Google’s smart screen is so useful that the biggest struggle might be deciding where to put it.
The Google HomeHub – Google’s answer to the Amazon Echo Show – is something of a revelation.
The surprise isn’t that adding a 7in display makes the smart screen more powerful than its speaker-only counterparts, but that, until you’ve used it, you don’t realise what you’re missing with the plain Home and Home Mini.
You’re still encouraged to control the HomeHub using your voice, but the power of the display quickly becomes obvious.
Ask how cold it is outside, for example, and the Home Hub not only gives a verbal response, but also details the weather forecast for the next six hours in a friendly graphic. Ask how long it will take to drive somewhere and the HomeHub can illustrate any areas affected by bad traffic and let you expand the map to look at the route in more detail.
In the simplest terms, having a screen helps you make decisions. While you would ordinarily need to know what you want to listen to and instruct your Google Home speaker accordingly, the HomeHub offers the luxury of recommendations.
Say “OK Google, open Spotify”, for example, and it shows albums and playlists based on your recent listening. Perhaps my favourite thing about the Home Hub, though, is how it integrates with Google Photos.
Along with various other options, the Google Home mobile app lets you show albums from your Google Photos on the HomeHub (as well as the time and weather) when it’s not in use.
It’s a similar tool to that on the Chromecast, except that you’re actually likely to see your pictures on the HomeHub as the display is always turned on. It might seem trivial, but with everyone taking more photos than ever, it’s easy to never revisit them.
And, unlike naff digital photo frames of old, you can change the images that the HomeHub shows at the tap of a button – no messing around with memory sticks and SD cards.
The Home Hub’s core interface is simple, with weather data and upcoming events on the opening page.
Swiping shows recommendations from Spotify and YouTube, along with “Top stories for you”, also sourced from YouTube. A further swipe reveals two cards showing tips for things you can do with your Hub.
To open Home View, which lets you control your lights, media, thermostat and cameras all from one place (as well as letting you send “Broadcasts” to your other Home speakers), simply swipe down from the top of the screen at any time.
I used the HomeHub with other Google devices, such as the Chromecast and Chromecast Audio, but mix in smart lights and you can see how life becomes easier. It’s also helpful not having to remember the exact names of your smart devices.
You can also use the HomeHub to make free audio calls to mobiles and landlines. Despite not having a camera, you can use it to make one-sided video calls – but this feels odd when the recipient can’t see you.
Depending on your opinions on privacy, that could be a good or a bad thing, but at least you never need worry about the Hub capturing embarrassing images. Another standout feature is being able to find recipes and follow their step-by-step instructions on screen, but you can also benefit from seeing countdown timers, calculations, translations and to-do lists on screen.
Sadly, although the HomeHub boasts that it can play live TV, this only works via YouTube. Fingers crossed we’ll see BBC iPlayer, Netflix and other services added in due course. Another negative? Unlike the Echo Show, there’s no web browser.
The Home Hub’s sound quality won’t blow you away, but it’s a step up from he Home Mini.
There’s still a distinct lack of bass, but mid-range frequencies and treble are clear up to around 70% volume. Even beyond this, the sound doesn’t distort too badly, but becomes too harsh to enjoy listening to music.
In Google’s defence, this level of quality is all you can expect from such a small device, and thanks to its compact design it can be easily accommodated on any bed-side table, kitchen worktop or sideboard without being overbearing.
Indeed, when looking at it square-on, you can only see the Home Hub’s display and not the odd-shaped speaker behind it.
Look carefully and you’ll also spot the two-mic array on its bezel. There’s a light sensor in the middle that enables the HomeHub to alter the display’s brightness and white point based on the ambient light in the room.
Google calls this feature Ambient EQ and in practice it works well, reducing the brightness to the extent that you’d be hard-pushed to know the images on display weren’t physical prints. This is great for making sure you don’t get too much blue light hitting the back of your retinas at night, but in darker environments, photos often look as though they would benefit from additional backlight.
Luckily, there’s an auto-brightness offset tool in the Home app or you can turn Ambient EQ off altogether. Google doesn’t list the panel’s resolution on the Home Hub’s web page, but the company told us it’s a 1,024 x 600 panel.
That’s a low resolution compared to Lenovo’s 8in Smart Display, which has a 1,280 x 800 screen, but it’s on par with the first-generation Amazon Echo Show. As such, photos never look as sharp as they would on your smartphone or tablet, but as you’ll be viewing the HomeHub from further away, you’re less likely to notice.
What’s more, it makes up for any lack of sharpness with colours that are both rich and accurate, while solid contrast levels add punch.
More than okay, Google
Bar a few gripes with the way its software works – annoyingly, even after you’ve watched a YouTube video or finished a recipe, its card lingers on the homescreen with no way to manually clear it – my experience with the HomeHub has been overwhelmingly positive.
Swiping through its interface, it might not appear to offer a huge amount at first, but that’s a sensible decision by Google.
It avoids blurring the lines between smart display and tablet, and at this stage of the Home Hub’s development it makes sense to keep things simple.
It achieves everything it sets out to do, making it easier to interact with Google Assistant and to control all your smart devices from one place. When you consider its low price and that it doubles up as a brilliant digital photo frame, it’s impossible not to recommend it as our pick of Google’s Home speakers.
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