Google Nest Hub review

New name, same great smart display

Google Nest Hub
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Last year, Google launched its first screen-toting smart speaker, the Google Home Hub. We reviewed it when it first went on sale, but just six months later it's been given a new name: Google Nest Hub.

This rebrand was simply a way to reflect the changes to Google's smart home division, which is now referred to as Google Nest. It also gives it some continuity with the Nest Hub Max - the newer, larger version of the speaker that will go on sale later in 2019.

Despite the new name, Google has assured us that down to the silicone, the Nest Hub is exactly the same as the Google Home Hub. So while the below review was technically of the Google Home Hub, it's exactly the same device that comes in the new box.

Read this: The best smart displays in 2020

That means this is still the first Smart Display to come out of Google itself. The rest of Google's Smart Displays - the name for smart speakers with a screen - have come from third-party companies leaning on Google's software.

When Google announced the new Nest branding, it also announced the speaker would cost $129, marking a $20 reduction. That means it's now a whopping $100 less than the 2018 edition of the Amazon Echo Show.

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, enabling you to ask questions and command your smart home devices on demand.

But has Google compromised to make that happen? Or, like the Pixel phones, is this the best software experience of the Smart Display bunch? Here's the verdict.

Google Home Hub review

Google Nest Hub: Design

When we first laid eyes on the Google Nest Hub last year, 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.

Read this: Google Assistant – the missing manual

It looks like someone stuck a tablet to a tiny speaker, which… is exactly what Google has done here. But it looks nice enough to fit in most places, and there are four colors to choose from: white, charcoal, pink and aqua. Yes, that aqua is the same color that the Google Home Mini also comes in, should you want some consistency across your home.

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

However, the Nest Hub Max, which will join the smaller Hub later in 2019, is fully camera'd-up for those who want it. That won't just give you access to video calls, but full Nest integration will let you view your home remotely and - if you're a Nest Aware subscriber - make use of other features.

Guide: The best smart home hub

The Nest Hub is otherwise 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, this becomes a bit of a problem. And given the Nest Hub doubles as a fantastic digital photo frame, more's the pity. An adjustable stand would have been nice.

Google Nest Hub: Screen and sound

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.

In the clash of dark video and a light room, the Hub struggles to win out. But for the rest of the time, the display holds up pretty well.

Essential reading: Google Nest Hub Max review

In place of a camera, Google has installed an ambient EQ light sensor, which adjusts the screen’s brightness and warmth to match the light of the room its in. It works like a charm too. Side by side with a physical photo, it's more difficult to spot the difference than you might think. Google's made a fantastic digital photo frame here, giving the Nest Hub a reason to stick around when you're not using it.

Seeing photos instead of, say, a weather forecast or the news headlines, makes the Nest Hub feel less like a gadget and more like a piece of furniture.

Google Home Hub review

What's more, the AI means the Hub will only show your "good" photos (ie none of the blurry shots). This is one of the best examples of Google's software intertwining with good hardware. But if you don't want to use your own pictures, Google has plenty of art, photos and colorful pics 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.

Smarter, bassier, fonder of walls: Google Nest Mini review

As a music player, the Nest 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 pales in comparison to my Sonos system or the Google Home Max. At loud volumes, the limits of the Nest 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. So you have a few options.

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 Nest Hub: Home View and smart home controls

Google might call this a Hub, but it wants people to buy more than one for their homes. Really, the name is meant to express overall control of your smart home. That starts with Home View, a dashboard you access by swiping down on the display, which is now available across the entire range of Google Smart Displays.

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.

Screen showdown: Echo Show 5 v Google Nest Hub

The control you get here often won’t be as granular as it is with those device’s individual apps, but for many people it will be enough. 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 colors. Supported cameras will also stream video straight to the Nest Hub with a tap of the camera button in Home View.

Speaking of third-party Smart Displays, Google has brought all of them in line with the Nest Hub to include better Google Photos curation, new Digital Wellbeing features, and the ability to group with display-less Assistant speakers. Here's hoping Google keeps this going, and we don't end up with an Android-type fragmentation across the line.

Google has also redesigned the smartphone app so that Home View is the first thing you see there. It's a much better system than Google used to offer, and superior to the Alexa app experience, which feels clunkier by the day.

Something the Nest 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. The Nest Hub Max supports Thread, the mesh protocol for low-power smart home gadgets - but you don't get that on the regular Hub.

Google Nest Hub: No camera here

So, back to that missing camera. Google told me it didn’t include a camera because it was sensitive to people’s privacy concerns; it wants the Nest 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.

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 Nest 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 Nest Hub, but you're restricted to audio calls or one-way video.

Again, now Google has the Nest Hub Max, you have the option to add a camera with the larget display. If you can't wait that long, the Lenovo Smart Display is a good shout.

Google Home Hub review

Google Nest 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 Nest Hub, Google is actually using a customized 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 a problem 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 Nest Hub simply because the Echo Show doesn't have it. There's no Netflix here either, but you can Cast services including Hulu and HBO to the NEst Hub (Netflix still isn't one of them).

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, and for the time being, the Nest Hub is the best of the bunch.

Google Nest Hub
It's not hard to love the Google Nest Hub. Small but powerful, 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 Nest Hub needs to do more. In time, it should come. And if the lack of camera is a problem for you, just wait and get yourself the Nest Hub Max.
  • The best looking Smart Display
  • Decent sound
  • Excellent price
  • Display will be too small for some
  • Platform still young
  • No Zigbee/Z-Wave hub

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