Google Home Hub review

Not all Smart Displays are created equal

Google Home Hub

Smart displays are here to stay, and Google is now entering the battlefield with a screen-toting smart speaker of its own, the Google Home Hub.

In a way, Google's already here: its Smart Displays started rolling out earlier this year, but these have so far been build by third-party companies like Lenovo and JBL. The Home Hub is the first by Google. The Pixel of the Smart Displays, if you will.

The speaker costs $149, making it $50 or so less than the incoming Facebook Portal and a whopping $80 less than the 2018 edition of the Amazon Echo Show.

Read this: Google Assistant – the missing manual

It also means this is the cheapest smart speaker with a display that money can buy, while offering many of the same features as alternatives.

But has Google compromised to make that happen? Or like the Pixel phones, is this the best software experience of the Smart Display bunch? We stuck one in our home to find out.

Google Home Hub review

Google Home Hub: Design

When we first laid eyes on the Home Hub at Google’s New York event, we were surprised at just how small it was – to the point we wondered if it was actually big enough. There’s a 7-inch display, angled up at about 70 degrees, resting on a fabric-wrapped speaker that stays mostly out of view.

It looks like someone stuck a tablet to a tiny speaker, which… actually, that’s exactly what Google has done here. But it looks nice enough to fit in most places, and there are four colours to choose from: white, charcoal, pink and aqua. Yes, that aqua is the same colour that Google recently launched the Home Mini in.

Google says it kept the Home Hub small because it wanted something that could be placed on a bedside table, or perhaps a bathroom countertop. That’s also why it chose to not put a camera on this. That's right, that thing you see above the display isn't a camera but an ambient light sensor.

Aside from that, it's a pretty bare on the inputs. There's a mute switch on the back for the mic and a physical volume switch – and that's it.

You can’t even adjust the angle of the display, but it’s positioned so you’ll have no problem viewing it from a table or counter top. If you’re placing it somewhere higher, such as a bookshelf, you’re a bit more restricted. An adjustable stand would have been nice.

Google Home Hub: Screen and sound

Thankfully the screen has a 1024 x 600 resolution that's sharp enough for the types of things you’ll be doing with it – and good viewing angles. We’ll delve into some of those tasks later, but we’re talking smart home controls, weather check-ins, recipes, smart camera feeds and the odd YouTube video.

The only time we struggled was during a trailer for First Man which – not really a spoiler alert – was pretty dark throughout. It didn't do great in the brightly lit room, but otherwise the Home Hub has been easy to read in the light of day.

In place of a camera, Google has installed an ambient EQ light sensor, which adjusts the screen’s vibrancy to match the light of the room its in. This is more impressive than I expected it to be, especially when displaying my photos. Side by side with a physical photo, it’s not as easy to spot the difference as you might think. If nothing else, Google's made a fantastic digital photo frame.

Google Home Hub review

What's more, Google's new AI means the Hub will only show your "good" photos (ie none of the blurry shots). This is one of the Home Hub's best features in our opinion, a tiny carousel of fond memories in constant rotation. But if you don't want to use your own pictures, Google has plenty of art, photos and colourful images you can circulate through instead. And when it gets completely dark, the Hub changes into a bedside clock so as not to disturb you during sleep.

As a music player, the Home Hub is a decent enough for the size and types of tasks it will be used for. Google told me it has cleaned up the sound and given it a little more bass than the Home and Home Mini, but in use it’s obviously not got the sonic heft of more expensive speakers including the Google Home Max. At loud volumes, the limits of the Home Hub become quickly obvious to the ear. It can however be paired with a better speaker using Bluetooth, or grouped up with other Google Home and Chromecast speakers.

And of course, having a screen means you can see what's playing at any time. That includes integration with Spotify, but you won't get the full app, just a bare-bones on-screen player.

Google Home Hub: Home View and smart home controls

Google might call this a Home Hub, but it's expecting a lot of people will buy more than one for their homes. Instead, the name is meant to denote greater control of your entire home. That starts with Home View, a new dashboard you access by swiping down on the display.

Home View shows you all of your connected device categories – thermostats, lights, cameras etc – to give you quick access to them. Tap the thermostat icon and, if you have a Nest or other supported thermostat connected to your Google Home ecosystem, you’ll be able to adjust the temperature and switch between modes.

