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Google Home Hub Review: Okay Google, Okay

If you like your pictures, the Google Home Hub is for you. It might be the most expensive photo frame available, but it’s also a little smarter than that, as Google looks to expand their smart home presence even further with a device dedicated to keeping everything smart in your home, accessible by a tap. The Google Home Hub as a few more hits than misses – let’s check them out now.

Google Home Hub
+ FOR
  • Nice form factor for all rooms
  • Excellent far-field microphones
  • Duo calling
  • Relatively cheap
- AGAINST
  • Lack of eco-system integration
  • Okay audio
  • Early adopter rule applies

Buy on Google Store – £139

Google Home Hub

For those that don’t know what Google Home is, let alone what the Hub delivers, then you might well be on the wrong site. Don’t fret, I shall explain. Essentially Google Home is Google’s play to deliver a ubiquitous digital assistant with the backing of their extensive and industry-leading search technology and integration to many smart home products, such as Phillips Hue, and their own Nest products. Their hope is that as the average home becomes more contextually aware of its own surroundings and the products nearby (the Internet of Things) you will choose Google as an overarching eco-system, with devices such as the Google Home, Home Mini, Chromecast, and more all adding value to users’ daily lives.

With the Google Home Hub, they are providing a “single pane of glass” from which to control these products, as well as coupling some of the smart technology available across their estate.

I’ll preface this entire review by stating that categorically I prefer Amazon’s competing products with Alexa built-in for a couple of reasons. They feel more user agnostic in general, seem to provide slightly better information (Echo Show vs Google Home Hub for example) when responding to requests, as well as having an extensive and ever-growing set of Skills to call upon. That doesn’t mean I haven’t seen some benefits during this review period though.

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First up, the Google Home Hub comes with a 7″ touchscreen front and centre mounted on a stand-cum-speaker which is available in a number of colours. I played it simple here and opted for the Chalk (light grey) colour, but you can be a little zanier if you wish with Charcoal (dark grey), Aqua (turquoise), and Sand (red-pink) options available. There’s precious little in terms of inputs or buttons, with a mute button on the rear of the touchscreen, with a volume rocker on the rear, right-hand side of the touchscreen also. The power is provided by a wall plug which connects at the rear of the mount. That’s it. Quite spartan.

Up front, there is a light sensor on the top of the touchscreen to control the ambient mode and brightness and is flanked by two far-field microphones, for voice input of course.

One specific feature is notable in its absence. There is no camera here. Google suggests this will allow users to place these devices anywhere in the home and will be safe and secure from prying eyes. I would much prefer them to have included one and have a slider, but that would have pushed the cost up and not enabled them to undercut the Amazon Echo Show. Marketing this as a security feature, when you still have microphones which you have allowed the muting of though, smacks of spin.

Aesthetically, it is, as many smart home products are now, rather inoffensive, and would fit in most living rooms, kitchens or office spaces which is where I have mine setup for the purposes of this review. Having it so close not only allows me instant access to the touchscreen but also to easily monitor the responses to my questions.

In my use case, these digital assistant devices are used primarily for setting alarms, reminders, and playing music, so it seems fitting to start with the speaker portion of the device. It can get very loud, but there is a significant lack of bass in most cases, despite having it sat on a hard flat surface to aid resonance. If I was directly comparing to Amazon’s Echo Show, the Google device would slip to a defeat here. What is nice however is that you can control the volume and playlist in a number of ways. Use the voice assistant to change the volume to a percentage or a specific number, using “Okay Google, 50% volume” or “Okay Google, volume 8”. You can also use the Home app on a smart device to control the volume. Even at high volumes the Google Home Hub had no issues hearing my wake phrase to skip the track or ask another question. This is something the Echo Show (1st Gen) struggles with a little more.

Whilst we’re on voice commands, I feel this is where the Google Home Hub (read Google Home) fails to deliver for me. Given the integration within their eco-system, with applications such as Drive, YouTube, Duo and Music, I was expecting great things. My first few tests fared well enough. Asking to play a song, asking for the time and setting a timer all worked well. Branching out to ask for headlines from BBC, I was treated to a full-screen view of an audio version of the latest BBC News. Okay, not what I was hoping for having come from the Echo Show which displays a snippet from the BBC News 24 channel, but hey, it delivered what I asked. Asking just for the news displayed a number of different options on the companion application showing me there was indeed Video Display enabled offerings out there. Okay, I’m sure that will improve going forward, and yes, I’m happy enough with this.

Let’s try something else. Let’s search for some information, as that’s what I use Google for a lot, right? Searching for my own website, I was greeted with the below.

