Google Home Hub hands-on review

Google cares, so it made sure the Home Hub doesn’t scare

Compact, attractive, and without the scariest of video-based smart home features, the Google Home Hub’s usefulness impresses.
Compact, attractive, and without the scariest of video-based smart home features, the Google Home Hub’s usefulness impresses.
Compact, attractive, and without the scariest of video-based smart home features, the Google Home Hub’s usefulness impresses.

Highs

  • Compact dimensions
  • No camera
  • Reasonably priced
  • Google Assistant works very well
  • Screen useful in certain situations

Lows

  • Screen too small for media consumption
  • No camera means no video call feature

Google wants its Home smart products to be very friendly and welcoming, not induce terrifying nightmares about huge corporations invading your privacy. The Google Home Hub ($149) is a carefully considered smart home device that reassures you it’s not going to watch your every move in the most logical way possible: Although it has a screen, it does not have a camera.

The Home Hub is a Google Home smart speaker with a screen, and a pretty small one at that. It measures just seven inches, which is barely larger than the Pixel 3 XL phone it also introduced at Google’s event on October 9. The result is a device that doesn’t dominate the room in terms of size, has an aesthetically pleasing shape, and comes in some very attractive pastel colors (chalk, charcoal, aqua, and sand). We really liked the aqua, but think the simple chalk is best — it just faded into its surroundings. The screen “floats,” and it looks nothing like a television or monitor. It’s more suitable for the home than Amazon’s Echo Show.

Due to some very clever technology controlling the screen, it’s not some beacon of light in the corner either. Called Ambient EQ, a sensor above the screen not only monitors lighting conditions, but imaging algorithms carefully tune the colors, brightness, and tone of the display. At night, the screen simply switches off.

It was hard to see this in action, but when taking photos of the Home Hub, we did adjust the screen brightness quite often as we re-arranged the scene, indicating the device had its own ideas about how the screen should look. In a home environment, this will be a great silent feature you won’t interact with, but will benefit from.

Voice control

There are two microphones either side of the Ambient EQ, which are designed to hear voices from a distance. The mics certainly picked up our voice well in the noisy demonstration room. Like all Google Home devices, the Home Hub uses Google’s Voice Match, so it will recognize different members of your household and provide relevant responses. We used a Home Hub that wasn’t configured to our voice, and it still worked without fault.

Even with poor Wi-Fi, Home Hub quickly changed content based on the person speaking.

Using the Home Hub is like using Google Home or Google Assistant on your phone except you’ll use the command “show me,” a lot more than usual, as the Home Hub is a very visual experience. When saying good morning, or giving the, “How’s my day” command, the Home Hub shows weather cards, the calendar, and news videos rather than solely providing audio. You can personalize the cards you want to see through the Home app.

Google wants to be a sous chef and has partnered with various online recipe providers to curate custom flash cards for hands-free use when cooking. Additionally, to emphasize the visual aspect, the device features chosen key search phrases related to celebrities. Google actually asked them the questions, then video recorded the answers.

For example, if you ask the Home Hub, “What does Gordon Ramsey eat at home?” the fowl-mouthed celebrity chef answers in the form of a custom video. There are many other celebrities and questions to find in these fun Easter eggs.

Sound and video

Sound is projected into the room from a single, dual-ported speaker set inside the fabric-covered stand on the back of the Home Hub. It lacked bass when we heard it in a crowded demo area, but it had enough volume to make itself heard. We’d need to hear it in a normal home environment to assess its audio ability properly; but on first listen it was highly reminiscent of the regular Google Home. On the back is a physical microphone mute switch and a volume rocker.

Google Home Hub
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Video was much more effective. The screen resolution isn’t very high, but performance is solid, helped by its small size. YouTube has been optimized for voice search on the Home Hub, and it’s fun to ask to hear your favorite songs from YouTube and get to see the video too, something that’s normally only possible with Google Home if you have a smart TV. However, the small screen isn’t suitable for the whole family to gather round and watch, and while we like the idea of watching how-to videos while cooking, squinting at the screen from a distance won’t be very helpful.

At its heart, Google Home Hub is a smart home device, and that means it can control other connected devices. To fit in with the display, Google has made Home View, a new way of finding all the connected devices on one page, in one app, and on one device, rather than using multiple apps.

The genuinely helpful and fun features enabled by the display make it worth paying the higher price.

A swipe down on the Home Hub’s screen reveals the device page, and a selection of different rooms and device types, where you can control each one individually. It also links with the Nest Hello smart doorbell, showing who is at the door and offering the ability to answer from the screen. It’s visually coherent and much more simplified than using a device that relies solely on voice.

The final visual element is that the Home Hub will display your photos. It lifts them from Google Photos with the help of a new feature called Live Albums, which carefully selects the best photos to show on screen. Machine learning removes the duplicates, shots that are out of focus, and those that are over exposed. You can ask Home Hub to find different types of photos too, and thanks to Voice Match, it will show your content, not someone else’s. In the demonstration we saw, this was instant, and even with poor Wi-Fi, Home Hub quickly changed content based on the person speaking.

Not scary

Is the Home Hub the smart home friend Google wants it to be? It’s certainly less intimidating than if it came with a camera; but without one it does miss out on a feature some may find useful — video calls. Yes, a camera creates privacy concerns, but without it, Home Hub misses out on something many of its competitors do offer. Facebook’s new Portal smart displays have physical covers to go over the cameras, helping people feel more comfortable. Google’s approach is much more drastic.

Google Home Hub
Juliana Jara/Digital Trends

The lack of a camera is reflected in the price. It’s $150, or 140 British pounds, which is only $20 more than the standard Google Home without a screen. By contrast, the Amazon Echo Show is $230. The compact size and subtle design helps it fit in most rooms, and the genuinely helpful and fun features enabled by the display make it worth paying the higher price over the regular Google Home. If you’re already onboard with Google’s smart home products, you’re unlikely concerned over the presence of a microphone in your home, so adding the Home Hub won’t worry you further.

The Home Hub appears to be another excellent addition to Google’s growing family of smart home devices, and Google Assistant continues to be a great companion. While the diminutive size means it’s not for anyone wanting to sit down and binge watch videos, the thoughtful design and lack of a camera feature makes it a more palatable product for those worried about privacy.

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