by Craig Lloyd on
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Released only a few months ago, the Google Home Hub has won us over in a way a product hasn’t in a very, very long time. Here’s why we’re designating the Home Hub our Product of the Year.
At the start of 2018 Google announced it was branching out into “Smart Displays”, products that would rival the Amazon Echo Show and similar products. At first, the Google ecosystem was only populated by third-party products produced by companies like JBL and Lenovo—we reviewed the Lenovo Smart Display back in August of this year and thought it was pretty great.
And while the first smart displays were, in fact, pretty great, they couldn’t hold a candle to Google’s own product, the Home Hub, released in October of this year.
Between the lower price point ($150 at full retail, on sale for $99 with and without bonus products like a Google Home Mini pretty frequently) as well as a really polished user interface and hardware platform, the Home Hub has shaped up to be the best smart home value we’ve seen all year. At $150 it’s a great value, at $99 it’s a steal.
Most of us on the Review Geek staff pre-ordered one to play with the moment it was released, but without fail every single one of us has purchased more. I’ll admit I went from playing with just my pre-order unit to putting a Home Hub in every major area of my house—bedroom, kitchen, living room, etc.—within a month of getting the first one. Throw in some Google Home Minis and it’s safe to say that I’m totally (and happily) immersed in the Google smarthome ecosystem now.
Let’s take a look at some of the things we love about the Home Hub and why we’re not calling it just the best smart home product of the year, but the best product of the year, period.
Ambient Mode on the Google Home Hub truly has to be seen to be believed. One of the first things we fell in love with was how astoundingly good the ambient mode is.
When you’re not actively using the Home Hub you can set it to display photos—just like the Chromecast you can set it to display art, space photos, or other curated photos as well as your own Google Photos albums—or display the time in a dimmed mode that is more like e-ink and less like a bright tablet-like display.
The Home Hub’s Ambient Mode is everything we’ve ever wanted in a digital picture frame: seamless network integration, perfectly lit, and subtle.
The display adjusts seamlessly to the level of ambient light in the room and detects when the lights go out. As an example let’s look at how the display functions on my nightstand. During the day when the room is bright, the brightness increases so I can see the photos clearly (but it never looks bright, it looks more like a perfectly lit photo in a frame). At night it dims as the level of light in the room decreases.
When I actually turn the lights off to go to bed, it dims to an almost imperceptible level and displays the time. You’d think that would be an annoyance, no matter how good the ambient dimming was, but it’s so dim you can’t even tell that it is on unless you’re looking directly at it (and even then it looks like you’re reading a Kindle display and not an LCD screen).
It might seem odd to open our treatment of the Home Hub by focusing on what it does when you aren’t using it, but given the nature of the design (a 7″ screen mounted on a smart speaker) what it does when you aren’t directly using it is important. A screen that dims poorly or not at all would be an absolute deal breaker in this product category. The Home Hub nails the “blending into the background” trick so well that you sometimes forget it’s a smart home product and not an actual picture frame.
Smart displays fill a particular and crucial gap in the smart home ecosystem. Before their arrival, we had two modes of smart home interaction: smart speakers and the smart apps on our phones.
If you wanted to adjust your Hue bulbs, for example, you either had to yell at your smart speaker something like “Set the living room lights to 50%!” or “Set the living room lights to Movie Time.” If you didn’t feel like using the smart speaker, you could always pull out your phone and fiddle with the app to trigger a particular lighting scene or make adjustments to your smart home.
Where the Home Hub shines in the smart home ecosystem is that it does both modes of operation well. Google Assistant is a mature smarthome assistant that can easily handle requests like “Play relaxing Christmas music on the downstairs speakers” or “Set the dining room lights to candlelight”.
Yet at the same time, the smart dashboard can serve both as your primary interaction with the device, allowing you to easily (and silently) tap on the tablet-like interface and easily adjust your lights, check if your smart lock is locked, and so on.
Further, the smart dashboard comes up as you’re performing voice-driven functions so you can easily make adjustments or interact with the system without ending up in a long chain on “Hey Google…” commands. Ask it to adjust the lights with your voice? It will, but it will also show you a simple dashboard for the lights so you can tap and slide to turn them on, off, or adjust the brightness. Ask it if the back door is locked, and it will not only tell you the state of the door, but it will show you the interface for the smart lock so you can make adjustments via the screen.
It’s absolutely seamless and intuitive. Even when you flub a command or don’t ask exactly what you were trying to ask, between Google Assistant’s quick response chops and good display UI design, you almost always end up getting what you want.
Speaking of lights and door locks, our experience with the Home Hub and our smarthome hardware has been nothing short of fantastic. From Google-owned stuff like our Nest doorbell and thermostat to popular smarthome equipment like the Philips Hue lighting platform to no-name-brand Works-With-Google-Assitant smart plugs, everything has worked flawlessly.
If you want the full power of the Home Hub you will want, naturally, to use products designed to completely integrate. “Hey Google, show me the front door” obviously works flawlessly with the Next doorbell and not so well with the Amazon-owned Ring doorbell, of course.
Let’s be real. When it comes to serving up useful information, a Google-driven smart home product is always going to be the champion. No matter how much they refine Alexa, no matter how many hours they spend training Siri, a product made by a company that started as a search engine (and remains the biggest force in the search engine industry) is going to beat the hell out of the competition every time.
