+ Thursday December 12th, 2019

Google’s newest smart home hardware – Nest Hub Max – goes on sale in Australia on Tuesday in charcoal or white colours for $349. It features a big 10-inch touchscreen, a new front-facing camera and big, booming sound, putting the Google Assistant on its largest display yet.

The Nest Hub (formerly known as the Google Home Hub) made a huge splash when it went on sale last year. While we loved the original we do have notes for Google from our year using it. When rumours began circulating about a new version, we crossed our fingers and hoped that Google had addressed some of our issues.

A year later, Nest Hub Max is the second generation of Google’s smart home hardware with a screen. It brings the latest enhancements and features from Google’s engineers and bakes them all into a slightly larger form factor.

We’ve been lucky enough to have one on our test bench (literally a kitchen bench) for a few days so we can tell you what to expect if you head out to purchase one of your very own.

What’s in the box?

Here’s what you’ll see when you rip open the packaging, switch it on and put it through its paces.

The box is set up the same as the Nest Hub, and when you get it out of the box you’ll see that it looks extremely similar to its forebearer.

Hub Max features the same cloth back behind the display as we saw on the original Nest Hub, itself similar to the material on Google’s Home Mini.

The major difference between the Hubs is of course the bigger screen, coming in at 10.1-inches instead of the smaller device’s 7-inches.

The big new feature is the front-facing camera, which is used for more than just video calling – it’ll also recognise you with Face Match, follow you around in video calls and watch for Quick Gestures for media control.

There are a few other different hardware additions from the first generation to the second with one being the new private mode switch which physically disables (yes physically disables, not a software toggle) the camera and the far-field microphones.

Unfortunately the plug for the Hub Max is wider than a standard Australian socket and as such it is a tight squeeze plugging it in to a power board. This is not the first time Google hardware has had this problem. Maybe one day they will just use USB-C.

So, what can the Nest Hub Max do?

Still the Best Photo Frame

Google heard the compliments directed towards the original Nest Hub over its integration with Google Photos Live Albums, and has retained the feature on the Nest Hub Max. With the larger screen, your photos present a little larger, and it looks like it’s starting to present some photos side-by-side, two at a time.

Google’s demonstrated the “then and now” photos that show older photos of the same person (or pet) side-by-side with a current photo.

Your new Security Camera

The front-facing camera serves double-, even triple-duty. You can sign up for a Nest Aware subscription to get alerts and notifications when movement is detected during the hours you’re not at home. You can connect to the camera remotely without a subscription if you want to check out its surroundings (if you’re away from home, maybe you want to look in on that naughty pet to be sure they’re behaving).

If you’re concerned about privacy planning a cloud-connected camera in your family’s living room, you’re right to be. Google’s made sure you’ll always know what it’s doing with a bright LED next to the camera that lights up when the camera is in use, and blinks when it’s being accessed remotely. You can of course use the switch to turn the camera off to prevent anyone accessing it, although you’ll also lose voice control.

Video Calling with Duo

Like other smart displays with cameras built in, the Nest Hub Max integrates with Google Duo, the company’s free person-to-person video calling service. When in a conference, the camera has the ability to pan and zoom slightly in order to frame the shot it sends to the other end of the call in a pleasing fashion using some on-device AI.

It’s a little disappointing to see that Google’s not integrating with more established services like Skype here, but we’re hopeful that might arrive in the future – it’s certainly a big advantage for Amazon’s Echo Show devices. The fact that Duo is free is not enough by itself.

At this stage there still seem to be issues using Duo calling when you have more than one account on the Hub Max. For example I set up my fiancee on it as well, but when I went to call her from the Hub Max it tried to call her on the Hub Max — even though it couldn’t see her and it was my voice that said it.

This morning I had her try and call me from home while was to the gym and same issue. It says not-available and asks to leave a message — effectively the equivalent of a busy phone signal — yes it was trying to call me on the Hub Max even though I was at least 30km away.

Google are looking into the issue for us and we’re waiting to hear back.

Google Assistant is Still the Best Assistant

As always, the Google Assistant is waiting to help you out. The Nest Hub Max can recognise you by voice or by face using on-device AI (nothing needs to be sent to the cloud to figure out who’s on screen or who’s speaking).

Google’s Voice Match feature has been augmented with a Face Match that takes a map of your face from different angles on your phone and uses the map to recognise you from different angles. As recognised users come into view of the camera, it shows their avatar on screen as an indication that they’ve been recognised, and also so you know whose personalisation will apply to general queries.

If you’ve got a Voice Match profile registered though, voice matching will take precedence over the matched face. If you’re in front of the Nest Hub Max and recognised by it, but your partner asks a question of it, the result will be personalised for them rather than you.

