Google held a product event in New York City this morning, you might have heard. It announced a bunch of stuff, including new flagship smartphones — the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL — and the Pixel Slate, its first Chrome OS tablet. But the Google Home Hub proved as equally attention-grabbing.
We went hands-on to see what all the hubbub (pun very much intended) was about.
Home Hub is the Mountain View company’s first-party take on the smart display platform it announced at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in January. Others have come before it, such as Lenovo’s Smart Hub (which we reviewed this summer) and JBL’s Link View. But at $149, it undercuts them substantially.
You get what you pay for. In person, at least to my eyes, Home Hub seems almost comically small; it measures just 7 inches across (7.02 x 4.55 x 2.65 inches) and weighs 480 grams. Suffice it to say that the comparisons Diya Jolly, the Google exec heading Home and Nest products, drew to photo frames during this morning’s presentation were apt.
From a top-down view, Home Hub looks a bit like a tablet glued to an oblong, fabric-clad base. That fabric base — which bears the same mesh material found on speakers in the Google Home lineup — conceals a “full-range” speaker that’s surprisingly loud and reasonably crisp, if a tad muddled in the vocal department. I’ll reserve judgment for our forthcoming review.
Other elements of note are two front-facing microphones (but no camera, conspicuously), a privacy switch around the back of the screen that prevents the microphones from inadvertently picking up voice commands, Bluetooth connectivity, and 802.11b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi in both 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz bands for “high-performance streaming.”
So what can Home Hub do that other smart displays can’t? Adjust the screen’s profile to match ambient lighting conditions and the color of a room, for one. Google calls the feature Ambient EQ, and it’s powered by a potent combination of light sensors and machine intelligence.
Rather than merely adjusting brightness, Ambient EQ makes an effort to sync a room’s light sources with a complementary color profile. In a room with a lot of natural sunlight, for example, it’ll amp up warmer hues. But underneath a fluorescent lamp, it will appear much colder. And when the room is completely dark, Home Hub will switch to a basic digital clock display.
Those features dovetail with Home Hub’s other core area of emphasis: photos. Part of the goal with Home Hub, Jolly said, was to ensure that it never shows a bad picture. And from the looks of it, the product team cleared that bar.
A redesigned Google Photos experience on Home Hub uses AI to pair photos together people based on “something they share in common” (Google calls it Live Albums), and automatically curates highlights from the past three months — taking care, of course, to avoid blurry and poorly lit pics.
As you might expect, Home Hub plays nicely with connected devices. Moreover, its smart home integration is substantially improved with the aid of Home View, a streamlined UI for device management. (It, along with most of Home Hub’s other software features, will come to all smart displays and a redesigned Google Home companion app in the near future.)
Home View is a bright, touch-friendly, scrollable menu of smart devices you’ve configured to work with Google Home, with contextually relevant submenus for lights, deadbolts, and other device categories. For example, tapping into the lights submenu surfaces a list of options — brightness and color — and diving into the color sub-submenu yields a list of hues to choose from.
Devices with bespoke integration, like Nest Cam and Dish Network’s Hopper, offer more granular controls. In the Hopper’s case, that’s playback, power, and volume buttons. In the Nest Cam’s, it’s a live video feed and a virtual switch that allows you to respond to visitors over the Cam’s speakers.
A Home Hub like any other
At its core, Home Hub is a member of the Google Home family, and to that end, it slots seamlessly into existing Google Home speakers and Chromecast setups. Judging by the demo I saw, voice commands are the easiest way to orchestrate them — i.e., shouting “OK Google, play smooth jazz on all speakers” to broadcast a song to every within earshot, and “OK Google, play a YouTube video of cats on the bedroom Chromecast” to pull up — well, cat videos.
Like other smart displays, Google Home Hub can walk you through cooking videos. There are millions of recipes to choose from, Google says, across partners such as Buzzfeed’s Tasty and New York Times Cooking.
Also, there’s a bevy of music services on tap, including Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and YouTube Music. Every purchase of a Home Hub, in fact, comes with six months of YouTube Premium.
“We obsessed about what a display designed specifically for your home should do. We spent countless hours on the design of the Hub,” Jolly said this morning.
That’s plain to see. But given my brief time with Home Hub so far and discussions with a colleague, I’m not quite sure Home Hub’s differentiators — Ambient EQ and the like — are enough to set it apart from the pack. It’s cheaper than other smart displays, true, and just $30 more than Amazon’s Echo Show. However, Home Hub’s lack of a front-facing camera — a design decision made in the interest of privacy, Jolly said — puts it at something of a disadvantage.
The Google Home Hub is available in four colors: Aqua, Sand, Charcoal, and Chalk. It hits retail on October 22.