I just spent a week with the Lenovo Smart Clock Essential with Alexa on my bedside table, and I’m still not sure why this product is. A digital alarm clock that you can control with your voice, the Essential $69.99 is a smart speaker integrated with a traditional LED alarm clock. But it’s not a particularly “smart” smartwatch, and there are plenty of excellent smart alarms, even some made by Lenovo. This is not one of them.
The only use case I can see for Essential is if you specifically want an Alexa voice assistant next to your bed, and you don’t want a screen with a camera (all Echo smart screens have cameras on board – which is a little tricky in the bedroom), and you want a larger LED watch than that Shown on the excellent no-camera Echo Dot with Clock ($60). If you’re flexible on any of these points, there are better options (we’ll get to them).
Other than that, this watch seems like a tepid attempt on Lenovo’s part to cash in on Alexa’s popularity. It’s the first Lenovo smartwatch to use Amazon’s voice assistant – all of its other better models are based on Google. (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 Amazon voice assistant. It works over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and is powered by a wall plug with a five-foot long cable. It has a reliably auto-dimming 4″ split LED display and comes encased in an upright fabric wrapped body that is 4.46″ wide by 3.67″ long. It has a decent onboard speaker and a far-reaching microphone array to pick up your Alexa commands.
While the naming suggests it’s identical to the $50 Lenovo Smart Clock Essential (which is still available but only comes with Google Assistant), this basic device has the same design as the Lenovo Smart Clock 2 (also Google only). But, instead of this device’s full-color touch screen, this base device has a monochrome non-touch LED display. The display shows you the time (24 hour or standard) and the current outside temperature and humidity reading. There is also a decibel scale option. I still haven’t found a reason to need a db reader in my bedroom – but I’m open to suggestions.
The Essential comes with Alexa in a peppy red or a more muted blue, and when you command the voice assistant, the screen displays two beeps and two flashes that look like eyes. Given this “nice factor” and color options, this might be an option for a kid’s room – where you might not want a small screen that can play videos (as in the Echo Show 5 and the Nest Hub – other good smart alarm clock options). But at $70 — $20 more than the first Basic Edition and at the same price as the newer Full Smart Display version — this is an expensive baby alarm clock.
The smartwatch’s 1.5-inch 3W front speaker delivers surprisingly decent sound, better than most alarms for its Echo Dot size and quality. It also has a size range wide enough to allow you to gently get up in or out of bed. The actual snooze button works reliably, and you can use the speaker as a Bluetooth speaker.
There are also pogo pins on the bottom of the clock, which appears to work with the Lenovo Smart Clock platform. This is a great product, and I’ve reviewed it previously. Adds a 10W MagSafe compatible wireless charger and LED night light to the watch for just $20. However, according to Lenovo spokeswoman Katie Dungan, the Dock only comes with the Lenovo Smart Clock 2 and cannot be purchased separately or with Essential. If they fix this obvious bug, I’d be more inclined to recommend this watch.
That leaves the Essentials’ only real selling point: the built-in Alexa. In my testing, the watch’s voice assistant was much slower to respond to voice commands than the latest Echo devices. And while you can do the standard things with the voice assistant — set timers and alarms, listen to music and podcasts, control smart home devices, and use Alexa skills — as a third-party speaker, it lacks a lot of basic Echo functionality. For example, it does not work as an intercom (except for other Lenovo watches) or with Alexa calling features. You can’t set it as the default speaker for your room in the Alexa app, and it didn’t work in the multi-room music setting in my test.
You can use Alexa Routines with the basics. I tested one that was triggered by ignoring the alarm. I have reliably succeeded in turning on the smart lights in my room, reading my calendar for the day, and starting a radio station. But this only works after the alarm is heard and I dismiss it.
If you want to be woken up by a particular song or station, you need to use audio to set it up first. Then it will appear in the selection of alert sounds in the Alexa smartphone app, which includes a variety of standard alert tones. You can also enable a skill and wake you up, for example, The Real Housewives or Samuel L. Jackson.
Unfortunately, the Essential doesn’t work with any of the newer “sound” players that Routine Echo devices have, where you can hear the sound of running water or snoring. I set up an Echo Dot with Clock in my bathroom to listen to the sound of running water. When I turn on the bathroom, it starts a routine that reads my weather and calendar and then turns on the radio.
Arguably the Essential’s biggest failure is that it doesn’t have a touch screen. Given that the Lenovo Smart Clock 2 designed and roughly the same price has a touch screen, I can’t understand why they chose to forgo this convenience. While its 4-inch monochrome face is less distracting than a smart screen without a touchscreen, the base device relies on voice or the Alexa app to program alarms. Voice isn’t always appropriate in the bedroom, and Alexa isn’t always intuitive. There are three separate settings screens for the primary clock in the app, each one offering different options.
The Essential also doesn’t hear like other Echos, and I’ve had a lot of trouble calling the assistant, often hitting the button to get his attention. The only controls on the device are for volume and mic mute, plus a button for calling Alexa and one for snoozing or showing the alarm.
Essential is designed for those who want a simple, no-frills alarm clock, with the addition of a built-in smart assistant. But, if that’s the case, you’re also probably expecting a simple alarm clock to have a battery backup. (I’ve written before about how annoying I find that smart alarms don’t deliver.) In this case, this is not “essential” enough for you.
If you’re not picky about any voice assistant in your bedroom and just want a good camera-free digital display to look at, the Nest Hub (2nd generation), which is $99.99 but often on sale for much less, is the best bedside companion, Adding sleep tracking feature and smart touch screen. 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 option than the Alexa version. It’s the same size as the Essential but with a full-color touchscreen that can double as a digital photo frame and show you a live feed of your security camera if something happens at night. It also costs the same as the basic cost.
If you’re set on Alexa, there aren’t any compelling reasons to consider the Lenovo Smart Clock Essential with Alexa over Amazon’s Echo devices. The Echo Show 5 with a full-color touchscreen (it has a camera, although it does include a physical shutter to block it) and the Echo Dot with Clock both make great bedside companions. And while Lenovo smartwatches are often on sale, most Alexa devices also regularly see price drops. I’ve seen Show 5s for as low as $35. Lenovo Essential with Alexa is currently $50. At its full price of $70, it’s a definitive number. But it might be worth considering a smartwatch for your child if you can find it for $30.
Jennifer Bateson Tohey/The Verge photos