Google Home Hub
MOVE OVER SMART SPEAKERS — THE SMART DISPLAYS HAVE LANDED. BUT ARE THEY ACTUALLY USEFUL?
THERE’S A BATTLE raging between Google and Amazon for the control of the smarthome, with the two companies having launched a barrage of products in an attempt to win you over, and their latest – smart speakers with screens – are the next big theatres of war.
In Australia, both companies flagship devices are landing at the same time – there’s Amazon’s Echo Show on the Alexa side of things, with the Google Home Hub alternatively offering a Google Assistant-powered smart screen.
The real appeal of these smart displays is that, even moreso than smart speakers, they can act as a central hub to interact with all the varied features of a smarthome, from lights to security cameras to air conditioning and beyond, the addition of a screen does streamline certain controls that are otherwise a bit clunky to use via voice alone.
The Home Hub isn’t just about that, of course, and with features like auto-updating Google Photos galleries, the ability to play videos from YouTube and Stan (and Netflix sometime soon) or the capacity to step you through recipes with onscreen instructions, it’s a fairly flexible little display.
WORDS AND PICTURES
For a smart speaker that packs a screen, the Google Home Hub is surprisingly small at just 178.5 x 118 x 67.3mm (L x H x D). It’s so small, in fact, that the 7-inch screen is essentially just a small tablet — one which has been welded to a base that’s petite enough to fit on the palm of your hand. The overall aesthetic is rounded out by a colourful bezel which matches the fabric-covered base.
If its small stature has you concerned, there’s at least some solace in the fact that it’s surprisingly well-built. It feels sturdily made and while the screen could potentially break if something heavy came in contact with it, we felt more than safe with it sitting on our kitchen bench and dining room table.
The 7-inch display’s size can be slightly limiting, however, depending on what you’re trying to do. It’s great up close, and for watching videos or following instructions
you’ll generally want to be standing within a couple of metres. Photos do look great at any distance – even those shot on a phone – but the screen size does limit its appeal as a general entertainment device.
Round the back is a power input, plus volume controls and mic mute toggle within easy reach.
There’s no camera on the Home Hub – a decision Google says it made to eliminate privacy concerns. That means you won’t be able to make video calls, or at least ones where the other person can see you. If that sounds like a strange design decision, it’s because Google wants the Home Hub to be as welcome into your bedroom as it is on the kitchen table without you having to worry about it recording your… ahem… more intimate moments. Instead of a camera, you’ll find a simple light sensor.
The light sensor enables the device to drop its brightness level when it detects a dark room. Google calls the speaker’s light awareness feature ‘Ambient EQ’ and not only does it adjust brightness to match the level of the room (something that helps the speaker blend in with your home), it can actually change the colour temperature and face of the screen to a clock when it’s time for lights out.
In practice that means the speaker will dial down the blue light output when it’s on your bed stand before bed, then automatically turn the display down to near invisible levels when you turn off the lights. Conversely, if you put it next a window in broad daylight, it’ll dial the brightness back up – though it will top out around 400 nits. That number is fine for photos, but it does stop videos from looking their best.
COMING TO LIFE
The Google Home Hub borrows a lot of its visual identity from Android TV. Swipe right from the screensaver and you’ll see large information cards that take up the vast majority of the home interface, displaying things like your calendar, local weather, music and video recommendations plus trending news stories. Ask Google Assistant for help or information, and all these things will disappear. What replaces them will depend on your inquiry. Tap on whatever appears next and you’ll be drawn deeper down the rabbit hole where you can then see even more information. Major Google services, like YouTube, Photos and Maps have been optimised to provide relevant audio and visual feedback (and in some cases simple onscreen controls) based on your voice search commands.
Using YouTube on the Home Hub is a bit of a mixed affair. If you know what you’re looking for, like how to make pasta or the latest video from your favourite streamer, you can simply ask Google Assistant to help you. If your search requires a bit more digging, though, things can get hairy. At most, the Home Hub will display three videos on screen at a time, meaning it might take a few minutes to find what you’re looking for. This isn’t a dealbreaker but it isn’t as intuitive as simply walking over to your computer and simply searching for it there, either.
That same point can be extended to the Home Hub’s Google Cast functionality, that allows you to beam videos to your Google Cast-enabled TV or Chromecast. It’s useful when you know what you’re looking for and easier to just pick up your phone if not.
HOME WITH A VIEW
It must be said that Home View (that user interface setting that shows every connected device in your home), Ambient EQ and Google Photos screensaver are, by far, the most innovative and useful features on the Home Hub. They’re clear, fun and functional.
Where the speaker shines a little less brightly, both figuratively and literally, is in the audiovisual department: YouTube videos don’t look quite their best on the Home Hub’s 7-inch screen and audio, while powerful enough for a song or two, certainly doesn’t have the clarity or range to do justice to your music collection, having seemingly been tuned to provide clear voice responses rather than beefy bass or filled-out mids – the Google Home speaker sounds a fair deal better with music. That’s not to say there aren’t ways to make both these audiovisual problems slightly less of an issue (there’s an EQ slider on both the Home Hub and on the Google Home app to restore some bass to the rather dull-sounding audio, for example) but largely you’re stuck with something that just wasn’t meant to be your primary way to watch shows and listen to songs.
There are smart displays coming that have those uses more in mind, though. Lenovo’s $399 10-inch Smart Display, for example, offers both better audio and a significantly larger screen. We’re currently testing a unit, but received it a little too late to make it into this issue – look out for a full review in next month’s TechLife.
So while the Google Home Hub isn’t technically missing many features compared to the competition, it’s definitely an entry-level smart display – one best suited to people who’re more interested in controlling their smart devices than watching movies or making video calls. If that’s your ideal use case, the Google Home Hub does make a compelling claim to be the control centre of your smart home.
IT’S SO SMALL, IN FACT, THAT THE 7-INCH SCREEN IS ESSENTIALLY JUST A SMALL TABLET — ONE WHICH HAS BEEN WELDED TO A BASE THAT’S PETITE ENOUGH TO FIT ON THE PALM OF YOUR HAND. THE OVERALL AESTHETIC IS ROUNDED OUT BY A COLOURFUL BEZEL WHICH MATCHES THE FABRIC-COVERED BASE.