The latest entry to the Google Home ecosystem is called the Google Home Hub. The Home Hub marries a screen with the Google Assistant-powered voice command system, allowing users to call up recipes, utilize smart home controls, or watch YouTube videos.
We've seen this software before—there's presently a whole device category out there known as "Google Smart Displays." Just like with Android, Google makes the software, and a number of OEMs then load the software onto their devices. Google Smart Display devices have thus far been made by LG and JBL, and we did a full review of the Lenovo Smart Display. Unlike Android, Google currently has full control of the Smart Display software no matter who manufactures the hardware. This means every device pretty much has the exact same UI and capabilities, aside from the usual technology treadmill of new features exclusive to new devices.
But with Google launching its own version of the Google Smart Display hardware, this is definitely the unit to buy if you're in the market. The Home Hub happens to be cheaper—just $150—and better looking than any of the third-party devices. Plus, it has an awesome new display feature.
The hardware—Google Design at its best
|SPECS AT A GLANCE: Google Home Hub|
|SCREEN||1024×600 7" LCD (169.5ppi)|
|OS||Cast platform with Google Smart Display software|
|CPU||AMLogic S905D2 (Four Cortex A53 cores)|
|NETWORKING||802.11b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 5.0|
|PORTS||Dc power, Micro USB|
|SIZE||67.3 x 178.5 x 118 mm (2.65 x 7.02 x 4.65 in)|
|STARTING PRICE||$149 at Walmart|
The Home Hub follows Google's gentler design motif to a T. The whole thing has a bubbly roundness to it—you won't find a single sharp corner anywhere. The display corners and bezels are rounded, the colored back panel curves around the sides of the device, and the base is a rounded, wraparound speaker covered in the same sock-like fabric as the Google Home speaker. The Home Hub is cute. You want to pick it up and hold it, even though you aren't supposed to.
The display might not seem like much on a spec sheet, with only a 1024×600 resolution spread across a seven-inch panel, but it looks great. The ~170 ppi sounds like you'll get NES-era graphics compared to a smartphone, but the device is intended to be used on a table, usually at arm's length. At that distance, images are fantastic. It's in the same density range as a desktop computer screen, which is fine.
Really though, the display is all about the new ambient light and color sensor embedded in the front. With this extra sensor and a well-tuned screen, the display changes color temperature and brightness to match the surroundings. A few other devices do something like this (iOS's True Tone comes to mind), but with auto brightness turned on, the Home Hub's display is tuned to actually be so dim it is unobtrusive while on.
Every other touchscreen device I own constantly blasts white/blue light into the house, but the Home Hub display is dim enough that is doesn't put out light at all. It's still readable, but the "glare" of an electric device totally disappears, and it doesn't catch your eye the way every other display does. The display exists in almost a perfect halfway point between a paper-like e-ink display and blaring LCD—it feels like an absolute breakthrough. I have never seen a display that fades into the background like this.
You can set up the display brightness to work just the way you like it, too. There are options to have the aggressive dimming on all the time instead of just when the screen is idle—which I highly recommend—and you can set how bright or dim, generally, you want the auto brightness to be. You get several ambient modes to pick from, and you can have the display turn off completely if you want.
Displays and speakers
When looking at the seven-inch Google Home Hub next to the 10-inch Lenovo Smart Display, I strongly prefer the smaller form factor. The Google Smart Display interface seems designed for this smaller display, with appropriately sized buttons and readable text. The UI on the 10-inch Lenovo screen is gigantic. It seems like it's meant to be read from across the room, but as a touch screen device, that doesn't make a ton of sense. The smaller footprint of the Home Hub makes it feel like a great fit for a coffee or bedside table, whereas the hulking size of the Lenovo Smart Display is good for a spacious kitchen counter and not many other places. Even the eight-inch Lenovo display has a huge footprint compared to the Home Hub thanks to the speaker placement.
The Home Hub speaker is notably better than a Google Home Mini, which is a relief. Still, it lacks the thumpy bass of a regular Google Home, which means you have a bit of a decision to make with the Home Hub. Do you want a touchscreen, or do you want better sound from a regular Google Home? The Home Hub manages to pump out sound in all directions very well, including the front. The cloth on the back should not be used as an indication of where the sound comes out. The Home Hub (and now, other smart displays) can also join a speaker group, so your Home Hub and Google Home speakers can all pump out music in unison.
Above the display are a pair of microphones and a center sensor cluster which houses brightness and color sensors. On the back, you get a mute switch for the microphone, a physical volume rocker, and a round DC-power jack. On the bottom is a rubber foot, which does a good job of anchoring the touchscreen to your tabletop.
Software, cost-cutting, and tinkering
The Google Home Hub takes an odd departure from the other Google Smart Displays when it comes to software. While the interface is identical to the smart displays from Lenovo, JBL, and others, the base OS for the Home Hub is the Google Cast platform. Other Smart Displays were the launch platform for Android Things. So while something like the Lenovo Smart Display could be seen as a stripped-down smartphone, the Home Hub is more a souped-up Chromecast. My only guess as to why Google did this was to keep costs down. The Cast Platform should have lower system requirements than Android Things.
And speaking of cost cutting, the Google Home Hub doesn't have a camera for video calls, which so far has been a standard feature on the Google Smart Displays. Google says this will make people more comfortable with the device, but it will also lower the price. If the Home Hub had an app platform that made the camera useful across a range of video call services, a lack of a camera could be seen as a negative. But considering the camera was only useful for Google Duo, I won't miss it one bit.
The Home Hub holds one other oddity: if you're a tinkerer, you can pop the rubber base off with a slotted screwdriver, revealing a hidden Micro USB port! The original Google Home came with a Micro USB port, too, but just like on the Home Hub, it was only used "for service," according to Google. While the normal Smart Display software is running, the USB port is inactive, so it would need to first be turned on somehow. Apparently, Google's secretive Fuchsia OS team got hold of the Home Hub and have been turning it into an official Fuchsia test device. No one outside of Google has figured out how to make this work yet.
Overall, the hardware is awesome, and Google did an amazing job building this for $150.
Listing image by Ron Amadeo