Whether you desperately need to know how to carve a turkey or what the global production of Roguefort cheese is, the Home Hub is there to help.
In that regard, the Google Home Hub is an absolute machine when it comes to giving you useful information. Want to learn how to make a souffle? Curious what a particular herb in your vitamin supplements does? Want random facts about Paris? Need to convert measurements? In almost three months of my entire family using the Home Hubs around the clock, we have yet to run into a situation where the voice answer or video it serves up isn’t exactly what we’re looking for.
“But what about the lack of camera?” you might ask. As far as we’re concerned, and every friend and neighbor we’ve interacted with is concerned, that’s a feature, not an omission.
It took quite a while for the general population to become comfortable with the idea of microphones in smart speakers (and a lot of them still aren’t particularly comfortable with it). We’re just now reaching a point where the utility of having the microphone outweighs the unease people feel about it.
But video cameras? Get out of here. The vast majority of people don’t want a camera sitting on their dresser or even in their kitchen. The general reaction people have had to the Echo Show (and later the Facebook Portal) paint a very strong and clear picture: the majority of people don’t like the idea of having a camera in their home like that and especially not a camera controlled by an organization like Facebook.
Hands down, everybody we’ve shown the device to has asked about whether or not it has a camera (the ambient light sensor and microphone holes sort of look like they might be cameras, in fairness)—and then expressed relief that it doesn’t have one. I certainly wouldn’t have put one in my bedroom if it did.
On the topic of showing the Home Hub off, so far we’ve found that it’s almost an instant conversion experience for most people. I’ve been writing about technology for a long, long time, and all of my friends and neighbors expect to see gadgets and fun stuff when they are over at my house. Before any of them were even thinking about smart lights, I was the one saying “hey check this out, I can change the color of all the lights in my house with my Apple Watch!”.
Want to get your whole family to buy into the smart home experience? The Google Home Hub is the best way to make that happen.
And while they all think this stuff is novel, over the years there have been very few times where they’ve said: “Hey, I have got to get this for my house!”. Yet with the Google Home Hub, almost universally the reaction to seeing and interacting with it has been “This is amazing and I want one for my house”.
That’s more than I can say for any other product I’ve demoed for friends and family over the years, and even my own family couldn’t get enough of it. After a single day with the first Home Hub in the kitchen, my family was clamoring for a Home Hub in every room of the house—that’s a reception that poor old Alexa never got, despite years of us having Echo units here and there.
On top of all that, because the Home Hub makes it so frictionless to use your smart home gear and other tech, you just use it more. The hue bulbs? They get used more and in more varied ways. Our Spotify account? It’s used practically every minute of the day now thanks to the Hub. All the small things my family never used because they hadn’t gotten used to the apps or found using just a smart speaker cumbersome are all being used on a daily basis now thanks to the Home Hub and it’s combination audio/display approach to the smart home experience.
Finally, on a personal note, I have to admit that the Home Hub gave me an emotional reaction to technology I haven’t had in almost a decade.
I play with technology every single day of my life. I use it for fun. I test and review it. I experiment with it. I take it apart and rewire it. All throughout that though, it’s really rare to actually have an emotional reaction to technology. In fact, the last time I can recall getting that “right in the feels” experience was way back when the very first iPad was released and I was playing around with the Magic Piano app by Smule.
The app has a function where you’re randomly paired with another user to play a duet. I’d just downloaded the app and suddenly I was playing a duet of Moonlight Sonata with some distant person in Eastern Europe. At that moment the technology didn’t feel like some soulless engine I was tinkering with, it felt human and amazing. I just might have gotten a little misty-eyed while I played that duet, experiencing the realization of my geeky childhood dream: to see technology connecting people around the world in new ways.
But after that, I’ll admit, I didn’t get that feeling very often or at all and usually just took technology for granted as I tinkered around with it every day.
Shortly before I wrote this article, I was reading a thread on Reddit about neat tricks to try out with your Google Home Hub. One of the tricks was to ask it to show you photos be specifying “show me my photos” of something in your Google Photos library.
“Hey Google,” I said, “show me my photos of Marilyn.” To be honest, I’m not sure what I expected. I’m an avid photographer and I have probably 10,000 photos of my wife archived in my Google Photos collection. Would the photos be random? Would they be just from the last few months? Would it start with the most recent photo and just mindlessly scroll backward?
What I didn’t expect was a carefully machine-learning-curated slideshow spanning over a decade that captured everything from our first dates to early parenthood to the highlights of the last year.
For a brief moment, sitting there at the island in my kitchen watching the years glide by on the little 7″ screen, I had this surreal feeling like I was an astronaut on a deep space mission, looking at my most precious photos from back on Earth. Except I wasn’t a lonely astronaut, but somebody lucky enough to go upstairs and hug the wonderful star of my impromptu slideshow.
For all I, other tech writers, and people, in general, can be wary of technology or make fun of it when it fails, moments like that—where the technology not only seamlessly integrates into your life but makes it better—are the outcome we’re all really hoping for. That seamless integration and the makes-life-better factor is why the Google Home Hub is, hands down, our top pick for the Review Geek Product of the Year.
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