Google Home Hub review: the best digital photo frameOctober 22, 2018
According to Google Photos, I have 8,536 photos of my two daughters stretching back to the day my eldest was born. Thanks to the new Google Home Hub, I’ve been able to revisit hundreds of these photos over the past few days, each one tugging at my heart strings and bringing up fond memories of them growing up as it flashed across the screen.
The $149 Google Home Hub is not just a digital photo frame, but it’s such a good digital photo frame that if it did absolutely nothing else, I could see many parents and grandparents paying the asking price for it without thinking twice.
Of course, if you do buy the Home Hub, you’re also getting a smart display and a centralized smart home control hub. The Home Hub is not the largest, most expensive, best sounding, or flashiest smart display you can buy, but it might just be the best one for the most people.
And if you’ve been looking for a way to see all of those wonderful memories you’ve captured with your smartphone over the years, the Home Hub is undeniably the easiest way to view them.
The Home Hub’s digital photo frame ambitions can be seen throughout the hardware design. It looks like almost exactly like a 7-inch touchscreen tablet permanently affixed to a stand in landscape orientation. That stand is covered in fabric – much like the popular Home Mini – and is home to a single, small speaker. There are also volume buttons and a mute switch for the Hub’s always-listening microphones on the back.
Beyond that, the first thing most people notice about the Hub is just how small it is. Unlike the Lenovo Smart Displays or Amazon’s Echo Show, the Home Hub is remarkably compact, which makes it easy to place on a counter, nightstand, mantle, or end table without it completely dominating the space. I was even able to put it on top of the back of my range to keep an eye on it while making a recipe.
On the flip side, some might find the Home Hub to be too small for their tastes and will want a larger version with a bigger display and more powerful speakers. The small size also makes the Hub a little unstable when you tap the touchscreen – I never actually knocked it over, but it wobbled around whenever I touched the screen or adjusted volume.
The front is home to that screen, two far-field microphones, and the key to what makes the Hub’s hardware so good at displaying photos: the “Ambient EQ” light sensor. This sensor lets the Hub automatically adjust its brightness and color temperature based on the ambient lighting in the room, so whether it’s in your bedroom next to a dim, warm lamp or in your kitchen catching bright sunlight on your kitchen counter, the screen is easy and enjoyable to look at. It’s not unlike the True Tone feature in recent iPhones and iPads, but Google says it tuned the auto adjustment feature specifically to make photos displayed on the screen look like a printed image in a frame.
And it works. The Home Hub’s screen is lovely to look at, never too bright, with pleasing saturation and colors. The relatively low 1024 x 600 pixel resolution is never a problem in use and it looks great from across the room or just a couple of feet away. The screen is very good at combating glare and truly does look different than any other digital display I’ve viewed photos on — it’s remarkable how effective Google’s tuning is at recreating how a printed image looks. Unlike the crappy digital photo frames that were popular a decade ago, the Home Hub actually does justice to your images: I found myself just staring at the thing for minutes at a time waiting for it to refresh with a new memory. (You can also swipe through images when it’s in the ambient slide show mode.) I’m surprised the company doesn’t employ the same effect on the Pixel 3 smartphones.
The Home Hub also uses the light sensor to automatically turn its display brightness down and show a digital clock when you turn the lights out in the room, so it’s not a distraction on your nightstand when you’re trying to sleep.
Getting images onto the Home Hub is a simple as linking your Google Photos account during setup and selecting which albums you want to view. The Hub works with the new live albums from Google Photos that will automatically update with new images of people that you select, based on Google Photos’ facial recognition features. (This is what I used to find out that between my wife and I we have over 8,500 images of our daughters.) You can then share this album with anyone that has a Google Photos account, making the Home Hub an ideal digital picture frame for grandparents that’s automatically updated with fresh images as frequently as you take them.
The Home Hub’s software is smart enough to present two vertically oriented photos side by side, instead of cropping them awkwardly. It also cleverly groups images of the same person together when it displays them.
