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Nest Hub Max Review: Three Weeks With Google’s Camera-Enabled Smart Display

“Please don’t.” My wife wasn’t exactly happy when I told her that I wanted to install a device in our living room that would be able to recognize her face and record videos whenever somebody walked by. What ultimately won her over was the photo frame — but my family never quite made peace with the security camera.

That, in a gist, is my experience with testing the Google’s Nest Hub Max for three weeks. The company released its latest take on smart displays in September, after first announcing it in May. The Nest Hub Max costs $229, features a 10-inch touch display, a smart speaker with far-field microphones for voice control, and said camera for video chatting, gesture control and security features.

In many ways, the Nest Hub Max is simply a bigger version of the company’s first smart display: First introduced under the Home Hub moniker a year ago, and since rebranded to be known as Nest Hub, the smaller sibling offers much of what the Nest Hub Max does, albeit with a 7-inch display, no camera, and a less powerful speaker.

The familiar: a great photo frame and smart display

The original Nest Hub has been a hit in my household. It has found a permanent space in our kitchen, doubling as a smart speaker and a photo frame, serving up an endless stream of family memories. The Nest Hub Max can do all of that, and the bigger display means it is even better for photos, YouTube videos and even the occasional episode of TV.

Powered by Google’s Assistant, the Nest Hub Max can be used to ask for the weather, traffic, news, recipes, jokes, games, riddles and more. It works especially well if you are already plugged into Google’s ecosystem. Use Google Calendar? Then the Hub Max can alert you about your schedule. Rely on Google Maps? You can easily send the directions to the place you just asked for to your phone.

The Nest Hub Max also doubles as a Chromecast device, meaning that you can cast YouTube videos, HBO shows and more from your phone to its screen. If you have other cast-enabled devices in your house, you can also ask it to send videos to your TV, or make that Google speaker in the other room play your favorite tunes. The only service that’s notably absent from Google’s smart displays is Netflix.

Google’s Nest Hub Max also offers a simple dashboard for smart home devices, giving you access to internet-connected light bulbs, thermostats and more with a simple swipe from the top of the screen. And then there is the speaker, which can be tied together with other Google smart speakers or Chromecast Audio-equipped devices for multi-room audio. Compared to the smaller Nest Hub, the Max definitely has better sound, and notably more bass, but it can’t quite compete against a Sonos speaker in the same price range.

The new: video chatting with the Nest Hub Max

The Nest Hub Max features a wide-angle camera with a 127-degree field-of-view that can be used for video calls via Google’s Duo service. It’s powered by some pretty nifty video processing smarts, which allow the display to automatically focus and zoom in on a person even while they move through the room.

That’s especially great for video calls with kids, or anyone else who can’t stay still for too long. It also just makes for a more natural video calling experience, while at the same time doing away with a lot of the nauseating camera-shaking that you get when people walk around with their phone during a call.

One small downside here is that Duo isn’t exactly FaceTime, or even Skype for that matter. The app is available for both iOS and Android, but chances are that none of your iPhone contacts have it installed on their phones. Even on Android, you’ll occasionally have to tell your contacts to download the app. Then again, that may be a small price to pay to give grandparents and others the ability to video chat more regularly with your family.

It’s also worth noting that the Nest Hub Max is a horizontal-only video display. Vertical video calls from a phone use just about a third of the screen. Facebook’s latest Portal video devices, as well as Lenovo’s Google-powered smart display, instead allow users to rotate the screen by turning the whole device sideways — not exactly an elegant solution, but it works. It would be great if the Nest Hub Max was offering some intelligent auto-cropping to show the caller in full-screen mode.

Speaking of comparisons with other smart displays: The latest versions of Facebook’s Portal come with a dual off-switch for the built-in camera and microphone. Users can either just turn off the camera, or both camera and microphone, if they prefer some privacy. The Nest Hub Max’s privacy button automatically turns both camera and mic on and off. Users can opt to turn off just the camera through on-screen settings, but a hardwired dual-use button like the one that Portal offers would be a better solution.