All the visual aids we saw Google add to Assistant with the advent of the Nest Hub (and Lenovo Smart Display, etc) make a return here. The Nest Hub Max, moreso even than the original Nest Hub, is designed to be used in some larger, more open spaces than the original. That’s pretty much going to be your kitchen / living room, so the recipe search, step by step guides and other kitchen-related features are better experienced on the bigger screen.

Be careful if you’re going to use it in the kitchen though: like the original Nest Hub, there’s no real water resistance rating on the Nest Hub Max, so you’d be well advised not to use it too close to running water or other such dangers. It also remains to be seen exactly how easy it is to clean that fabric finish should it get some wayward food bits on it if you’re following a recipe a little too enthusiastically.

The camera adds a lot of functionality to the Nest Hub Max – and we’re not done yet.

A mini media player with booming sound

Like its little brother, Nest Hub Max can function as a Chromecast receiver so you can cast media to it from your Android & iOS devices, or your Chrome browser on a laptop.

Unlike the smaller Nest Hub though, the Max’s 10-inch screen is actually pretty useful for watching videos longer than a few minutes, and depending where you place it it could function as a second (or third) screen for occupying some of the little occupants in your house.

If you can cast it, Nest Hub Max can play it – almost. Weirdly, Netflix doesn’t play nice with the Hub Max, but Netflix has often been problematic on devices that aren’t actual physical Chromecasts. Still, most other video services aren’t as precious about their hardware so you can expect other video and audio streaming services to work just fine.

As with the last Max-branded device from Google, Nest Hub Max carries a far more serious audio footprint than its little brother. The larger footprint of the device means Google’s been able to cram in more sound equipment – there’s two forward-firing tweeters, and a single larger rear-facing woofer.

Audio from the Next Hub Max is good, not great but good enough. It is better than the Google Home, the Home Mini and the Nest Hub but not up to par with the Sonos One.

While media is playing, the front-facing camera is watching for a Quick Gesture to pause/resume playback – simply raise your hand in front of it and it’ll do as you’ve asked (stop sign). If you’re in a noisy environment, this is a welcome addition to the controls, but you should probably be sure any nearby mischief makers aren’t aware of the function or your media playback will be pretty spotty!

The centre of your Smart Home

One of Google’s strongest selling points for its Home/Nest hardware has been the smart home integration. Not much has changed on this front.

Nest Hub Max still has the Home View introduced list year on the smaller Nest Hub, and it looks and feels similar to the controls offered you in the Google Home app on your mobile device.

Google’s ability to control practically any smart home device means you’re unlikely to ever be left wanting – there are hundreds of devices supported (not all of them are sold in Australia), and given the company’s dominance in the local market it’s unlikely anyone will bring a product to market without integration with the Assistant.

As with all Nest/Home hardware though, there’s no ZigBee controller built in so you’ll still need to buy that bridge if you want to control Hue, Sengled, Tradfri and other devices.

Should you get one?

Considering all the features on offer here, the Hub Max’s asking price of $350 seems reasonable, although you should probably consider the fact that most of these features are also offered by other smart displays with cameras.

Lenovo’s 10-inch Smart Display for example is a good $70 cheaper, but comes with a more traditional backlit display and a less fancy front-facing camera. It’s also less interested in blending into your home with sharper edges and no soft corners, although that’s really more of a personal preference.

Google’s smart home ecosystem is now well-established, so if your home is already kitted out with the company’s hardware you’re likely to go with this, no-questions-asked, if you’re looking for a bigger display. As a member of the Nest ecosystem, Hub Max benefits from integration with other Nest products that might already be in your home too.

You’ll be able to buy the Nest Hub Max starting Tuesday September 10 from most major retailers, specifically Harvey Norman, JB Hi-fi, The Good Guys and Officeworks. Optus has also signed on to sell the device, but it won’t be in their stores immediately.

Scott Plowman   Editor

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Scott is our modding guru - he has his finger on the pulse of all things ‘moddable’, pointing us towards all the cutting edge mods hacks that are available. When he’s not gymming it up, or scanning the heck out of Nexus devices, you'll find him on the Ausdroid Podcast.

Outside of Ausdroid, Scott's a health care professional and lecturer at a well known Victorian university.

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Adam Plowman
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Adam Plowman

i didn’t say that

Adam
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Adam

I would consider getting one to replace the Home in my kitchen, which in turn would replace the Mini in my bedroom (which was free), but I’d love if they released a model where the screen came off and could be used as a tablet, then replaced back on the speaker to swap between tablet and Nest mode. It could charge too!

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