In recent years, smart speakers have really taken off as a category — internationally, at least, if not in India yet — and smart displays are the next evolution in this space. These are devices that offer the same functionality as smart speakers, but the addition of a screen enables them to provide visual context to some of their responses while opening up additional use cases.
We've seen a bunch of smart devices with displays, such as the Amazon Echo Show with its giant 10-inch display, and its smaller sibling the Echo Show 5. Some devices position themselves as digital clocks, such as the 4-inch Lenovo Smart Clock and the Amazon Echo Spot. We have with us today the Google Nest Hub, which Google is positioning as a digital photo frame, though it competes with everything else that we've mentioned as a smart display. Does this device deserve a place in your home? Let's find out.
Unlike the Lenovo Smart Clock and Amazon Echo Show 5, which look like single, continuous pieces, the Google Nest Hub looks like a tablet attached to a wedge-shaped base. This reduces the overall footprint of the device, which means it can fit in tighter spaces, like on a narrow tabletop. With that said, it certainly doesn't look as elegant as the other two devices.
At seven inches, this display sits between the likes of the Lenovo Smart Clock and the larger Amazon Echo Show, and the result is a screen that's big enough to be visible from across a room without taking too much physical space on a table. The wedge-shaped base at the back has the fabric coating we've come to associate with products in this category. The display has fairly thick bezels on all sides, again something we've seen across the category.
The top bezel houses a prominent ambient light sensor (which looks a lot like a camera, but isn't one) with two mics on either side. Just behind this sensor is a physical switch to toggle the mics on or off. This positioning makes this button a lot more accessible than its counterpart on the Lenovo Smart Clock.
Physical buttons to control the volume are present on the rear right (when reaching out from the front), and are fairly accessible as well, though we would've preferred to have them on the top instead. The power inlet is the only port on the base of the device. There's no USB port like on the Lenovo Smart Clock, and it would've been nice to have one to charge our phone.
Getting started with the device is fairly simple, and you do so via the Google Home app. Follow the instructions and you'll be up and running in no time. As we said earlier, Google is positioning this device as a digital photo frame, so instead of a clock face you get to pick a ‘Photo Frame' that will show up when the device is idle.
The default Photo Frame circles through your “best photos” from Google Photos, though you have the option to set a custom album (including shared albums) as the source. Other Photo Frames include Art Gallery (with a choice of different themed photos that Google has collected from a variety of sources) and Experimental, which, for now, lets you link your device with Facebook or Flickr. Alternatively, you can opt for a full-screen clock, with eight different clock faces for you to choose from.
During setup (or later), you can choose to enable Voice Match, which lets multiple people use the device and get individually personalised answers for questions such as “What's on my calendar?”. We tried this with a couple of users and it worked as advertised during the time we spent with the device.
If you are using anything other than one of the full-screen clock faces, you will see the time and weather at the bottom left of the screen, though you have the choice of disabling both if necessary. You can swipe left or right to cycle through photos if you don't like the one on display at any time. Via the app, you can control the duration after which the device automatically loads the next image.
Swiping down from the top brings quick access to Home View, which offers access to user-defined Routines, Media, and access to other smart home devices that you may have connected with your Google account. Routines, of course, give you the ability to trigger multiple actions with a single phrase. For example, you could have a morning routine that adjusts your lights, tells you about today's weather, news, and commute etc. when you say, “Ok Google, good morning”.
Swiping up from the bottom brings you quick access to options like brightness, volume, do not disturb, alarms, and settings. However, most major options need to be controlled via the Google Home app. If you swipe inwards from the right edge, you can see additional cards, which will be familiar to most Android users and anyone who's used the Google app on iOS. For example, in the morning, you might see a card indicating the time that Google predicts it will take for you to drive to work. Additional cards for YouTube Music, YouTube, and other suggestions related to things to try on the Google Nest Hub are present as well.
You can touch any card to display it full-screen and see more details, or trigger an associated action. Tapping a video in the YouTube card, for example, starts playing it full-screen. At any point, you can swipe inwards from the left edge to go back to the previous screen. Doing so from the Photo Frame takes you to a boring digital clock with white text on a black background even if you are using the full-screen clock frame to begin with.
The card-based UI makes sense, and our only complaint is that just like with other smart speakers, prompts and alerts are only triggered by user actions. Google has done a great job with its card-based alerts on Android and within Google app on iOS, proactively presenting information such as commute times as and when needed, but that doesn't happen here.
Now when smart speakers made their debut, it made sense that they didn't have proactive alerts, because no one wants a device randomly speaking up to present information, no matter how critical it thinks the need. However, there's no need for smart displays to mimic the behaviour of smart speakers in this respect, and it would be great to be presented with cards as and when necessary, without screen swipes or voice commands.
The screen helps with context for other tasks as well. When you set a timer, for example, the entire screen displays a countdown, with a ring around it indicating the current proportion of time remaining, as well as on-screen pause and cancel buttons. This can be dismissed using swipe gestures without cancelling the timer, though we found it useful to be able to see the current position of the timer without having to ask the voice-based assistant.
The screen also enables enhanced integration with smart home devices in some scenarios. For example, you get the ability to view feeds from compatible smart home cameras on the Google Nest Hub's screen with a voice command. We tried this with a Mi Home Security Camera and it worked as expected.
We also enjoyed watching the occasional YouTube video on the display. You can do that by asking Google Assistant on the device to play something specific from YouTube. If it doesn't find an exact match, you'll be presented with relevant search results and you can pick one that you like.
Unfortunately, you can't watch videos from Netflix (as “Netflix can't be played on smart displays”, according to Google Assistant) or any other source. You can, however, cast videos from your phone to the Google Nest Hub, like you would to any Chromecast-connected TV.
Audio gets loud enough to be heard across a room, whether you are watching videos or listening to music. The speakers aren't great in terms of audio fidelity though, and the overall sound performance isn't too different from what you'd get with a Google Home mini.
As we mentioned earlier, the Google Nest Hub has an ambient light sensor that's used to automatically control the brightness of the display. This worked pretty well, and we never found ourselves needing to manually adjust the brightness level at any time. When the room is dark, your Photo Frame is replaced by a giant digital clock, and the display gets really dim to the point that it isn't a distraction at all, though the time is still visible from a distance.
Without a camera, you can't make video calls, but audio calling is supported via Google Duo. Though Google Assistant on smart speakers like Google Home now supports Hindi, this has not been extended to smart displays like the Google Nest Hub yet, which is something prospective buyers should keep in mind.
We quite liked the Google Nest Hub as a product, though it's clear from the time we spent with it that smart displays have a long way to go before they become truly smart. For now, these are just smart speakers that can present additional visual context to some answers, without realising the full potential of the display. Maybe that is why Google markets this product as a “photo frame” rather than a truly smart display.
We can see this product being useful in some contexts, like in kitchens to view recipe videos, or in halls as, well, a digital photo frame, but it — and, indeed, various other products of this category — fall short of being truly smart. One can only hope that the next generation of products is an improvement in this regard.