Bluetooth speakers that sync up with Android phones are a dime a dozen, but Vizio’s new Portable Smart Audio boxes take a more direct approach — by jamming the two together. These things come with built-in touchscreens that’ll run full Android 4.4 KitKat, allowing them to cut out the Bluetooth middle man completely.
Those touchscreens come in 4.7- and 7-inch varieties, so you’re essentially getting a Nexus 5 or a Nexus 7 with much more powerful speakers. You still can hook up your phone or tablet via Bluetooth and stream music (or cast video) that way, but the idea is to give your speaker the full Google Play suite and let it run wild on its own.
So, you can directly access music apps like Spotify, Rdio, Google Play Music All Access, and the like, but there’s nothing stopping you from streaming movies over Netflix or playing a game of Angry Birds right on the Touchscreen as well. Android is a platform with which millions of people are already familiar, and using it on these speakers is really no different than using it an ordinary smart device.
Gaming and movie viewing aren’t the most luxurious experiences when they’re done on something like this, mind, but they’re here, and they make these particular speakers smarter than most. And since all of this is built right into the device, you don’t have to stay within a particular range to keep a strong Bluetooth connection. Vizio brought up the idea that you won’t have to worry about as many app notifications interrupting your streams either.
It’s worth noting that there is a USB port on the back of each speaker, and each one does have some local storage space, so you’ll be able to play any personally stored music, video and media here too. (Vizio isn’t saying exactly how much local space there is, however.) A headphone jack and 802.11n WiFi are also onboard, and the whole thing is powered by an unidentified quad-core processor.
We were able to go hands-on with both Portable Smart Audio speakers last week, and we came away pleasantly surprised by their build quality. It’d be easy to make a mess out of a project like this, but the Smart Audio’s smooth, silver aluminum sides and sturdy, jet black speaker grilles made these things feel much less toy-ish than their concept would suggest. They come across as grown-up yet fun devices, without any wild angles, garish logos, or other egregious design choices.
The larger model comes with a nifty handle — just in case you want to feel like you’re using some sort of new-age boombox — and both versions can be comfortably stood in a horizontal or vertical position. Both are fairly colorful too, coming with either blue or yellow highlights. The 4.7-inch model reminded us of something like a rectangular Beats Pill — with a Touchscreen crammed into the middle of it, of course.
More importantly, both speakers also appear capable of producing surprisingly powerful sound. You always have to take company-produced tech demos with a grain of salt, but judging from what we heard, both models were able to churn out some deep bass and relatively full soundscapes. The 7-inch model was noticeably richer — it can play at a 60Hz frequency, compared to 80Hz on the smaller model — but the 4.7-inch version was louder than we expected too. Neither device can deliver anything close to what we’d consider “premium” sound, but that’s to be expected, and we think the everyday speaker shopper would be pleased with the quality here.
There are some potential pratfalls, though: For one, both the 4.7-incher and the 7-incher were a little too heavy for our liking, something that’ll naturally detract from their portability. They’re not excessively weighty, but you’ll notice their heft once you pick them up.
Another big question here is battery life — having a tablet built into your speaker is clever, but it’ll probably suck up more juice than usual. Vizio wouldn’t give us a specific projection here, but for what it’s worth, it told us that the 7-incher’s battery would be comparable to that of “an average laptop.” We presume the 4.7-inch model would be able to get a little more power, but we wouldn’t expect either device to last all day long.
Finally, we did notice some lag and other slight performance issues when navigating the devices’ touchscreens, but that’s typical for products that are still months away from retail. We should also mention that both speakers were running Android 4.3 Jelly Bean during our demo, but Vizio has already announced that the two will ship with KitKat from day one.
We don’t think the Portable Smart Audio is going to change the Bluetooth speaker game forever, but Vizio’s certainly got a neat idea on its hands here, and we’re curious to see how the public reacts to an all-in-one device like this. Do you really need a full Android phone/tablet built into all your Bluetooth speakers from now on? Probably not, but when said speaker is built well, sounds good, and makes operations a little more convenient than usual, it might be harder to say no.
Pricing and availability details will be crucial for this kind of thing, but for now, Vizio is keeping quiet on both fronts. When we find out more, we’ll let you know.