Google Home Hub: Why We Like This Camera-less Smart Home Assistant

Sneha Khale
on 28 November 2018

First things first – I really like the Google Home Hub for my home. As a not too huge a fan of voice-only smart home assistants, the display screen on the Home Hub is my favourite thing about it. But, a smart home assistant should do more than just look pretty. How does the Google Home Hub do overall – how does it fare compared to the Amazon Alexa smart devices, for example? How about other third party smart displays that have Google Assistant built in, such as the Lenovo Smart Display or the JBL Link View? Are there any features that Google definitely needs to improve on? Let’s have a look below.

The size and design – 10/10

You may think a perfect ten score for a tiny 7-inch screen is odd, but personally, I find the Google Home Hub’s screen size remarkably suitable for not just our apartment, but any size home. The screen size reminds me of my beloved Google Nexus 7 tablet that I used many years ago  – one that fit my reading/sketching/video-viewing needs resoundingly well, before Google (and I) inevitably moved on to a 9 or 10-inch tablet.

While Amazon upped the size of the 2nd-gen Echo Show to 10 inches and Lenovo’s sticking to the same size for their Smart Display, I found that I actually like the smaller, more compact size of the Home Hub. The small size means it fits perfectly into most rooms, and on most surfaces – whether you want to prop it on your nightstand, in that small nook next to your books in the living room, or on the kitchen counter.

The Home Hub is also quite clean and non-fussy in its design – besides the mute switch and a slender button for controlling the volume, there’s nothing else on it really. For everything else, you’ll need to either use the touch screen or give it a classic “Hey Google….” voice command.

The Home Hub is available in four shades – Chalk, Charcoal, Aqua and Sand. While the Chalk and Charcoal colours blend seamlessly into most homes, the Aqua and Sand shades add a nice pop of colour to a modern home.  

Picture display – 10/10

I know the Home Hub is a smart device and a home assistant before it’s a digital photo frame – but just look at how lovely the photos look!

You can arrange your pictures on Google Photos into various albums, and then the Home Hub displays them in all their crisp and/or nostalgic beauty. A feature called ‘Live Albums’ lets Google Photos automatically add new photos to your album – expectedly, only the best photos are chosen, i.e. no blurry shots in unflattering light and no duplicates, thank you.

All I have to say is, “Hey Google, show my pictures from my Trip to Japan” and all my sushi-and-yakitori-eating, geeking-out-at-Akihabara and feeling-content-at-a-Zen-temple memories from my trip to Japan promptly show up!

For families with kids who don’t want to bombard all their social media connections with photos of their kids, but do want the grandparents to be able to see and appreciate the photos, sharing the Live Album across two Home Hub devices in two homes, is a great way to stay connected.

No camera – 10/10

As the only smart display home device that doesn’t have a camera (the circle in the top centre of the device looks like a camera – but is, in fact, an ambient light sensor), the Google Home Hub is certainly setting a brand new precedent. And I love it for that! I realised I was definitely a bit wary while using display devices with a camera in them; but then again, I’m someone who takes a Black Mirror episode seriously enough to tape over my laptop camera.

But even if you’re not as sensitive/paranoid about someone hacking your camera as I am, you’ll notice that not having a camera makes you comfortable keeping the Home Hub in the more private spaces of your home. And, isn’t that the point, after all?

Smart home control and digital assistant – 9/10

Right, so, moving on to what the device is built for primarily – being a smart home control and a digital assistant for us plebeians. Honestly, at this point, all the Google Assistant-enabled as well as the Amazon devices work quite well with a staggering number of appliances and home automation devices – including Philips Hue and Nest, among others.

I prefer Google devices because of their integration with Google Assistant (which I’m already comfortable using on my phone).

I like that I can quickly turn off the lights (you can also lock the doors etc.) with an easy shortcut. The Home Hub’s ambient light sensor (aptly named ‘Ambient EQ’) is terrific because it detects and matches the colour and light of the room it’s in, and blends with the decor. At night, the Ambient EQ dims the lights on the Home Hub to match the darker lighting conditions – this way, you don’t have that annoying glowing screen lighting up the otherwise dark room and causing an unnecessary eyestrain!

