Last year's Nest Hub (formerly Home Hub) from Google is one of my favorite smart home devices for a simple reason: it's the best digital photo frame I've ever seen and makes it incredibly simple and enjoyable to see the thousands see photos I took of my children stuck on my phone or in the cloud. The Nest Hub is also a handy smart home controller and a surprisingly handy smart alarm clock.
But the small Hub is not great for everything: the 7-inch screen is too small to really enjoy video enjoyment and the speaker is not very powerful for listening to music.
Google has therefore created a larger Nest Hub. The $ 229 Nest Hub Max looks a lot like the Nest Hub, only bigger. It has a 10-inch display, more powerful speakers and something that the smaller version completely misses: a camera. Everything else is the same, from its two far-field microphones to its modern, fabric-wrapped design, to its remarkable ability to automatically adjust the screen to the lighting in your home, making your photos look more beautiful as if they were printed on paper than displayed on a screen.
If the Nest Hub is designed to get anywhere in your house, including the bedroom, the Hub Max is intended for use in key living areas, such as the kitchen or living room. In fact, after having lived with my Hub Max for much of the past week at home, I think the kitchen is really the most practical place to use it.
A larger, louder Nest Hub with more functions and possibilities seems to be a slam dunk. But the larger size and the higher price tag of the Hub Max mean that it has to deliver more, and while it is still an excellent photo frame and competent smart display, it is not as endearing as its smaller brother or sister.
The Nest Hub Max is literally just a larger Nest Hub. It has the same shape and proportions as the smaller model, only expanded. The 10-inch display is mounted on a base on which the speakers are located, giving the screen a somewhat floating appearance. The Hub Max is slightly larger than the competing 2nd-generation Echo Show from Amazon, but both devices take up approximately the same amount of space on your kitchen counter. It's fine for a kitchen counter or even a mantle in a living room, but it's probably too big to fit comfortably on a bedside table or other small spaces.
The larger size and weight of the Hub Max makes it a bit more stable than the Hub when I touch the screen (it wobbles almost not much). Google only sells the Hub Max in two colors, a dark gray or a lighter gray, instead of the multiple color options offered by the standard Hub.
The Hub Max has the same controls and layout as the smaller model: volume buttons on the right behind the screen and a mute toggle switch to turn off the two far-field microphones and camera in the ring around the screen. If you want to turn off the camera but keep the always listening microphones, you can configure that in the settings of the Hub Max. Unfortunately, there is no physical shutter that blocks the view of the camera, although Google says that the hardware switch on the back disconnects the power to the device so that it cannot be forged. There is a green light next to the camera that lights up when the camera is in use or glows orange when the camera is turned off.
It also has the same ambient light sensor that automatically adjusts the screen to make your photos look as good as possible in any lighting that you have in your home. The Hub Max is just as pleasant to look at as the Nest Hub and thanks to the excellent integration of Google Photos, it is just as good as a digital photo frame.
The larger Hub Max also sounds much louder and sounds better than the smaller version. It can fill a room with music and become loud enough to overpower the sound of a running tap while I'm washing the dishes. But compared to the Echo Show, the Hub Max does not sound nearly as full or powerful. If you look at the Hub Max with the intention of mainly using it for listening to music, the Echo Show is a better device.
The Hub Max is not the first smart display with a camera built in, but it is the first with which you can do more with the camera than just video calls. The Hub Max can actually see & # 39; who is in front of the screen and present personalized things to them, such as upcoming calendar appointments, flight schedules, messages and package deliveries. There are a few ways this is useful, but one of my favorites is when I first look at the screen in the morning and it automatically presents the weather forecast after I recognize myself. I can also have the Hub Max display a personalized reminder for someone else the next time it sees its face.
Google calls this feature Face Match and setting it up is a complete opt-in process where a few photos of your face are taken in the Google Home app on your phone and sent to the Hub Max. Google says that all face recognition is done locally on the device and nothing is sent or saved to the cloud. If you disable Face Match, your face data will be deleted from the device. If you don't set Face Match for everyone in the house, the Hub Max displays general information by default and no personalized items are displayed.
