It’s not until I became cooped up inside my New York apartment (thanks, coronavirus) that I realized a smart display is not a terrible companion to have in the home. I’ve been talking to Google Assistant the past four months through Google’s 10-inch smart display, the Nest Hub Max, a smart speaker like the Google Home but with a screen.
This isn’t Google’s first smart display—that’d be the 7-inch Nest Hub—but it is the first with a camera, which opens up a lot more capabilities, from using it as a security camera to making video calls to mitigate the effects of forced isolation. That puts it directly head to head against Amazon’s second-gen Echo Show (it’s priced exactly the same, too!).
I won’t mince words: I think Google Assistant is smarter than Alexa. But I do think there are several moments where this smart display doesn’t go far enough to be as useful as it can be in the home, especially considering its $230 price tag is almost double that of its smaller sibling.
An Extra Screen in the Home
Voice assistants work best with a screen. There, I said it. If that seems antithetical to what futuristic movies promised us, well, it wouldn’t be the first time. It’s easy to call up cooking instructions on YouTube while the Nest Hub Max is facing you in the kitchen or to video chat with a friend or family member. You’re locked into using Google Duo for video calls, but anyone with a Nest Hub or the Duo app on their Android or iOS device (or on the web!) can join in.
The 10-inch screen (with its 1280 x 800 resolution) immediately makes the Hub Max more valuable to me than the 7-inch Nest Hub, which is just too small for the kitchen or living room (it’s better suited for the bedroom since there’s no camera).
It also helps that the Hub Max has much better speakers. WIRED reviewers Jeffrey Van Camp and Parker Hall named it as their favorite smart display for listening to music, saying that the 2 x 18 mm 10-watt tweeters and 75 mm 30-watt woofer beneath the cloth-covered base won’t put any dedicated soundbars or surround systems to shame, but for built-in speakers they’re impressive.
What ties it all together is the single hands-free gesture that’s unique to the Hub Max. All you need to do to silence an alarm or pause video and music is raise your hand at the screen like you’re telling it to stop. The camera recognizes this sign (as long as you’re relatively nearby), sorely helping me out when my hands are covered in flour. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Echo Show copy it as soon as possible, but whoever implements it next, I’d love to see more gestures. There’s so much more you can do with similar hand-waving gestures on Google’s Pixel 4 phones, but I think many of them would be better served on a smart display.
When you do need to touch the screen, the interface is snappy. Google suggests tips as you’re setting up the Max, but if you get rid of the suggestions they’ll stay gone. I like that. One of my biggest issues with the Echo Show is how Amazon will continuously hound you to try new Amazon capabilities and services in a small banner at the bottom of its screen, which you can never shut off.
Up to six folks in the household can set up a profile with facial and voice recognition so that when they say, “Hey Google, how long will it take to get to work?” or “OK Google, do I have any meetings today?” in front of the Hub Max they’ll get answers relevant only to them. As for the voice assistant providing those answers, Google Assistant picks up what I say more accurately than Alexa. Granted, I live in an apartment and not a palatial home in the suburbs, but I never had to repeat myself or shout when talking to the Hub Max even when I was in another room.
Outside of controlling smart home devices, routines are one of my favorite parts of using the Hub Max (it also works on any Google Assistant-enabled device). A simple “Good morning,” to Assistant has it read me the day’s weather, preview my morning commute (which is none at the moment), tell me if I had any meetings or reminders for the day, and read me headlines I might want to hear. You can mix, match, add, and subtract capabilities to create your own custom routines.
But where Assistant does falter is with its third-party ecosystem. Google locks you out of more apps than Amazon. You can listen to Spotify or Pandora, for example, but not Apple Music. And while the ever-excellent access to Google Calendar is baked in, you can’t use Apple’s underrated-but-solid Calendar and Reminders (unlike on the Echo Show, where these services are supported). It’s a little frustrating if you’re not all-in on Google’s ecosystem, which is precisely what the company wants.
You might not think of the Hub Max as a security device, but Google is pushing the camera as a way to monitor your home when you’re away—going so far as to nudge you to subscribe to its Nest Aware service if you want to store video clips in Nest’s cloud. The problem is it lacks some basic features that you can find in a $25 Wyze security camera.
For example, it’s great that the camera offers a 127-degree field of view so it can capture most of a room, but it critically can’t see in the dark, unlike Nest’s standalone indoor and outdoor cameras (or most security cameras). There’s also no physical privacy shutter you can slide over the camera, something that’s available on Amazon’s Echo Show.
There’s a switch on the back that cuts power to the microphone and camera, but you bafflingly can’t disable one independently of the other. When you do toggle it on, it’s difficult to tell at a distance that the camera is indeed powered off. The LED indicator and icon on the screen aren’t as pronounced as I want them to be. A lot of people don’t trust Google. I don’t trust Google. Or any of its big rivals, really. Every day of the four months I had the Max set up in my home, I wanted a shutter.
You can livestream the Hub Max’s video feed from the app without subscribing and the quality is solid, but it won’t save clips to Nest’s cloud so it’s not much use without a subscription (you can get motion alerts, though). There’s a free 30-day trial you get for buying the smart display, after which you need to pay $5 a month ($50 per year) to store 5 days of video history, $10 a month ($100 per year) for 10 days of video history, or $30 a month ($300 per year) for 30 days of video history.
If you don’t have a security camera in your home and the Nest Hub Max is going to sit in a prime vantage point, then it might be worth opting for the cheapest subscription option. Otherwise, it might be a good idea to buy a separate one. You can even stream live footage from supported cameras on the Hub Max.
Control Your Data
Before you buy any voice assistant-powered device, remember that the more you use these devices, companies like Google and Amazon are able to stockpile more data about you. The first thing to do after getting the Nest Hub Max is to head into the Google Home app on your phone and adjust the privacy settings for your account (you can also head here). There aren’t many that are specific to the Hub Max, but you can (and should) go through these line by line and decide if you want to turn off settings like “record YouTube history” and “save web history.”
To delete what you’ve said to the Hub Max, you can also say “Delete everything I said this week,” to clear the cache and cookies from the past seven days, and ask if for clarification on things like “How do you keep my information private?” or “Are you saving my audio recordings?”
After these four months, I’m increasingly happier with the Hub Max in my home, especially now that I’m stuck here 24/7. The 10-inch screen is its best feature, especially in the kitchen as it’s dead-simple to follow bread-making videos. The camera is a close second but if none of its capabilities are enticing, then the cheaper smart display is the one to get, or a simpler, screen-less smart speaker like the Nest Mini.