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Google Home Hub hands-on: Assistant gets a screen

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Small but powerful

It seems to be smart display season: Amazon just updated the Echo Show, Facebook showed off its new Portal system yesterday, and now Google has just announced that it’s getting in on the game with the Google Assistant-powered Home Hub.

I just spent some time with the Home Hub, and it’s much smaller than you would expect from the 7-inch display size. It looks like nothing more than a tiny floating tablet on a cloth-covered stand. That display has something called Ambient EQ, which automatically adjusts to the light in the room to look more natural. In a quick demo under color-changing Hue lights, it worked well, quickly changing to look like a print photo under the same conditions.

Unlike Amazon and Facebook, Google isn’t envisioning the Home Hub as a video chat device. In fact, there’s no camera at all. And there’s a physical mute switch on the back to completely turn off the Home Hub’s ability to listen in. Google says it did this very purposefully, in order to make the Hub comfortable to place in any room. But it will work with doorbell cameras, popping up the video feed and letting you respond to visitors using the microphones.

Google is adding a new visual dashboard for controlling your various smart home devices called Home View, which is available on both the Home Hub and in the new Google Home app. Home View is neat. It’s a clean, simple interface for a bunch of common smart home tasks, and it’s clever enough to show you the specific capabilities of different devices, so lights that have more color options show a longer list of colors. You can also navigate by room and by device.

home hub

Home Hub runs on an expanded version of Google Cast, which Google is calling Assistant OS. It’s basically a custom HTML app running on Cast, and it’s the same interface as you’ll see on the Lenovo Smart Display. But Google is really flexing its hardware and software integration with things like Ambient EQ. I tried the mics from across a room, and it was pretty good at picking up my voice. But it’s obviously quite loud in this environment, so we’ll have to try again in a more normal home to know for sure.

home hub

The Home Hub supports YouTube, complete with Google Assistant voice controls (“Play me the trailer for Aquaman”) as well as music services like YouTube Music, Spotify, Pandora, and iHeartRadio. We’re told it supports YouTube TV, and you get six months of YouTube Premium for free, but otherwise it’s pretty limited as a multimedia device: there’s no Hulu or Amazon Prime Video, and while you can Cast some content to it, it’s dependent on partner support, so YouTube works, but not Netflix.

Overall, though, it’s a very nice product, especially for $149. The interface is much nicer than the Echo Show interface, but it’s all still pretty simple. We’ll have to see how it works in the real world when it starts shipping on October 22nd.