Google Home Hub Review - Life on Display

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By Nick Sutrich November 05, 2018, 1:23pm
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The best digital picture frame ever

When Google launched the Google Home smart speaker just two years ago, plenty of people worried about security, privacy, and just how much they would actually use a speaker in their home. Fast-forward to two years later and, while Amazon still dominates the smart speaker market by a wide margin, Google has been making headway and its newest Home product aims to bring a screen to the experience. Once again, Google isn’t the first to market with a smart display, but does it provide a better experience than everyone else at $150? Let’s find out.

Video Review

Hardware, Display, and Sound Quality

At 7-inches, this 1024 x 600 resolution LCD display doesn’t sound impressive by any measure, but despite its meager 169 pixel-per-inch density, it looks absolutely amazing in any kind of light. While many displays focus on packing in more pixels to make the experience sharper, Google’s Ambient EQ display makes the experience smarter. Oftentimes, displays look fake because of the white balance they are calibrated to achieve, often trying to mimic the white color of a piece of printer paper, which looks great for some content but is not always preferable for photos and videos. As the Home Hub is more geared toward displaying this type of content over informational content, like web pages or chat apps, Home Hub’s Ambient EQ display works to match the color of the lighting and of the room around it, helping blend in with its “natural environment” and achieve a display harmony we don’t typically see on a digital device.

Photo frames of yesteryear looked terrible in almost every case, but it wasn’t just the low resolution of those panels that made photos look bad, it was the color reproduction and pixel layout that really harmed things the most. Those screens looked as unnatural as “digital photography” seemed at the time, and just came across as a poor man’s way of showing as many photos on a single frame as possible. Google takes its approach from a very different angle, and it shows in every regard when talking about photo quality. Photos look printed on the frame and have that sort of “magical” appearance that so many tech companies try to reproduce on a regular basis. This display looks simply phenomenal and will help further enhance precious photographs and moments every time.

This is all made possible by the Ambient EQ Light Sensor, which is situated above the screen. At first glance, this appears to be a camera, but it’s only functions are to source the amount of light in a room and the color of light in an area. The light sensor then feeds this data to the OS, which, in turn, adjusts the brightness of the screen the way a phone would and also adjusts the hue of the display as well. In rooms with warm light, you’ll find the Home Hub’s screen gives off a warm glow, while sunlit areas will look slightly cooler, and fluorescent bulbs will make the screen give off cooler light to fit in. This keeps the screen from looking out of place, and the anti-glare layer on the display does an incredible job of keeping glare off the screen, which would otherwise impede the visual experience. This anti-glare layer does a better job than the vast majority of displays out there, as you’ll likely notice from the lack of any real glare in the pictures throughout the review.

The Home Hub is a very small device, relatively for what it is, and measures in at 178.5mm wide, 118mm tall, and 67.3mm deep. Google ships the Home Hub in four different colors for $149; Sand, aqua, chalk, and charcoal. The form factor is essentially a 7-inch tablet, permanently affixed to a cloth stand, which has a wide rubber foot, and sits tilted back at a gentle 65-degree angle. This angle seems to be chosen to place the Home Hub at table or counter height, as the viewing angles of the display are rather good and exhibit no dimming or color shifting within any reasonable angle that we tested. Placing it on a nightstand next to the bed, a living room table, kitchen counter or office desk all resulted in a comfortable viewing angle with no display issues to be noted.

The small nature of the unit means that watching videos or movies on it will be an uncomfortable experience for some, simply because the display is the size of a small tablet, or large phone, which would typically be held in the hand. As such, watching movies on the unit is likely not going to be something many do, but this unit could easily serve as a sufficient screen for viewing content in the kitchen while cooking (either cooking videos or something more geared toward entertainment), but doesn’t make sense for longer features. You’ll also find it wobbles a bit if pressing the screen too hard, and I found that one-hand operation was best when just tapping the play/pause button, while I found myself steadying it a bit with my other hand while swiping through content.