And finally, Facebook’s Portal also can add a bunch of augmented reality filters your video conversations. The Nest Hub Max has none of that, which could be a downside or a plus, depending on your personal feelings about bunny ears and clown noses.

The unexpected: personalization and gesture control

The Nest Hub Max does have a few other camera-powered tricks up its sleeve, including personalization. If you train the device on your face via Google’s mobile Home app, it will automatically recognize you as soon as you approach it, and serve up calendar alerts and other content specific to you — a nifty feature in multi-user households. Google is doing all of the facial recognition for this locally on the device, which not only assures a speedy response, but is also meant to protect the privacy of its users.

Another neat trick is gesture control. The Home Hub Max lets you pause audio or video playback by lifting your flat hand. Do it again, and playback continues — a function that is meant to do away with the need to say “Hey Google” every single time you need to mute the music for a second, or to touch the display with your sticky fingers while you are cooking. This worked reasonably well in my tests, but also didn’t really become a daily habit. Google’s Nest team is thinking about adding more gesture controls over time, but for now, it’s a bit of a gimmick.

One feature that is underutilized is video recording. Currently, you can record and send video memos to anyone who has a Duo account. It would be great if you could also record videos to share via YouTube or Google Photos, or leave video messages to anyone visiting your home — kind of a modern version of the post-it you might stick to your fridge.

The bad: Nest Camera an added-on afterthought

One of the ways the Nest Hub Max aims to differentiate itself from competing smart displays with built-in cameras is the addition of the Nest Camera. Basically, the display’s built-in camera can be used as a security camera for remote video monitoring, complete with live alerts for your phone when it detects motion. Users can also opt to subscribe to Nest Monitoring for cloud video recording of up to 30 days, and to detect whether the people in front of the camera are family members or strangers.

My wife may not like these features, but there is definitely a market for this kind of DIY in-home video monitoring. The problem with the Nest Hub Max implementation is that it feels like it has been added on as a separate product, and not really integrated into the rest of the device. For instance, the Nest Camera doesn’t tap into the facial recognition that’s being used by the Nest Hub Max for its personalization features.

Instead, you’ll need to retrain it once more to make sure that it doesn’t flag any family members as unknown persons. (A Google spokesperson said that the Nest Hub was processing facial recognition for personalization on device, while Nest’s security cameras were uploading footage to the cloud for some of its facial detection functionality).

There is also no way to control the Nest Camera directly from the device. You can’t give the Nest Hub Max a voice command to turn on the security camera when you leave the house. Instead, you need to use the Home or Nest app on your phone and do this manually.

And finally, the Nest camera seems to have no sense at all of what is happening with the Nest Hub Max. If someone uses the privacy switch on the Hub to turn off the camera, the Nest app on your phone will simply tell you that “your camera is offline,” and advise to check its WiFi connectivity. The same message pops up when someone does a video call, or if the Hub Max somehow stops working altogether.

That’s not very clever for a smart display. Imagine you are out on a date night. At some point, you check in on the kids, but all the Nest app has to offer is that generic “your camera is offline” message. Your house may be burning to the ground, or your little ones may just be on a video call with grandma. You’ll never know with the Nest Hub Max.

The verdict: a great smart display, with so-so home security

Having built a solid foundation with the original Nest Hub, Google once again delivered with the Nest Hub Max. It’s bigger, sounds better, and it can do video calls. All in all, it’s a great smart display, even if the video calling functionality can’t quite live up to what some of its competitors have to offer.

The home security aspect of the Nest Hub Max is another story. The Nest Cam integration feels rushed, and key features, such as voice control, are missing altogether. Sure, it’s okay if you just want to occasionally check in on your home from afar. But anyone who really wants to add video monitoring to their home should opt for a standalone camera, especially if you are looking to pay for some of the more advanced features.

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