We’re all talking to our gadgets now. It has become commonplace—and somehow not at all weird—to ask your speaker for a weather report, or to command your television to switch on HBO. This is the new now, a place we’ve been ever since Alexa marched into our living rooms and Siri snuck into our pockets. And it’s likely the future, as voice-controlled smart-home speakers and devices continue to proliferate like bunnies in the spring.
The thing is, I’m not quite sure it’s the future we asked for. Haven’t we already decided the smartphone is the best tool for ambient internet tasks? And don’t those phones work just fine for fetching information and controlling our homes, without the awkward syntax, imperfect understanding, and added cost of a talking speaker?
Google, which is already deep into the talking gadget, is one of the companies working to convince us that voice interfaces are ready to supplant touch interfaces, at least for the stuff you do around your house. Its latest device, Home Hub, marries a small voice-activated speaker with a 7-inch display that you can tap and swipe. Like the Google’s three previous Home speakers (and billions of Android devices), it also houses Google Assistant. The software, a stripped-down version of Google’s mobile OS called Android Things, feels familiar, like a cousin to your Android phone that’s been tuned to suit this particular form. But it’s not full Android, so you can’t play Fortnite on the thing, alas.
Other manufacturers make devices that plunk a screen onto a speaker—think of the Alexa-powered Amazon Echo Show and the Assistant-powered Smart Displays from Lenovo and JBL. Those smart-home hubs all have something this new one lacks: a camera. By choosing to omit a front-facing camera on the Home Hub, Google is signaling that it’s safe enough and private enough to put in your bedroom or your bathroom. The missing camera is also a signal of intent. You should use the Home Hub to display helpful information like a salsa recipe, a YouTube video, or the live feed from your backyard Nest camera. You should not use it to make video calls. (Though if you want to make audio calls through Duo, it can do that. Knock yourself out).
Setting it up was easy for me. I use a Google Pixel, and the required Home app was already installed on my phone because I already have a Google Home Mini speaker. Everything important the Home Hub needs to know about me—my voice, my search history, which services I subscribe to—it can learn from my phone with a couple of taps. If you’ve never used a Home device before, signing in and setting it up will take a bit longer, but no more than 10 minutes.
I found Home Hub to be the most helpful first thing in the morning. It runs what Google calls “routines,” so you can just say “OK, Google, good morning,” and it will step through a pre-set program, both spoken and on the screen. It greets you, tells you the time, gives you a weather forecast, and advises you on the best method for your commute, complete with a map that shows traffic. Then it plays five minutes of NPR News. Does everyone get NPR? Does Google know I listen to the NPR app on my phone, or does it just assume that since I live in San Francisco, this is what I want? Either way, neat.
Also helpful are the settings Google calls Home Hub’s “ambient” features. When it’s just sitting in the room and not in use, the Home Hub will show a photo slideshow. You can choose to display curated artistic images, or photos from your Google Photos library. Shared photo albums work, which I imagine is a bonus for families with faraway relatives who also use Google Photos. There’s some machine intelligence at work here as well. The Home Hub will match faces, places, and times. So if you have a bunch of photos from that picnic in the park that one Saturday in June, it can show them onscreen in a way that feels harmonious. At any time, you can ask where or when a photo was taken, and it will tell you. Since Google Photos can be trained to recognize faces, you can ask the Home Hub to show photos of particular people that you select. If you only shoot vertical photos, first of all shame on you, but also don’t worry because the landscape-oriented Home Hub can show two portrait-oriented photos side by side.
The screen brightens and dims to match the light in the room. I was skeptical that it would get dark enough at night to not be distracting, but the ambient light sensor is very sensitive, and the screen gets so very dim. I wasn’t aware there was an LCD display in the room with me at bedtime. You can also switch the Home Hub to show a clock, and after a few days with it, I found I preferred the clock over a slideshow at night.
Luckily for Google, it owns YouTube, and voice-controlled access to YouTube is native on the Home Hub. Amazon’s Echo Show can’t play YouTube videos natively, so if you want voice-activated playback of all the excellent and terrible stuff on the world’s largest video platform, the Home Hub is the winner. The only problem is that the seven-inch screen is too small for watching anything of substance. I used it to watch some recipe demonstrations, and even then I was squinting and wishing for a bigger screen. I suppose if my television had a Chromecast, I could ask the Home Hub to “show the video in the living room,” but then I’m walking around the house with miso all over my hands.
Speaking of kitchen work, Home Hub can display food recipes in a neat, easy-to-follow list that you step through using voice commands. However, in order to get this clean list view, the recipe needs to be properly formatted by the publisher. Many big-name publishers have done this, so their recipes load cleanly onto the Home Hub’s screen. But just as many haven’t put in the effort, so many of my recipe queries showed up as regular web pages. Again, too much squinting, and easier on the phone.
Another hitch is that Google Assistant’s ability to control the smart home is still a bit wanting. I can command any of my Google-ready things like Nest cameras, Wemo plugs, and August door locks. But the most-used internet-connected things in my smart home are my Sonos speaker system and my Apple TV, and Google Assistant can’t control either of them. I can turn on my television and soundbar with my voice since it’s all connected to a Logitech Harmony Hub, but I can’t cue up SMILF on Showtime. Support for Google Assistant should be coming to Sonos in just a couple of months. Apple TV? The wait will kill you.
I shouldn’t judge Google Assistant too harshly. The platform has a robust, ever-growing portfolio of devices it can control. Just be aware that the smart home is still very much an imperfect beast.
In the days I’ve spent talking to Google’s little speaker-slash-display, I can’t say it has provided much utility that my Android phone didn’t already furnish. The future may indeed be voice-controlled, but even then, it’ll probably still be easier for me to ask the phone a question or command it to turn on a light.
Families may be more interested in a Home Hub, since it comes with customizable controls for limiting screen time and for filtering PG-13 or R-rated content. The lack of a camera is also comforting for those with younger children, and just like Alexa, the Assistant’s dumb jokes are family-friendly. You might even feel it’s OK to put Home Hubs in the kids’ rooms so they have a controlled, limited, and stationary window to the internet.
Households that are childless or not packed to the gills with Chromecasts, Wemos, Nests, Augusts, and Google Home speakers may find the Home Hub less useful. Same with those already invested in Alexa, or those who rely instead on iOS, iCloud, HomeKit, Siri, HomePod, and Apple TV. But if Google Assistant is already running your house like an invisible AI butler, then this is the best way to give the thing a face.
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