A single speaker sits in the base of the unit, and around back you'll find a mute slider for turning off the microphone, as well as a volume rocker for adjusting the volume with physical buttons as an alternative to the virtual volume control on-screen. Above the screen, flanking the Ambient EQ sensor, are a pair of far-field mics, similar to the configuration of mics on the larger Google Home speaker. These far-field mics are excellent at picking up voices, even across the room. Voices can be picked up clearly from other rooms as well, but you’ll need to yell a bit to get the message through. Google’s voice recognition is the best in the business by a considerable margin, and you’ll find even thick accents and children's voices will often be understood by Assistant without error. The most questionable design of the Home Hub is the speaker configuration, owing partly to the fact that it’s a fairly weak single speaker, as well as the fact that it’s facing away from the speaker.

Google rates this speaker at “80 dB SPL @ 1KHz, @ 1m” on the spec sheet, and these fairly conservative specs produce exactly the type of flat, hollow sound you’d expect from those numbers. Comparing to the $50 Google Home Mini proves the Home Hub’s sound quality to be disappointing at almost every level. The Home Hub provides better bass reproduction than the Home Mini, but the rest of the sound range is simply not good in general; something that’s particularly disappointing given the Home Mini’s less-than-stellar audio quality. It’s at least got a good volume level that’s audible even in a noisy room, which might be more important for video on such a small screen than sheer quality might be. Having both is of course a more preferable option, but sacrifices have to be made somewhere to account for a lower price-point. A basic EQ can be found within the Google Home app for adjusting treble and bass, but does not differ from the same options for any other Google Assistant-powered device.

Inclusion of a battery would have been something that could easily set the Home Hub apart from the pack of smart displays out there, especially given the reduced price-point. Google, unfortunately, did not include such a battery, rather, the Home Hub is powered by the 15W included power adapter, which feature an identical round 2-prong outlet plug as the Google Home Mini. This adapter doesn’t take up much room and takes all the bulk out of the cord, leaving the brick portion at the outlet, but is small enough that it won’t encroach upon other outlets.

Interface and Operation

Google is launching the Home Hub with a brand new OS, one it calls Assistant OS. Despite having a new backend built upon Google Cast, the interface itself is identical to what you’ll find on the Lenovo Smart Display, owing to the fact that it was already an excellent interface. Lenovo has already updated its Smart Display to match the new features of the Google Home Hub, so there’s nothing unique on the software side with Google Home Hub when comparing to the Lenovo Smart Display.. The biggest difference will lie in hardware features, particularly the display, as Google’s Home Hub features the color and brightness changing Ambient EQ, which is unique to the product.

Assistant OS is extremely beautiful and pleasant to operate. The main interface, always accessible with a single tap, displays the weather, time and date on the left, and a set of context-sensitive cards on the right. These cards will present different data throughout the day, depending on what Assistant learns you typically use, and will also display upcoming events, media playback controls, and an assortment of other suggestions too. These suggestions are often well-timed, including things you may not consider like playing white noise at night. The rightmost card opens up to all the actions that Assistant can perform, which are visualized through a series of categorical cards including things like translate, find music, convert units, find music, play audiobooks, and dozens more.

It’s one thing to ask Google Assistant something, but it’s another entirely to see the vast array of functionality represented in such a brilliant visual way. It takes the guesswork out of asking with your voice, and makes it more suggestion worthy thanks to visual cues. Swiping down from the top of the display will always bring down the Home Control panel, which displays quick actions like broadcast and media playback, as well as a button to view all rooms in the home. This Home View shows a beautiful vertically scrolling set of cards containing every smart device paired to your Google account and what room you have organized them into. Clicking on any device will give quick actions, like playing music, turning lights on and off, adjusting their color, unlocking the front door, etc. They’re context sensitive, depending on the device, and just like the suggested cards for assistant are sometimes nicer to see all the functionality of rather than just asking.

Swiping up from the bottom reveals a small control panel for local settings like brightness and volume adjust, as well as two small buttons for toggling Do Not Disturb, as well as entering settings. Swiping in from the left will always dismiss the current screen, navigating back to the home panel. Performing this action on the home panel will bring up a simple digital clock. This digital clock can be used on the ambient display, if preferred, but the most magical ambient display of all is tied in with Google Photos, which will display any album of your choosing, or, by default, what Google calls a Live Album. This new Live Album functionality is created automatically by Google Assistant, and is based on pictures you’ve taken recently, with particular importance placed on names and faces you’ve added into Google Photos.