The one thing that the ambient photo slideshow feature in Home Hub doesn’t support is any kind of video or animation – I have hundreds of video clips of my kids that I’d love to see on this screen, even if they were just silent animations, but I can’t do that without casting them to it from my phone. A Google representative says that “the team made the decision to not include because moving content is distracting on a screen, that is specifically for Ambient mode,” but they didn’t rule out adding it in the future.
Outside of the photo slideshow, the Home Hub can play video from a variety of sources, including YouTube and YouTube TV. You can also cast video from your phone or computer to the Hub with apps like Hulu, HBO Go, and others. Frustratingly, it’s not possible to play Netflix on the Home Hub at all, either natively or by casting from your phone. Google tells me that this limitation is a decision by Netflix and that it’s hoping to be able to add Netflix in the future.
For watching video, the Hub’s display looks just as great as it does with photos, and the sound quality from the single speaker is sufficient. The same goes for the voice responses from the Google Assistant, podcasts, or other vocal-based audio. But the speaker does not sound good when it plays music – the sound is flat, thin, and just unpleasant to listen to, particularly when you raise the volume past 50 percent. It’s roughly similar to the Home Mini, but at a louder volume. Fortunately, you can connect the Home Hub to a larger Bluetooth speaker if you want better audio quality for music.
The Hub’s other features and software are very similar to what’s available on the Google-powered smart displays from Lenovo and others that came out earlier this year. It can show you the current weather, upcoming calendar appointments, directions (that are then pushed to your phone), random facts, sports scores, timers, alarms, and many other bits of information you might ask for. The Hub can be used as a digital recipe book, displaying step-by-step instructions and video guides. This is clever, but I frequently found the recipes limiting and often not the specific ones I was looking for.
The Amazon Echo Show has many of the same features and capabilities as the Hub, but since Google is already so deeply intertwined in my life and has a much greater pool of data about my activities, preferences, and so on, many of the Home Hub’s versions of these features are much more useful and satisfying to use. But I still greatly prefer saying “Alexa” to “Ok Google” or “Hey Google” whenever I want to use voice commands to control the smart display.
Google has also updated the smart home control interface for the Home Hub, and it’s not much more comprehensive and powerful. In conjunction with the new Home app for iOS and Android, the Hub can display every room in your home and every smart device you have installed. You can drill down to specific lights or switches, no matter which room they’re in, or just toggle entire groups of lights at a time. You can also get a summary of the smart devices in your home when you swipe down from the top of the screen. The Home Hub will also act as a viewer for Nest video doorbells and cameras, but it doesn’t work with other brands at this time.
Despite its name and greater smart home control capabilities, the Home Hub is not a smart home hub itself — you still need to set up devices with their own hubs or on your Wi-Fi network and then connect them to your Google Assistant account before you can control them with the Home Hub. Amazon’s new Echo Show has the ability to set up and control smart home devices without extra apps, hubs, or your phone.
The other big thing that the Home Hub doesn’t have is a camera for video calling. Google says that it specifically omitted a camera so that people would feel comfortable putting the Hub in a bedroom or other intimate area of their home. Personally, I didn’t miss it – in my experience testing these devices, I’ve found them to be rather clumsy for video calls, because you can’t easily reposition the camera for better framing or view. The privacy concerns that come with having an internet-connected camera staring at you all the time aren’t worth the trade-off of being able to make video calls with the device. The Home Hub can make voice calls through the Google Duo system and it can be used to broadcast to other Home devices on your Wi-Fi network like an intercom, if you do want to use it to communicate.
Of all of the devices in Google’s family of Home products, the Home Hub has quickly become my favorite. It’s a great little smart home controller, great little smart speaker for alarms and timers, and a near-perfect digital photo frame to view all of the thousands of pictures I’ve stored in my Google Photos account. It’s also more compact than the smart displays from Lenovo and others, so I can keep it on my nightstand or kitchen counter without it taking up too much room. Sure, it doesn’t sound as good as a Sonos One, Google Home Max, or even a new Echo Dot, but none of those show me pictures of my daughter learning to ride her bike for the first time when I walk by.
That alone is enough to make the Home Hub a permanent fixture in my home and probably in the homes of many other parents and grandparents.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge
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