The Hub also shows you all your connected devices organised by room, so you can take action on any and all of them with just a touch, more or less simultaneously.

Google Assistant and the display screen together combine to form a great response team for your questions and queries – ask Google for the best Japanese restaurants near you and you’ll see pictures and reviews of nearby restaurants, which you can scroll through just like you would on your phone. If you want directions or a quick look at the traffic getting there, Google Maps kicks in to show you the map and a helpful little note announcing that Google has “sent the directions to your phone.” Colour me impressed!

Being voice activated makes most assistants fairly easy to use. But having the display is super useful because in those rare cases where Google doesn’t grasp what you’re saying, you can see your command going haywire as it gets reflected back to you on the screen – it’s something that makes a device like the Home Hub very intuitive even to non-tech savvy people like my parents. A simple swipe to the right on the screen takes you back to the previous page or to the next photo in the album; swiping up shows you the settings for volume and brightness control.

You can even set up your routines on the Home Hub, so that a simple “Hey Google, Good Morning” will bring up all the necessary morning features you need as part of your daily routine – e.g. starting the smart appliances you need in the morning, playing your favourite podcast as you get ready for work, getting a quick look at the traffic for your commute etc. Similarly, when you get back home in the evening, you can set it up so that a quick “Hey Google, I’m home” makes the lights go on and your favourite classical music starts playing on the speakers.

Another feature that Google has really pushed for on the Home Hub, is its help with your cooking/baking experience. Besides being able to set timers and get conversions etc., the biggest assistance the Home Hub provides is in showing you recipes for almost everything you want to make, along with step-by-step instructions, for a totally hands-free experience. I don’t do a lot of cooking at home, and I only bake on occasion, but I tried this out for a make-believe “vegan chocolate brownie” bake-off and as someone who has to look at the recipe every time I bake (just to be sure!), I could really use this in my kitchen! And in my small kitchen, I’d much rather have a compact and petite 7-inch device that displays information perfectly well, as opposed to a 10-inch device that shows the same information but which could be a bit of a nuisance getting round on a cramped countertop.

Entertainment Hub – 8/10

Of course, the Google Home Hub is not just a smart home control, digital assistant, and an awesome digital photo frame – it’s also your entertainment hub. YouTube is, by far, the biggest draw card in the Google arsenal – also marking a clear win over the Amazon Echo Show (since Google pulled Amazon’s Youtube rights last year). As CNET’s Andrew Gebhart pointed out, “you can watch YouTube on the Echo Show, but only via a browser, which doesn’t respond to voice commands.” Google 1, Amazon 0.

I give the Google Home Hub entertainment portfolio an 8/10 because, like the Pixel 3, Netflix is absent on the Home Hub, although you can stream it on your TV with a Chromecast. Thankfully, Spotify works perfectly for streaming and casting music, which made for a lot more fun music sessions in our apartment, than usual.

What’s not great?

So what then are the drawbacks with the Google Home Hub?

Depending on what’s important to you, it could be one of many things. If you’re an audiophile, you may be disappointed with the sound (which, while it isn’t terrible, is certainly not at par with JBL’s). If you’re used to Amazon’s ecosystem, the Home Hub may not be the best device to kickstart your switch to Google Assistant. There are times when, despite all the context Google has for your searches/questions/queries, it still won’t quite be able to figure out what you need. And that’ll annoy you, in a classic case of first world problems and their subsequent angst.

Overall verdict – 9/10 would buy

If you’re looking for a smart home assistant and display that combines all of Google’s almost-scary knowledge with a deft touch screen and a gorgeous photo display to help you control your smart home, listen to music, watch videos, cook/bake a number of recipes, and assist you with your daily routine, then the Google Home Hub is a great choice.

It helps you get started with your day in the morning and wind down at the end of the day. More importantly, it’s thankfully camera-less, protecting your privacy and that of your family. And at AU $219, it’s pretty affordable for everything it does.

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