Google Home Hub

MOVE OVER SMART SPEAK­ERS — THE SMART DIS­PLAYS HAVE LANDED. BUT ARE THEY AC­TU­ALLY USE­FUL?

TechLife Australia - - WELCOME - [ NICK PINO & DAN GAR­DINER ]

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.

PRI­VACY’S PIN­NA­CLE

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.

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