Helping Assistant recognize people by categorizing their names to faces will only further enhance this Live Album ambient display feature. Impressively enough the display will display vertical pictures side-by-side instead of displaying one in an awkwardly cropped fashion, and will even display related pictures side by side as well. This includes things like a selfie next to a vertical picture taken in the same location or near the same time, as well as two different pictures of the same person at different times, showing the difference age makes in a person in a single panel. There’s no video support for ambient mode, so while memories of times past will certainly be seen on the Home Hub, they’ll only be in still form, not video. Photos will be switched every minute, on the minute, and can be swiped through at any time.

A quick swipe left or right on the photo will move back and forth on the carousel, and no matter the photo you’ll always find the time, date and brief weather information on the screen, just like a Chromecast. Other ambient displays are available too, and just like a Chromecast, the source can be chosen in the Google Home app. This includes interesting map data, art, news and more that will be displayed and changed every minute, making it always interesting to walk by the Home Hub and see what’s being displayed. Those that don’t want so much going on can choose between a simple digital or flip clock, which may be better for having on a work desk, as it won’t be nearly as distracting as some of the other options.

As the Home Hub is a display built upon Google Cast technology, you’ll find it’s easy to cast nearly any video to the Home Hub and watch at any time. If you find the speakers are not loud enough or of good enough quality for your liking, you can easily pair the Home Hub with a set of Bluetooth headphones, which may help keep little ears away from questionable content while you’re trying to cook. Folks worried about such content being played on the Home Hub can configure the parental controls through the Digital Wellbeing section within the Google Home app, which can restrict content based on parameters you choose. You can even choose to restrict content for individual folks, based on Google identifying their voice, so that voice commands can only be used for certain types of content for certain individuals.

The elephant in the room is lack of support for casting videos from Netflix, which continues to be a problem with every smart display on the market because of restrictions on Netflix’s part. Google has stated that they’ve been in talks with Netflix for some time to allow this functionality, but progress seems slow, if there has been any at all, so certainly don’t wait for this functionality with bated breath. Another interesting functionality comes in Google Duo video calls, where you’ll be able to make video calls to anyone on your contacts list who is also registered with Google Duo. Since this is a smart display you’ll be able to see the person on the other side, however, since there’s no camera on the Google Home Hub, they will not be able to see you. This is basically making a phone call from the Home Hub, since it’s audio only from one side, but is still a convenience despite the restrictions.

Interconnection and Smart Home Compatibility

Google Home Hub supports 802.11b/g/n/ac, dual-band 2.4GHz/5Ghz Wi-Fi connectivity in the home, as well as Bluetooth 5.0 support for Bluetooth devices. Content is sent to the Home Hub through the Google Cast platform, and Home Hub can be added to a multi-room setup in the Google Home app, allowing for multi-room audio support with all your Google Home units at the same time, regardless of whether it’s a smart display or smart speaker. Special support exists for Nest devices, particularly the Nest Doorbell, which will automatically appear on screen any time the doorbell is rung. This is really cool functionality, but may not be the most practical thing in the world since you’re already home and can answer the same doorbell call on any phone with the Nest app installed, meaning it’s only convenient if you so happen to be in the same room as the Home Hub when the doorbell rings.

Any other smart home product that works with Google Assistant can be interacted with on the Home Hub, and it’s the visual quotient that makes this particular functionality so special. Yes, you can perform this same functionality on your phone via the Google Home app, but there’s something nice about walking over to a “proper” hub and controlling everything from there, just as you would control a thermostat on the wall, or an old-school home intercom system. Broadcast works perfectly from this too, just as it would from any Assistant-powered device, and again, is a fun way to perform this action over just speaking it into your phone or a smart speaker. If you’re like me, you put your phone in a cabinet when you get home so that you can unplug, and being able to disconnect from the social aspect of smartphones while still being able to control your smart home through the Google Home Hub helps give this product a specific identity and makes a smart home feel just a bit more personal. As said before though, this isn’t functionality unique to the Home Hub, as it’s also available on other smart displays.

The Emotional Quotient

While it seems silly to apply a significant amount of emotion to a product that’s listening to your every conversation, there are a few angles to view the Google Home Hub from. Folks who have kids are likely to appreciate the digital photo-frame functionality most from the device for a number of reasons. First off is the display quality, which doesn’t translate at all when looking at pure specs, but comes across as something wholly unique and overall a better display when compared to other smart displays. This seems entirely ridiculous given the extremely low pixel-per-inch density of the Google Home Hub, the difference is in software. As is the case with a number of Google products, the software outmatches the hardware experience by several steps, and while a more pixel-dense screen would have made an even better experience, Google’s software translates a quality to photos that other displays simply don’t.

The other factor involves the interconnection with Google Photos, a service that Google has championed for years as the ultimate backup solution for all your photos and videos. Part of this service is its ability to identify faces, places, and many other elements within the scene, all thanks to machine learning and Google’s vast AI infrastructure. All of this plays a big part in what’s displayed on the Home Hub’s screen in ambient mode, and part of what makes the Home Hub so special. Choosing the smart photos option will cycle through a “live album” that stays updated with pictures you’ve taken of your family, so long as you’ve identified them through the Google Photos service. Identifying members takes just a few minutes, and will categorize people for better organization, helping to place them in events and other timeline-related features.

Google uses this data to display relevant pictures, including ones that are sure to tug at your heartstrings every time you walk by. As a parent, this is a killer feature for me, as it not only brings beauty and life to pictures I’ve forgotten about, but it reminds me of happy family moments and time that I’ve spent with my wife and son. Google’s algorithm for displaying content is incredible, as it doesn’t just cycle through pictures with us in them, it also shows pictures of travel events and anything else it identifies as a “good” photo. Just as photos are identified and automatically curated into collages and other Assistant-powered features in Google Photos, these photos are automatically identified and pulled over from the service to the Google Home Hub. It’ll even place vertical pictures side-by-side when it recognizes a similar timeline event (such as a selfie and another photo taken in the same location/time), or show photos of someone side-by-side taken from two different years as a way to show age differences and life changes.

It’s this part of Home Hub that will surely appeal to some folks in an emotional way in which most products don’t, and simultaneously the one that will keep some from caring about it at all. It’s arguably the single best feature of the device and one that relies heavily upon the use of Google Photos as a service, as well as the need to have children or lots of close family connections to really stir these emotions up. It’s also one that makes the product feel a bit lopsided as, from a technical viewpoint, the Home Hub is less capable than other smart displays in almost every way.

The Good

Compact size makes it easy for placement

Gorgeous Ambient EQ display is perfect for photos

Google Photos Live Albums are perfect on this display

Bluetooth built-in (enables sending audio to speakers or headphones)

Far-field mics are super accurate

Lack of camera can make it seem like a more “private” device

Assistant OS is well designed

The Bad

Small size makes watching shows or movies difficult

Low resolution screen (very low PPI)

Speaker is weak and not good for music

No battery (non-portable)

Lack of camera means lack of video calling

Final Thoughts

Google’s Home Hub is a great product that ultimately feels a bit basic for the price. Some may not be able to come up with a reason to own a smart display over a smart speaker, and the Home Hub’s lack of defining features doesn’t help this, especially given the price. For $30 more you’re getting a substantially better product in the Lenovo Smart Display, which features a sturdier build, larger, higher resolution screen, better speakers, a camera for video calling, and the ability to orient it in both landscape and portrait modes. While Ambient EQ makes this the best digital photo frame ever, there’s little else to the Home Hub that makes it possible to recommend over other smart displays on the market, making it a lower value product overall. At a lower price it certainly would be an excellent no-frills option for those that want smart display functionality in their homes, but as of this writing, it’s just priced too high for what it lacks.

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November 05, 2018, 1:23pm
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