The Hub Max also uses the camera to enable limited motion control. You can look at the screen and raise your hand to pause and resume everything being played, such as music, video or a podcast. This worked surprisingly well in my tests and was great for when my hands were wet or dirty and I couldn't touch the screen or I didn't want to use a voice command. Google tells me it is slowly starting with the gesture functions, but it is easy to see how other gestures, such as a wave to the left or right to skip tracks, can be implemented.
In addition, the camera in the Hub Max is a full-fledged Nest security camera and you can use it to monitor your home and receive activity notifications when you are away. It supports streaming a live image from the camera to your phone, two-way audio so you can have a conversation with someone for the Hub Max, and the Nest Aware service with continuous video recording and the ability to recognize familiar faces. When someone views the camera feed, the Hub Max displays a message on the screen and the green light flashes. No other smart display offers this kind of extensive functionality with the camera and distinguishes the Hub Max from each other.
Finally, as expected, you can also use the camera to make video calls with the Google Duo service. The Max contains some smart functions to make video calling easier. The camera has a 127-degree wide-angle lens plus automatic subject tracking, which will frame the image again to keep you in view as you move around the room, just like the Facebook portal. It made it much easier for my children to stay in the picture than with other devices with a more limited field of vision.
You can also record video messages from your phone or the Hub Max for playback on the Hub or in the Duo app on the recipient's phone. I didn't find much opportunity to use this feature in my tests, but I saw that it was useful if I traveled in a different time zone and I want to send my children a goodnight message. This feature works with Face Match, so that the Hub Max only displays messages to whom they have been addressed.
With other smart screens I have never found their cameras very useful because the video call experience was not that great and there was nothing else I could really do with the camera. I usually switch the cameras & # 39; s on it or block them with tape so that I don't have to worry about it. But with the Hub Max I tend to leave the camera on because it is useful for so many other things besides video calling. I just don't put it in my bedroom.
Apart from the new camera functions, the Hub Max does all the other things that the standard Nest Hub does. You can watch live YouTube TV or YouTube videos & # 39; s directly on the display or send content from other apps (but unfortunately still not Netflix) on your phone to it, just like a Chromecast connected to your TV. The larger screen and louder speakers of the Hub Max make watching video on it much more fun than with the smaller Hub, and because I can cast the video from any app from it to my phone, it has access to many more video sources than Amazon & # 39; s Echo Show.
You can listen to Spotify, Pandora or YouTube Music directly on the Hub Max or cast audio from an app on your phone. You can ask the Google Assistant about the weather, recent sports results or any other random fact you can think of.
You can control other smart home devices by swiping down from the top and tapping on the different options or via voice control. If you have other Nest cameras & # 39; s or a Nest Hello doorbell, you can open its video feed on the Hub Max screen. You can have the Hub Max display a slideshow of photos in a Google Photos & # 39; s album or from a composite selection of images and illustrations. Or you can always have it display a giant clock.
What you cannot get on the Hub Max screen is a dashboard with information such as upcoming calendar events, stock prices, what music is currently playing or which smart devices are currently on. The Max still displays all these things in maps that you have to swipe through with difficulty to see, although the larger screen is more suitable to provide all that information at once and without needing any interaction from me to see it . It feels like Google has missed an opportunity to turn the Hub Max into a centralized home dashboard instead of just a smart digital photo frame, and I'd like to see the Max get a home screen like the Google Assistant Ambient Mode on Lenovo & # 39; s upcoming Smart Tab M8.
Unfortunately, Google has not really improved the recipe function. Recipes are limited to what you can search for with your voice and if you are looking for something specific, chances are that the Hub Max cannot find it. I think the kitchen is the best place for the Hub Max, because it can provide entertainment, timers, and unit conversions to help with cooking or washing up – but it's still not great for recipes.
And then there are the eternal complaints with Google Home devices that still need to be addressed: you have to say "OK Google" or "Hey Google" every time you want to control the Hub Max by voice and you don't have access via the is in a G Suite account. I can't even have the Hub Max display appointments in my shared Family calendar, even though it's set up through a standard Google account.
However, the Nest Hub Max does most of the advertised functions well, and it is a very capable smart display with some functions that stand out from the crowd. But it requires a lot of you to get those features: a higher price (especially compared to the frequent discounts on the Nest Hub), a larger footprint and confidence that the camera will not be hacked or used for nefarious purposes . If you want a Nest Hub that just does more, then the Hub Max is it. But for most people, the Nest Hub is the better smart screen to buy.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge
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