Smartly pulls pictures from Google Photos • Slick • compact design • Decent sound • Works as well as any Google Home

No camera for video calling

Google’s Home Hub is a kickass digital photo frame that also happens to be a good smart speaker as well.

As a “smart display” speaker, the Google Home Hub is essentially a Google Home Mini mashed together with a 7-inch touchscreen.

It does all of the smart speaker stuff you expect from a Google Assistant-powered connected home device with voice (play music, control your smart home devices, tell you the news and weather, etc.) with the added bonus of having a screen to display information like maps and lyrics just like Lenovo’s Smart Display.

The Home Hub is a fine smart speaker, but it really shines most as a digital photo frame. Yes, as a digital photo frame. It’s 2018 and Google has not only revived one of the worst-conceived product categories ever with the $149 Home Hub, but made it so darn good, you’ll want one badly.

The ever-escalating game of cat and mouse between Google and Amazon for domination of your home continues to intensify. Google was late to the party, but it’s all but caught up in many ways.

Amazon launched the Echo in 2015 and then Google followed up two years later with the Home. Amazon then released the Echo Show, the first smart speaker with a display, in 2017. Google Home has supported smart displays before, but the Home Hub is the first one to come directly from Google itself.

The Google Assistant is the superior digital assistant when it comes to knowing more things and understanding and anticipating your needs through the more robust Google services you’ve plugged into it. 

However, Amazon’s Alexa is undoubtedly more open with more connectable “skills” from third-party services.

Just as there’s no definitive answer to the age-old question of Android or iOS, there will likely never be one winner that gains full control of the smart home. The connected smart home hub you should get depends entirely on which company’s ecosystem you’ve already invested in or want to build around. 

Made for the home

The Home Hub does everything Lenovo's Smart Display does except make video calls because it doesn't have a camera.

The Home Hub does everything Lenovo’s Smart Display does except make video calls because it doesn’t have a camera.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

My least favorite thing about the original Echo is its cold and generic design. Amazon’s improved the industrial design for its Echo products over the years, using more fabric and more earthy materials like wood to make them less gadgety and blend better into homes.

But Google still has Amazon beat. The Home Hub is another slick example of Google nailing a product’s identity with a discrete design that uses materials that are inviting.

My review unit came in a charcoal (dark gray), but the Home Hub also comes in chalk (lighter gray), aqua (greenish blue), and sand (pinkish).

The Home Hub is a cute little device and much smaller than it appears in online photos. It has a 7-inch display with 1,024 x 600 resolution. I’ve heard from many a tech nerd and reporter complain about the display not even being 720p resolution, and I’m here to tell it doesn’t matter.

Thank God it doesn't look as hideous as Amazon's Echo Show.

Thank God it doesn’t look as hideous as Amazon’s Echo Show.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

The Home Hub isn’t a phone, and it isn’t a tablet. It’s not a device you hold inches from your face. Your 16-megapixel photos from Google Photos (the max resolution for free pics) look great on the Home Hub’s screen. The 12-megapixel photos uploaded from my iPhone look crispy — I could easily see the individual hairs on a deer’s fur and the bricks in a building from my Japan 2017 vacation album.

Anyone who says the screen is not bright enough, not sharp enough, or not big enough is using the Home Hub all wrong. This is not a TV.

For sure, you can ask the Google Assistant to play a YouTube video from, like, your favorite website such as Mashable. YouTube support is especially useful for watching tutorials, but think short videos, not feature-length movies.

Use voice commands to play a YouTube video, but you don't wanna watch a movie on this thing.

Use voice commands to play a YouTube video, but you don’t wanna watch a movie on this thing.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Google has paid extra attention to the screen as a picture frame. Even with the screen positioned at an angle, reflections aren’t an issue. Reflections from windows and overhead lights both at home under my kitchen’s direct fluorescent light and at work were not as problematic as they are on my MacBook Air. But more on the Home Hub as a picture frame in a minute.

Even more important might be what the what Home Hub doesn’t have. On the rear is switch for muting the microphone and a volume rocker, but absent is any kind of camera. A front-facing camera is useful for making video calls, but the privacy concerns of putting a camera that could be be nefariously accessed by a hacker to remotely spy on you is real (however unlikely as that is).

The display is good for things like getting mapping info.

The display is good for things like getting mapping info.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Lenovo gets around this privacy fear with a physical shutter that slides over to block the camera on its Smart Displays, but Google’s gone one further: There just isn’t one. And you know what? I don’t miss it. I rarely video called anyone with the Echo Show, and I barely know anyone who uses Google Duo for video calling. If I really must do a video call, FaceTime or Google Duo (or Instagram video calling) on my iPhone’s always a tap away and so too is Skype on my computer.

For once, Google got the privacy equation right. 

