Ever since setting up a review unit of Google’s new Home Hub smart display, I’ve been finding myself lingering in our kitchen a lot more often. And I’m not alone. The very first day, my wife repositioned it over so she could see it better while doing some kitchen work. The next morning, our younger daughter checked on the Home Hub right after getting out of bed. And her older sister has since begun to eat her snacks in front of it.
For the few days that Google’s new smart display has been in our house, it’s been a hit — but not because of any of its smart features. What has captivated us instead is what the device is displaying when no one is interacting with it: an endless stream of family photos, picked from my Google Photo library with the help of some artificial intelligence magic.
The Home Hub is the first smart display made by Google. It combines a 7-inch screen with a speaker and far-field microphones for voice control, and goes on sale for $149 this Monday. Depending on how you look at it, the device is either an evolution of Google’s Home smart speaker line, or the company’s answer to Amazon’s Echo Show. Either way, it’s definitely worth paying a lot of attention to all the media and smart home integrations that define the product and set it apart from the competition.
But the truth is that the Home Hub’s biggest selling point really is the photo integration. That’s not lost on the Google team, with Google Home VP Rishi Chandra telling me during a recent interview that the company considers it one of its killer features. “Photos transform what these devices can be,” he said.
Photos are also a great example for some of the home-field advantages that Google has in this space. The company has long offered consumers unlimited online storage space for high-resolution copies of their digital photos, and it has been using artificial intelligence to make more sense of those countless snapshots we all take with our phones every day.
That pays off handily with the Home Hub: During the device setup, it gave me the option to select the faces of friends and family members to include in an “ambient mode” slideshow that is being displayed whenever one doesn’t interact with the device. This step of the setup took maybe a minute — and the Hub has been displaying family photos, including some of our kids when they were babies, ever since. What’s more, Google automatically picks the best photos, weeding out some of the shaky shots that you don’t really want to look at.
The Home Hub doesn’t just display these photos vibrantly, but actually uses a RGB sensor to measure the colors and light intensity of the room it is placed in and adjust its output accordingly. That’s especially useful when the display is being placed in a bedroom, where it dims when you only have the reading lights on, and switches to a low-light clock once the lights are out. I have to say that I found the nighttime clock a bit too dim to be useful, but appreciated the ability of the display to blend in more naturally with its environment throughout the day.
Media control with Chromecast integration
Of course, it would be unfair to only describe the Home Hub as a photo frame. The device is a full-featured smart speaker in its own right, capable of doing pretty much anything the company’s Home speaker can, with the added benefit of a visual display. You can ask it for the weather, podcasts, news, timers, alarms, and manage your shopping list with it. You can check your calendar, get updates on your commute and play goofy voice games. Smart routines help to combine those tasks, and for instance check your calendar, inform you about your commute and launch into your morning news briefing with a simple “Hey Google, good morning!”
Ask the Home Hub for recipes, and the Google Assistant will break it down step-by-step for you to follow along during cooking. And you can use it with music services like YouTube Music, Google Play Music, or Spotify to play songs on demand or launch into playlists and radio stations. The device also directly integrates with YouTube — something that Amazon’s Echo Show only does with a work-around — as well as a handful of other media services, including CBS, HBO Now, Starz, and Viki.
In addition, the Home Hub ties directly into Google’s Chromecast ecosystem. This means that you can cast audio and video from countless apps directly to the device, just like you might to a Chromecast-equipped TV. For instance, casting from Plex worked without a hitch, and included Plex’s contextual information that’s displayed while browsing your library. Casting also worked from most other apps, with one notable exception: Netflix isn’t allowing casting to the Home Hub yet. “We’re in discussion with Netflix, but I don’t have a time frame” as to when this will change, said a Google spokesperson.
Speaking of Chromecast: The Home Hub also works as a remote control for other cast-enabled devices. You can tell it to launch YouTube videos and other types of media on Chromecast-equipped TVs, or start playing music on any other Google Home speaker or Chromecast-audio enabled speaker in your home. And yes, that functionality also works with Netflix.
No camera means it’s bedroom-friendly
Another strength of the Home Hub is its smart home control, which is integrated into a special dashboard the company calls “Home View.” Swipe down from the top of any screen, and you get easy access to media playback controls as well as a room-by-room break-down of all the smart devices in your house. That’s especially useful if you do have smart locks, security cameras or a smart thermostat. I have to admit to being a smart home Luddite, with the exception of a bunch of smart speakers and other media playback devices as well as a few smart plugs — but I still found this quick view fairly useful.
It’s worth noting that Google decided to not add a camera to the Home Hub. This means that you won’t be able to do any two-way video chats with the device, but you also won’t have to ever worry about anyone catching you on camera in a moment that you would rather would have kept private — especially useful for a device that you might want to put in your bedroom. “We think of it as a feature,” said Chandra of the decision to skip the camera. “There are plenty of people who are uncomfortable with a camera.”
There are still some inconsistencies with regards to how some of this information is displayed. For instance, the Google Home app on my phone allows me to change the volume on any Chromecast device in my home with a neat circular slider. The Home Hub lists all the same devices, and lets me pause playback of media on my TV, but not easily change its volume. A Google spokesperson said that the company was planning to support this feature in the near future.
Oddly enough, Home View also isn’t very good at controlling multi-room audio. Speaker groups, for instance, aren’t being displayed by default. Not yet, anyway. “It’s our full intention to get better at showing you what’s playing in the home,” the spokesperson said.
Speaking of media playback: The Home Hub speaker’s sound is decent, and definitely works for podcasts and some casual music listening. It won’t replace your home stereo any time soon, and it is also notably less powerful and bass-heavy than the original Google Home. Chandra acknowledged this during our conversation, saying: “It’s designed to be better than Google Home Mini, not Google Home.”
There’s a browser lurking under the surface
Google clearly spent a lot of time designing the Home Hub user experience to be about use cases, not apps. “We didn’t take a tablet and voice enable it,” said Chandra. The device’s post-app approach generally works very well — but it can get confusing when its computing heritage shines through.
One example: The Home Hub doesn’t have a browser app. However, searching for an image often leads to results that then link to third-party websites like Wikipedia. Follow that link, and you are able to browse pretty much the entire online encyclopedia — with one notable exception: Home Hub doesn’t offer any on-screen keyboard, and there’s no option to dictate text input. This means that you won’t be able to search for anything.
The idea to direct people away from tedious web browsing and to a more guided voice experience makes sense. But with a full-fledged browser just lurking under the hood, it’s still frustrating that you can’t occasionally make use of it.
The flip side of this is that Google has been extremely thoughtful about combining touch and voice with the Home Hub. Voice is great for control from afar, but chances are that you’ll be close by if you’re looking for visual feedback. The Home Hub very much encourages touch, making use of swiping, tapping, and multi-touch.
At the same time, it’s easy to switch back and forth between touch and voice. For instance, you can ask for recipes with a voice command, swipe through the list of results to select one, have it read to you, ask Google Home to repeat a step, then swipe forward to the next instruction, and so forth. “We want these experiences to be multi-modal, inter-modal,” said Ben Brown, Google Home & Nest product lead.
That’s also true for the Home Hub’s photo feature. You can access the slide show at any point with a swipe from the left side of the screen. Missed a photo? Get back to it with a swipe. Want to see the next one? Another swipe. Want to know more about the photo, including where and when it was taken? Then just ask. You can also ask Google to show you photos from your last summer vacation, the past weekend, photos showing you a certain person, an animal or a thing.
Or you could just do what my family does, let the Home Hub do its thing, and enjoy the endless stream of memories.