker with an old-school LED clock radio from the 1980s.

That combination of ideas carries over into the Smart Clock Essential’s looks. From the front, the white numbers on black background make it look like a typical, basic alarm clock. Peer closer and you can see two small holes for the microphones that pick up your voice commands. On top of the wedge-shaped device are four buttons for managing alarms, play / pause, and volume. Around back is a USB-A port that you can use to charge a phone or smartwatch, as well as a switch to stop the microphones from listening.

The sides of the Smart Clock Essential are wrapped in gray fabric, as has become the trend with smart speakers in recent years. A unique feature here is the LED ring light on the back of the device that’s meant to be a nightlight of sorts. Lenovo claims it shouldn’t disturb your sleep, but I found it too bright to use when the clock is a foot or two from my head as I sleep. You can adjust the brightness using voice commands, but I wish there was a button to do so or Lenovo just made it adjust automatically based on how much light is in the room. Or even better, it could gradually come on as a wake up light just before my alarm is set to go off.

The back of the Smart Clock Essential features a USB-A port for charging other devices, a mute switch, and a LED ring light.

On top are buttons for managing alarms, playback, and volume.

As an alarm clock, the Smart Clock Essential is well equipped. You can set multiple alarms, either via the buttons on top or through voice commands (a much easier method, if you ask me). It can play a standard alarm beep, or you can just say “STOP” once the alarm is going to cancel it. You can also tap on top of the clock twice to snooze it. This tap gesture takes some effort, though, and when I’m half awake and groggy, I find I have to smack the top quite hard to get it to snooze. Amazon’s similar Echo Dot with Clock does this tap-to-snooze thing better.

One note— and this applies to every smart speaker alarm clock I’ve tested— there’s no backup battery here, so if your power goes out overnight and doesn’t come back before your alarm is set to go off, you won’t have an alarm in the morning.

As a smart speaker, the Smart Clock Essential is fine, but don’t expect it to be your main music listening device. The 3-watt speaker does get surprisingly loud, but as you’d expect, the bass is lacking and the sound isn’t very pleasant at high volumes. For listening to weather reports, news updates, or your preferred wake-up song, it’s certainly adequate.

The Smart Clock Essential can be summed up in two words: functional simplicity. It provides more utility and alarm clock features than a screen-less Nest Mini or Echo Dot but doesn’t overwhelm you with the functions of a full smart display. At its regular price of $50, it provides a good experience. But lately, it’s been selling for half that price or less, which makes it an even better deal if you’re looking to upgrade your alarm clock experience.

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