In the spot where you’d expect to find a camera, however, is a light sensor that adjusts the screen to match the lighting in your room. Google calls this Ambient EQ. It works just like the TrueTone feature on all of the latest iPhones, iPads, and MacBook Pros. So instead of the harsher blue light you’d be blasting your eyes with at night, the Home Hub’s screen brightens and dims to a warmer and softer hue that’s both better for waking up and going to sleep to.

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And it really works. Groggily waking up and glancing over at the Home Hub to check the time and weather forecast first thing in the morning was less of an assault on my eyes. Same for going to bedtime — the glow from the screen’s clock didn’t inhibit my ability to fall asleep.

It kinda looks like a tablet bolted to a Google Home Mini.

It kinda looks like a tablet bolted to a Google Home Mini.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Enclosed in the back and firing through the front just below the screen is the “full-range speaker.” Make whatever you want of that marketing jargon, but the speaker sounds decent. I’d peg the audio quality as better than a Google Home Mini, but not as clear as a Google Home. 

A couple of friends felt the speaker was a little weak, but I disagree. For its size, I think the sound quality is adequate. A Google Home Max or Apple HomePod, the Home Hub is not. If you think about where you’re gonna be putting it — on a kitchen counter, on a bedside table, on your desk, or on a bookshelf — then pumping it loud isn’t something you’ll want to do often. 

Tons to do with the Assistant and voice controls.

Tons to do with the Assistant and voice controls.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

As a speaker, the Home Hub does the trick, and the far-field microphones picked up my voice without any issues whether I was a foot or 15 feet away. If sound quality is high on your checklist, consider another speaker or pair the Home Hub to a better one using Bluetooth 5.0.

Picture perfect digital frame

As a picture frame, the Home Hub is amazing.

As a picture frame, the Home Hub is amazing.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

There’s no doubt Google’s made a good smart speaker/display here, but I wasn’t expecting the feature that I’d enjoy the most would be the one that required no action beyond selecting an album from which to display photos from.

If there’s any product that reinforces how truly great Google Photos is, it’s Google’s Home Hub.

At setup, the Home Hub asks you to choose an album from your Google Photos. I chose my Japan 2017 vacation, which has over 1,500 photos.

Using machine learning, the Home Hub finds only the best photos from the album to show. Photos where you’ve, perhaps, got your eyes closed are smartly not shown. Vertical photos that are normally displayed with black bars on the left and right on other photo frames aren’t displayed on their own. Instead, Google again uses machine learning to find two related vertical photos from the album and display them side by side — something I’ve never seen on any other digital photo frames.

The resolution looks fine on the 7-inch screen.

The resolution looks fine on the 7-inch screen.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

It’s not just about slideshows. You can also ask the Assistant to show you specific photos of people that it’s organized for your using facial recognition, like your mom, dad, or girlfriend (to a scarily and wonderfully accurate degree). It works on animals, objects, places, and other things Google’s trained the Assistant on.

The bottom line is: Crappy digital photo frames like the ones you find at places like the Sharper Image or Walmart’s discount bins suck because they’re usually not connected to the cloud. Most read photos from a memory card so they’re limited by storage and don’t have access to any AI. And even the photo frames that are connected to cloud services — well, they suck because they’re also limited by storage or the software interfaces are terrible.

Fits right in with your home decor.

Fits right in with your home decor.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

The Home Hub as a digital photo frame is everything these old and poorly designed frames aren’t. I’ve been reminded of so many memories from my Japan trip in the three weeks I’ve had the Home Hub in my apartment than in a whole year I’d told myself I’d get around to looking at some 1,500 shots.

I’d forgotten I’d taken some great snapshots at the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. The Home Hub teleported me back to the view at the top of Osaka Castle. It reminded me how cramped the Airbnb we stayed at in Ginza was. Or how magical Tokyo at night looked from way up on the Tokyo Skytree. Or how chaotic it was at the Tsukiji Fish Market.

These are memories that (although safely stored in the cloud) would have sat in the cloud collecting digital dust just like prints would in a photo album stored away in a cabinet. With the Home Hub, Google has made a digital photo frame that finally works and reminds you of them daily. It’s even more personal if you choose to select a “Live Albums,” a feature that displays the photos of people and pets you’ve selected to automatically be added to the album whenever the AI identifies shots they’re in. The Home Hub is such a great digital photo frame, the smart speaker and voice control stuff feels more like a bonus. 

$150 seems hefty at first, but considering it’s only $20 more than the Google Home, which doesn’t have a display, I’d say it’s a good value. Black Friday is right around the corner and it’s already being knocked down to $100 at many retailers. Unless you’ve already locked yourself into the Amazon camp and Alexa, the Google Home Hub is a winner.

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