There's nothing like a bit of competition to encourage innovation.

Amazon launched the Echo, then Google brought out Google Home. Amazon had the Echo Dot, then Google had the Home Mini. And now screens have been thrown into the mix, first with the Echo Show and now with Google's Assistant Smart Displays - only Google isn't doing the building.

Lenovo was first out of the gate, and we've already put one through its paces.

Don't think the Smart Display is just a dressed up Android tablet, though: the custom UI built entirely around Google Assistant should give Amazon some serious cause for concern.

WATCH THE WEDGE

Lenovo is planning to launch two versions of the Smart Display: one with an 8in display and plastic finish, and a more premium 10in model with bamboo covering the rear instead of plastic. The 8in model makes do with a 1200x800 resolution panel, while the 10in gets bumped to 1920x1200.

Both look slick, with an angular shape that bulges at one end and tapers to a point at the other. The geometric design isn't just for appearances, either - it lets you stand the Smart Display on its side, for a portrait view instead of landscape. The UI reorients itself to fit the screen, so you can use whichever direction you prefer.

The screens themselves could maybe be a little brighter, but the non-final hardware could easily change before Lenovo launches the Smart Display later this year.

Inside, a 10W speaker produces perfectly acceptable audio, although we'll have to wait for a full review to see how it stacks up to the Amazon Echo Show. The array microphones certainly did a good job picking up instructions in a busy demo room, though.

GOOGLE GOT GAME

Google's Assistant Smart Display program is much more than a smart speaker with a screen and built-in Chromecast. It runs on Android Things, a special version of Android designed for smart home kit, with a custom UI adapted for the small screen.

The ambient screen is an always-on screensaver that's no different from a Chromecast's standby display. You can pick the backdrop through the Google Home app, or let Google do the choosing. A tap takes you to the main view, with cards for reminders, weather, and calendar appointments, plus your kitchen timers, music controls, news feeds, or anything else you're keeping an eye on.

Everything else is handled with your voice, with the Smart Display always listening out for the "Hey Google" key word. Ask and you shall receive, with visual cues as well as audio. Directions appear on a map, with an option to send them to your phone. Music video requests start streaming from YouTube straight away. Questions are answered with images and text. 

That's just the start, too. It works with plenty of smart home kit, putting a live view of your Nest security cameras onscreen whenever you want it. There's Google Duo video calling too, to phones as well as other Smart Display devices. That means you can call anyone, anywhere - not just if they're at home, like you can with Amazon's Echo Show. Lenovo has even added a handy camera cover, in case you're worried about privacy.

Google is up for adding third-party support for other apps, too, so you might eventually be able to ask for a Netflix video or request someone's Instagram account, and have it show up onscreen.

LENOVO SMART DISPLAY INITIAL VERDICT

This year's CES was filled with Google Assistant Smart Displays - but most of them felt like speakers that had been stuffed with a screen. Lenovo bucked that trend.

The Smart Display feels purpose-built, with a slick shape that you'd be happy to show off on your sideboard, kitchen counter or bedside table. The choice of screen size and the option to flip it on its side for a portrait view make it more flexible than Amazon's Echo Show, and Google's Android Things UI already looks pretty slick - even if we're still a good few months away from launch.

The price seems right, too. Unless it comes up with something fresh before the Smart Display arrives this summer, Amazon should be vey worried indeed.

Where to buy Lenovo Smart Display: