Google Home Hub review: The least-expensive smart display is one of the best

Google definitely got the price right, even if the Google Home Hub can't make video calls.

At a Glance

Google Home Hub combines a Google Home digital assistant with a 7-inch screen, allowing a graphic display of your schedule, weather, and commute traffic all at the command of your voice.

There's more in there too: It has a good speaker for playing music, will act as a digital photo frame when not otherwise in use, and you can use it to watch your favorite shows if you have a compatible pay TV service, or monitor the feed from your home security cameras.

In many ways it mirrors what a modern Android phone can already do, but with a better speaker and a bigger, always-on screen. There's a lot to like about this impressive little gadget, and its thoughtfully designed software is a big improvement on a smartphone.

The design

The Home Hub will almost certainly surprise you with its small size. When you look at photos of the device, you expect something bigger. I think that's because the wide white  bezel makes it look like the 9.7-inch iPad The Google Home Hub's 7-inch display is closer to an oversized iPhone XS (6.5-inch screen) or Pixel 3 XL (6.3-inch display).

Don't get the wrong idea though. For what it does, the Home Hub's screen is just the right size, although I do wish that white bezel was a bit thinner and I'm curious how it would look in a different color.

Google said the screen is meant to appear to float and I suppose it does, but to me it really looks like a tablet PC attached to a fabric-covered base, and it's available in four soft colors: chalk, charcoal, aqua, and sand.

It measures 7 by 4.65 by 2.65 inches (18 by 12 by 7 centimeters) and weighs 16.9 ounces (480 grams).

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The Google Home Hub is much smaller than it appears in photos.

At first glance it looks like it might have a camera, but that spot in the center above the screen is the light sensor that automatically adjusts the screen brightness. Google said it made a conscious decision to not add a camera to the device, so people would feel more comfortable having it around the house.

I believe it's a sound choice. People already fear smart speakers are listening to them unawares. The last thing Google needs is anyone worrying about being spied on. It could easily be seen as a shortcoming, on the other hand, if you like to make video calls, perhaps with members of your family in distant locations. It's a personal preference. You can use the Home Hub to make voice calls to local businesses or anyone in your Google contacts list.

The rest of the Home Hub is pretty minimal. There's a hardware mute button at the top rear of the screen and a volume rocker on the rear right side of the screen.

The power connection is a barrel connector, not a USB connector like smaller smart speakers. That's because of the power required. The wall adapter for the Home Hub puts out 14 volts at 1.1 amps, which is several times more power than is possible over a 5-volt USB connection.

The display

The 7-inch screen is bright, sharp and the colors are good. The brightness changes with ambient light and when the lights go off in the evening, it switches to a clock display that is almost too dark to see--that's just what you want if this ends up next to your bed.

When it's not being used to provide information, the display can either show a clock or a selection of images from a personal Google Photos library or curated images and artworks.

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Google Home Hub

The success of this personal photo mode depends on how much you use Google Photos. The artificial intelligence built into the service is quite good and allows you to search for pictures of, say, a beach, your dog, a vacation you took, or your children and pull them all together without having to manually create an album. Of course, you can curate your own album and have only those photos appear.

Google hasn't revealed the resolution of the display, but I don't think that matters too much. I didn't find the screen lacking and a product like this is much more about what it can do than tech specs.

Audio performance

The Google Home Hub won't replace your audio system but it packs enough oomph to happily fill most rooms with sound. The audio is good although its small size means it really lacks the ability to produce any sort of deep bass.

It connects to Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Spotify, Pandora, and Deezer. You can stream many radio stations through the voice interface too. The screen shows details of the track or radio station you're listening to.

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The Google Home Hub displays album art and other information about the music you're listening to.

A surprise though was that the smaller Google Home Mini sounded a little bit louder when the same song was played on both at maximum volume. An iPhone app developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health confirmed it. Left in the same spot, the phone measured an average continuous sound level (LAeq) of 78.7dB from the Google Home Hub and 80.3dB from the Google Home Mini.

Making use of the display

The Google Home Hub does everything a Google Home smart speaker can do, but with the added visual interface.

Ask about traffic on your way to work, for example, and you'll get a live traffic map showing where the delays are. Ask about the weather for the rest of the week and you'll see a day-by-day rundown.

One of the slickest uses is for recipes. The software repackages the information on a cooking site and presents it in an easy-to-read format. The ingredients are displayed one-by-one and then the cooking instructions are presented step-by-step. You'll press a button or tell it to move on to the next step when you're ready and if the recipe calls for cooking for a specific length of time, a shortcut to a timer for that period appears on screen.

A lot of this depends on the intelligence behind the device and that's getting better all the time, but it's still not perfect. For example, it can't tell you what's on TV tonight, and when I asked about flights to London it read out the cheapest flight and how long it took, but the corresponding information didn't come up on the screen.

Smart home integration

The best thing about the Home Hub is the way it pulls Google Home and Google Assistant-compatible devices together onto a common interface, all accessible through voice commands.

Products from Google-owned Nest work best, as you might expect: You can use voice or the touchscreen to adjust a Nest thermostat or stream video from a Nest home security camera. If you have a Nest Hello video doorbell, an image from it instantly appears on screen when someone rings the bell.

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The Google Home Hub is a good companion for smart home systems. 

I also tested the Google Home with a few non-Google products, such as a TP-Link Kasa security camera. "Hey Google, show me the office" was all that was required to bring up a feed from the camera on the display. I didn't need to install or program a TP-Link to get this done. That's a step beyond the phone experience, where you still need to use a TP-Link app to see the camera feed. Device compatibility, of course, is dependent on the third-party manufacturer. 

You can browse your smart home devices by product group or by room. For example, you can quickly see all the Chromecast-enabled devices and what they are playing. The same screen lets you stop playback on some while keeping others going. Or you can browse to, say, the living room and on a single page control the lights, turn the music down and check the temperature.

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The Google Home Hub has a very good user interface for controlling smart home devices. 

The promise of a smart home is that all these gadgets will work together in harmony and we've always appeared to be a long way from that. The Home Hub takes a step towards that future where an entire house is controlled from a single interface.

But, the Home Hub won't replace your phone. The Google Home app is still where new devices are added and where basic control and settings for the gadgets on your network reside. And because it doesn't have a radio for the popular Z-Wave or ZigBee networking systems used by smart home gadgets, you'll still need to use an additional controller for anything that doesn't use Wi-Fi. In this respect, the Home Hub is a smart interface to your smart home, but it's not where ultimate control resides.

A final thought: another screen in your home

If you're trying to cut down on screen time and the amount of time you spend on the Internet, beware of what the Google Home Hub might do to those goals. I found the photo frame mode constantly drawing my attention when I walked into a room and my eyes kept darting to it every time it changed photos.

I installed it in my dining room and it quickly became all too easy to stream the TV news or whatever else was on while I ate a meal. I don't want to spend more time staring at a screen, so it's a temptation I need to resist. If you're trying to reduce screen time like me, carefully consider whether you want to introduce another display into your home.

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At a Glance
  • The Google Home Hub brings a visual face to Google Assistant and adds an extra dimension to the information it serves. This gadget is small enough to sit in the corner or edge or any room and intelligent enough to adjust its display to its surroundings.

    Pros

    • Offers a visual interface to the Google Assistant
    • Works as a single control panel for all Google-compatible smart home devices
    • Step-by-step cooking instructions make it useful in the kitchen

    Cons

    • It's another screen to distract you in your home
    • The small size means some compromise on fullness of audio
    • It can't be used as a base for video calls
  
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