Google Home Hub Review: More than just a photo frame

With Lenovo, LG, Sony, and JBL announcing at CES 2018 that they would launch smart displays with the Google Assistant built-in to take on Amazon’s Echo Show, it was just a matter of time before Google threw its hat into the ring with a device of its own. And sure enough, a little later than expected, the search giant announced its Home Hub during the ‘Made by Google’ event on October 9th.

Complete with a seven-inch display and the Google Assistant, the Home Hub comes with a price tag of $149/£139. Does the Home Hub bring enough to the table to make it an essential piece of your smart home ecosystem or is it just an expensive photo frame? Join us after the break for our review.

Design

The Home Hub is surprisingly small and oddly elegant, weighing in at 480g with dimensions of just 178.5 x 118 x 67.3mm. At first glance, you might think it is just a 7-inch tablet that is propped up against something. Our review unit is in the Chalk color which, combined with the white bezel around the display really helps the device blend into the background. The bezel houses the light sensor and two far-field microphones, although unlike other smart displays, the Hub doesn’t have a webcam, which we’ll discuss later on in the review. At home in the kitchen, the Hub is just as comfortable in the bedroom or office with its small footprint and well-adjusted display brightness.

The rear of the device is covered in the fabric that Google loves to use on its Home devices, and once again it’s a neat finish. The volume controls reside on the rear of the display along with the mute toggle for the microphone.

The base is made from grippy rubber that keeps the Home Hub from moving when you use the touchscreen display. My only real criticism of the design is that the screen is unable to be adjusted to a different viewing angle. Other than that gripe, the Home Hub is a refreshing addition to the growing collection of smart displays launching with Google Assistant baked in.

Performance

The 7-inch display with 1280 x 720 resolution is both a pro and a con for the Home Hub in that the device is small enough to be unobtrusive wherever you put it, but it also means that you need to stand a little closer when viewing content. Quality wise, the 720p panel is plenty good enough for its purpose with high levels of contrast and brightness when needed.

The sound, on the other hand, is as tinny as it comes, and while it gets louder than the Home Mini, the bass levels aren’t anything to shout home about, especially when the volume gets past the 50% mark. This isn’t a device that you’ll want to spend all day listening to music on, which means you’ll likely need to hook it up to a higher-quality Bluetooth speaker to experience better sound. That being said, you can always include it in your speaker group which could help to get around the sound quality issue. The two far-field microphones work well, I’ve found that the Home Hub picks up on my commands a little better than the Google Home does.

The ‘Ambient EQ’ light sensor adjusts the displays brightness and color temperature according to the ambient lighting in the room, as the light dims so does the display. When the lights are off the Home Hub switches over to a digital clock interface. It works super well and makes the touchscreen easy to look at, minimizing glare at all times. In ambient slideshow mode, the image often appears like a printed picture as opposed to a photo shown on an LCD.

It’s unfortunate that the Home Hub uses a proprietary power adapter instead of USB Type-C or even MicroUSB, which means you can’t just pick it up and hook it up to a phone charger in another room like you can with the Home Mini.

What does it do?

The Home Hub lives in our kitchen where it replaced the Google Home, and it’s mostly used to set timers, listen to music and watch sport and other content that I cast to it when I’m busy cooking or performing chores. It also acts as a photo frame that, thanks to the live album that I created in the Google Photos app, shows a ton of pictures from the present and the past. It’s a feature that grabs my attention when I’m near the device, always wondering which treasured memory will appear next. You can choose how often the Hub automatically switches to a new image, or you can handily swipe through the photos when it’s in slideshow mode. This is possibly the Home Hub’s best feature; it works that well.

While easy enough to watch YouTube videos and cast content from apps such as Hulu, HBO GO, and BT Sport to the Hub, it is unfortunately not possible to cast Netflix to it. Google says that this is a limitation placed by Netflix itself and that it hopes to add the service in the future.

You can set multiple timers on the Home Hub, and the touchscreen removes the guesswork when checking how much time is left. If you don’t feel like vocalizing a command, you can just scroll to the right to see the relevant timer.

The Home Hub also accesses your Google feed and displays upcoming appointments, travel arrangements, sports scores, and traffic commute estimates to name a few of its functions. The device uses its Voice Matching function to determine which user profile it needs to access when delivering calendar alerts and reminders.

You can ask it to show recipes and how-to videos, and while it’s accurate to a point, the lack of a browser means that the results are somewhat limited. I was surprised to learn that the Home Hub doesn’t have a browser baked in to let you navigate to specific websites or access a wider range of search results. Once you’ve picked a recipe, you can prompt the Home Hub to read each additional instruction by saying “Hey Google, next step.” It’s a useful feature that works well, and as a bonus, the ribs tasted good too.

Unlike the other smart displays from Lenovo, LG, and Amazon’s Echo Show devices, the Home Hub doesn’t feature a webcam. This means that video calls are somewhat one-sided, but you don’t have that creepy feeling that you are being watched. While you can see that Google was attempting to make the Home Hub family-friendly and thus avoid the whole ‘Google is spying on us’ narrative, I’m surprised that there isn’t a webcam with a manual switch present, as seen on Lenovo’s Smart Display.

The Google Assistant’s ability to control more than 5,000 smart devices from over 400 manufacturers means that the Home Hub integrates well with most smart home products, working pretty much as the Home app does on your phone. You can issue voice commands as you normally would or you can swipe down from the top of the display and choose to control the lights, view or listen to media, or perhaps broadcast a message to your other Google Home devices telling everyone that dinner is ready.

Conclusion

So, the Home Hub isn’t perfect, but it does offer a slick and polished user experience. The great thing about the Home Hub is that it takes away some of the awkwardness and frustration of interacting with the Google Assistant in that you can navigate via the touchscreen display to an extent. If you want better audio, you may want to go for the more expensive Echo Show (2nd Gen) from Amazon although you’ll be giving up YouTube integration if you do so.

Despite my complaints, I’ve loved using the Google Home Hub, the integration with Google Photos turns it into the perfect photo frame, and it’s great for casual consumption of video or audio content and perfect for accessing the Google Assistant and controlling your smart home devices. The Home Hub has been used far more by everyone in the household in the past month than the Google Home ever was during the 18-months that we’ve owned it, which tells its own story.

At just $149/£139 (or $99/£99 on Black Friday), the Home Hub gets more than the basics right and is eminently affordable, making it the perfect choice to begin building out your smart home.

Buy it Now: Google

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About the Author: Peter Holden

He's been an Android fan ever since owning an HTC Hero, with the Dell Streak being his first phablet. He currently carries a Pixel 2 XL, Huawei P20 Pro, and a Huawei MediaPad M5 (8.4) in his pockets and thinks nothing of lugging a 17-inch laptop around in his backpack. When not immersed in the world of Android and gadgets, he's an avid sports fan, and like all South Africans, he loves a good Braai (BBQ).