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Google Home Hub hands-on: A home with a view
Like Apple, Google isn’t always first to market, but both companies always try to do things better than the other. What Google typically does better than most is software, but not necessarily this time. With the new Google Home Hub, a surprisingly tiny voice-activated speaker with a screen, there’s not much difference between its software and the software found in Lenovo’s Smart Display. This time, the ace up Google’s sleeve is one Apple typically plays: branding.
Where other manufacturers can happily slap Google software on their hardware, only Google can lay claim to it. A Google-branded speaker is always going to have more cache than the competitors running Google’s software, even if the others are Android Things-based. It may not be any better technically (you’ll have to stay tuned for the full Google Home Hub review to find that out), but it does have the Google name behind it. Fortunately, Google has still added a few special software features you won’t get anywhere else, just in case.
Even in the wake of a very recent privacy breach, Google has neatly sidestepped one particularly sensitive privacy issue that has always swirled around products of this nature: there is no camera on the Google Home Hub. I like this a lot. Yes, it still has far-field microphones, but I can live with the possibility of being audio recorded without my knowledge. This is why I already have a Google Home and Google Home Mini. I’d feel differently about adding a Google Home with a camera into my living room, though. Not being able to video call may well be a disappointment to some, but I think Google made the right move on this one.
The Google Home Hub could be described as a 7-inch Android tablet with Google Assistant, slapped on a Google Home. To be perfectly honest, it kind of is, but that's not a bad thing.
The Google Home Hub could be described as a 7-inch Android
Things tablet slapped on a Google Home. (We learned after the fact that the Google Home Hub is not powered by Android Things. As explained by Ron Amadeo.) There’s nothing wrong with that though, and it’s for that very reason we thought the Lenovo Smart Display served its purpose well. But Lenovo isn’t Google, and Google has clearly taken a few cues from its competitors to build upon that first-gen base.
The interface is basically the same as the one found on the Lenovo Smart Display, which appeared at first to be a simplified Android Things-based UI, even though it isn’t. However, like Google everywhere, it tries to surface the information you need as conveniently as possible.
The most notable new feature on the Home Hub is something called Home View. You can swipe down from the top of the screen to quickly access shortcuts for your connected devices like smart lights, thermostat, TVs, smart locks and more, or you can make changes room-by-room. The Home View dashboard means you no longer need to access several different apps to see the status of all your connected devices.
With Home View and Google Assistant’s Routines, the Google Home Hub can help you keep on top of everything going on in your home. There’s also a redesigned Home app for when you’re away from your Google Home Hub, again, with everything in your connected home being controllable from one place.
There are no physical buttons on the Google Home Hub, so you’ll be doing everything with swipes, on-screen taps and your voice. Everything is super-sized for ease of readability, and displayed information is neatly laid out. Android Things is a no-frills OS and the software the Google Home Hub is running performs comparatively, handling the basics nicely. There’s no Google Play Store here and no games or anything, so a Google Home Hub won’t replace the need for a tablet or other similar device in your home. But that’s the point.
Google is fleshing out its hardware ecosystem, to ensure it has a product to suit every need.
Google Home, Google Home Mini, Google Home Max and Google Home Hub all serve the basic needs of voice-activated search and reminders, smart home control, and basic audio playback. If you want something more discreet than a Google Home, get a Google Home Mini. Want better audio? Google Home Max is for you. Need a screen? Say hello to Google Home Hub.
The visual layer means you can interact with the Home Hub with your eyes as well as your ears, massively improving its potential use cases.
A screen adds a lot of value to the equation. You get all the audio benefits of a Google Home with a visual layer on top. That visual layer means you can interact with the Home Hub with your eyes as well as your ears, massively improving its potential use cases. Is the volume set too low on your speaker or is there too much noise in the background? Just look at the screen.
I’ve tried cooking with a Google Home and it wasn’t pretty. Adding step by step instructions I can casually glance at and the option for instructional YouTube videos is a big deal for someone like me.
YouTube is a big part of why the Google Home Hub exists. Google is pushing educational and How-To videos a lot on YouTube this year. Finding a more targeted way of getting those videos into your home than just your phone or tablet is obviously a large part of what’s going on here. That’s probably why buyers of a Google Home Hub get six months of free YouTube Premium.
Google Photos is also part of the mix, with the Google Home Hub able to serve as a kind of digital photo frame, cycling through your photographic moments. All you need to do is select an album you’ve created or that has been shared with you and it will display whenever Hub isn’t being used.
Live Albums lets you select specific people so Google Photos can automatically create a new album with only those people in it. Live Photos will also filter out random photos like receipts, blurry shots or multiple shots.
Besides YouTube and Photos, Google Home Hub is built to deliver information from Google Maps, Google Calendar and Search seamlessly.
Besides YouTube and Photos, Google Home Hub is built to deliver information from Google Maps, Google Calendar and Search seamlessly. All of these services have been redesigned from what you’d find on Android Things, and you can control them with your voice and make them more “glanceable.”
Google Home Hub works with big smart home brands like Philips Hue lights, Nest thermostats, Belkin Wemo, TP-Link Wi-Fi gear and many more. It also supports streaming services like Spotify, Deezer and Tune-In internet radio, and works with both Android and iOS devices.
The Google Home Hub comes in four colors: chalk, charcoal, aqua and sand (or white, black, green-blue and pink for the chromatically challenged among us).
I didn’t get a chance to properly test out the audio quality from the Google Home Hub because in the crowded demo area it was impossible to judge. If it’s anywhere near as good as Google Home audio though I can’t really see why anyone would bother buying a Google Home anymore. Even if you don’t plan on using the display a lot, it’ll still be there if and when you need it.
Thanks to ambient light sensors, Home Hub will adjust the screen brightness to the conditions around it and even modify the on-screen colors. It can recognize multiple voices too, so your Google Home Hub will respond differently to different members of your family. Parents can also set filters for younger family members.
“Downtime” mode works a little like Do Not Disturb mode on Android, with only critical interactions like alarms interrupting your peace and quiet. Likewise, Google Home Hub can serve as a kind of sunlight alarm, gently increasing the brightness of warm colors on the display in advance of your morning alarm going off.
The styling of the Google Home Hub might not be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s subtle and unassuming. I wouldn’t say I love it, but it’s hard to dislike strongly either. The thing is seriously small too, a fact not immediately evident by Google’s promotional materials or even the photos in this post.
At $149 the Google Home Hub won’t break the bank. If you’re new to smart hubs and voice controlled devices, the Google Home Mini might be a better starting point. But if the one thing you always wished connected speakers had was a screen, then the Google Home Hub could be for you. It can be bought from Google via the button below or at select retail locations starting October 22 in the U.S., UK and Australia.
What do you think of the Google Home Hub? What connected products do you have in your home?