The control you get here often won’t be as granular as it is with those device’s individual apps, but so far it’s been pretty good. With the Nest thermostat we were able to switch between heating, cooling and Eco modes. With Philips Hue bulbs you’re able to adjust the brightness and even change between colours. Supported cameras will also stream video straight to the Home Hub with a tap of the camera button in Home View.

It’s easily the best new feature of the Home Hub, so we’re pleased Google is also rolling it out to all the other Smart Displays. In fact, all Smart Displays are being updated to add new features you'll find on the Home Hub including better Google Photos curation, new Digital Wellbeing features, and the ability to group with display-less Assistant speakers.

Read this: How to use the new Google Home app

Google has also redesigned the smartphone app so that Home View is the first thing you see there. Because, let’s be honest, the app experience has been a little messy when it comes to controlling our different devices.

Something the Home Hub still doesn't have is support for smart home control outside of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The new Echo Show includes a Zigbee hub, letting you control devices (like Philips Hue) without the need for their native hubs or apps. Google told me that Z-Wave and Zigbee support isn't off the table for the future, but you won't get it here.

Google Home Hub: No camera here

So, back to that missing camera. This could be a deal breaker or even a deal maker for some people. Google told me it didn’t include a camera because it was sensitive to people’s privacy concerns; it wants the Home Hub to be something you’ll put in a bedroom, but it knows that many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of putting a camera on our bedside table.

This is a big bet from Google: the rest of the smart speakers with displays, Amazon’s Echo Show and Spot included, all have cameras, and video chatting has been sold to us as a major feature of screen-toting smart speakers.

It does, however, mean that you can't make video calls on the Home Hub. With the company wanting people to use the Google Duo app, there might be a bit of apparent cognitive dissonance here, but Google apparently decided that this was the better decision. And you can still use Duo on the Home Hub, but you're restricted to audio calls or one-way video.

For some people, the lack of a camera might be a turn-off, in which case the Lenovo Smart Display is a good shout.

Google Home Hub review

Google Home Hub: Google Assistant, multimedia and more

As we’ve tried out other Google Smart Displays, we noted that the Android Things experience felt a little undercooked. On Home Hub, Google is actually using a customised version of its Cast platform, but the experience is almost identical to that of other Smart Displays we've used.

I asked Google if the bifurcation of Android Things and the Hub’s custom Cast build will be problematic for developers creating integrations, but it promised me this won’t matter. Google also wouldn't really give me an answer as to why it's not used Android Things here. Really, the only difference are some hardware/software integrations on the Hub itself, the big one being that ambient EQ sensor.

The Smart Display ecosystem as a whole is still young. Yes, you have full access to the brains of Google Assistant, and YouTube works great. We got some tips from Gordon Ramsay on the perfect way to chop onions just by asking, “Hey Google, show me how to chop an onion”. Nice.

YouTube is actually a huge boon for the Home Hub simply because the Echo Show doesn't have it – not since Google took it away – and the Big G is throwing in six free months of YouTube Premium as an added sweetener. But otherwise, the Home Hub doesn't support Hulu, Netflix or Amazon Prime Video. You can, however, Cast to the Home Hub, but only with apps that support it (and no, Netflix does not).

But other things are less baked. For example I tried calling an Uber, and while Google could give me the route and an estimated price, it still wouldn’t let me call one without opening my phone first.

These things will hopefully change as third parties hop aboard and build in better integrations. But Google also told me that it doesn’t want this to just replicate the Android tablet experience. So don’t expect a Chrome browser or any “apps” for that matter. Google is treating the Smart Displays as their own category.

Google Home Hub
It's hard not to love the Google Home Hub. It's small – perhaps too small for some people – but it's the best looking of the Assistant Smart Displays so far. It's also a great showcase for what this category of smart speaker can do, particularly with that ambient EQ sensor – and for a fantastic price. But this is a young platform; the Home Hub needs to do more. In time, it should come.
  • The best looking Smart Display
  • Decent sound
  • Excellent price
  • Display will be too small for some
  • Platform still young
  • No Zigbee/Z-Wave hub

TAGGED   google   speakers

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