Lovely right? Absolutely terrific. I’m not overly upset, as the amount of times I’d want to look at a website on a 7″ screen with limited functionality is minimal, especially in my office, but I did think it would work. Fine, so let’s do something simple; “Okay Google, open YouTube”. No worries there up comes YouTube and I can scroll some recommended videos. “Okay Google, show my YouTube subscriptions”. What? What fresh hell is this?

So, yeah, that just happened.

This is my frustration, in a nutshell, with Google Home and by extension, the Google Home Hub. Some requests you know deep down you might be asking a little much as it’s clearly more of a glorified photo frame, and control hub, than it is a fully fledged life robot, so you don’t get too downhearted when the lovely little voice tells you nicely that it can’t help right now. Other requests, linking with aspects of Google’s ecosystem, that you’d expect to just work, simply don’t either though. Not being able to directly view YouTube subscriptions on a device that can view YouTube is surely diametrically opposed to Google’s intended experience?

Finally, one of my pet peeves, across many digital assistant devices, is back here; device specific wake phrases. It’s clear that Google sees this as part of your smart home setup, and not a product to be used in isolation by default. With that in mind, it would be infinitely more intuitive if, within the Home app, one could set different wake phrases for specific devices. Personally, we have a Google Home Hub now, and a Home Mini that was setup for the purposes of this review also. We also have a plethora of Android devices in the house. Given the microphones on these devices are great, I can potentially wake up 3-4 devices just by uttering the immortal words! Please let us choose device, or even room specific wake phrases for devices to aid us better manage our devices. I’m sure this must be on one of the developer’s lists.

Let’s move on to what it does do well. It can be treated as any other display in your house and can be Cast to, which means I can watch my YouTube subscriptions on this little device after all (still, dumb…) or even indulge in some Twitch.TV sessions whilst I use my main displays for something more productivity orientated. Yes, you have to use your smartphone to control this, and it is a compromise, but at least you can get some more utility from the device, otherwise you’d be no better off than having a Google Home or Home Mini on your desk.

Google Home Hub
Watch your favourite streamer by casting Twitch to your Home Hub

Then there’s the Hub portion itself. Swipe down from the top of the display and the Google Home Hub will greet you and ask what rooms you want to view/control. That, in essence, is the saving grace of the Google Home Hub. It has the ability to deliver a single display of all your inter-connected smart devices and allow you to control them at the touch of a button. Want to turn down the temperature via your Nest? No problem. Want to check who’s casting what to your living room TV? Done. Do you want to turn down the volume of that Home Mini device playing in the bathroom (why not?) so you can hear yourself think? Tap, tap, done. This, right here, is why you buy the Google Home Hub, and not for the smart features.

There are a couple of lovely features though. Using your Google Photos gallery, machine learning can be used to determine what are pictures of genuine interest, and which might be a blurred shot, receipts, or something else equally boring, and collate them into a scrolling gallery on your device when at rest. Very nice. I have noticed that it does a very good job of stripping out the nonsense pictures, and I’ve been reunited with a number of great pictures from way back that I’d actually forgotten about. There’s also a little more usability with the Google Duo integration which can be used to make and receive calls to phone numbers in your contact list which is great and works really well.

There is no denying that the Google Home Hub is a great little product. Its small form factor means it can fit just about anywhere and the display is not only smart, with its ambient mode, but also clear and crisp, and surprisingly bright. The inclusion of a mute switch will be good news for security conscious, as perhaps will be the exclusion of a camera. The control hub aspect of the device is sleek and provides the same utility found in the Home app, on a larger screen with more intuitive controls, and the connectivity options of 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz WiFi, as well as Bluetooth 5, gives a few more options for those with multiple devices or congested WiFi locales. The Google Home Hub starts to unify some of the IoT devices and technologies Google has been investing in for some years. Routines are a perfect example of this, allowing multiple actions to be kicked off with a single phrase. “Okay Google, Start my morning” could well turn up the heating, turn the lights up, turn music on, etc.

It’s regrettable then that this is just that, a start. It doesn’t take the leaps I personally would have been expecting from a device competing with the Echo Show. There’s little integration with other Google services that one might expect (no Gmail view, shared notifications, YouTube subscriptions etc), and the audio playback is weak, acceptable at best. I have no doubt that this is the start of more and more improvements from the best know company in the Alphabet stable, but they have to improve on some of dumb aspects, of this smart device, as soon as they can, to show they mean business.

About Craig Bradshaw

Tech enthusiast and Editor-in-Chief of MobileTechTalk

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