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Smart Home

Google I/O: Smart home announcements we expect from the keynote

Google Assistant Connect, the Lenovo Smart Clock and possibly a Nest Hub Max could lead to a surge in Google smart home hardware.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

Google could be ready to expand its smart home lineup. The company's annual developer conference, Google I/O, is right around the corner, kicking off today. This year, we're expecting updates to the company's Android mobile software and perhaps cool new augmented-reality gadgets. It could also be a big year for Google's smart home efforts.

At CES in January, Google showed off a trimmed-down version of a smart display meant for your beside called the Lenovo Smart Clock. We've seen leaks of a bigger smart display with a built-in Nest Cam that could be called the Nest Hub Max.

Google also debuted Google Assistant Connect at CES. The idea behind Assistant Connect is to allow companies to build hardware that talks directly to nearby Google Home devices over Bluetooth. Google showed an e-ink display and a button as prototypes. The device sends a query to a nearby Google Home, Google's cloud handles the computing, then the display can show the current time or weather. It's a similar approach to the one Amazon launched last fall with its Amazon Echo devices serving up features to satellite Microwave and Wall Clock products.

At I/O, look for Google to update us on the Lenovo Smart Clock and Google Assistant Connect and hopefully debut a new smart display from Nest.

The Nest Hub Max

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A screenshot of the leaked info. 

Google

Last month, Google appeared to accidentally leak a new device called the Nest Hub Max on the company's product page. A screenshot captured before the listing was taken down boasted of a "10-inch screen and stereo speakers."

Assuming this product exists, it could easily launch at I/O. Expect it to have a built-in Nest Cam -- so it could double as a security device complete with customizable motion alerts. Including the word "Max" in the title also suggests it will have a somewhat large footprint with a focus on premium sound quality, like the company's Google Home Max smart speaker.

Otherwise, expect the device to be a smart display with a lot of the same features as the current Google Home Hub. The $150 Home Hub combines a smart speaker with a touchscreen display. The screen shows the forecast when you ask about the weather. You can check your calendar or browse local restaurants for a place to eat. You can also use it to watch videos, look at pictures and check on your smart home devices.

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The current Google Home Hub is relatively affordable -- most other smart displays cost $250. It's also compact and cute with a 7-inch screen and may appeal to privacy-minded individuals because it has no embedded camera.

The Nest Hub Max could complement it well. Google used a similar strategy with smart speakers. In addition to the $400 Google Home Max, the search giant still offers the original $130 Google Home and the $50 Google Home Mini -- all of which feature the same voice assistant. The idea was to give customers a range of options to pick the level of sound quality they wanted.

Google took a similar approach when smart displays first rolled out last year. In addition to the Google Home Hub, Lenovo, JBL and LG all offer smart displays with the same Google Assistant and similar features. Each has its own unique strengths and weaknesses in terms of hardware.

A Nest Hub Max could hopefully mean Google will finally integrate Nest into its own Google Home app. Despite the fact that Google owns Nest, you still need to use the separate Nest app when you're setting up a new Nest Thermostat or a Nest Cam. The Google Home app has gotten much better in recent months, and setup options for Nest products would help do away with that much more bloat on your smartphone.

Google Assistant Connect

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While a new smart display with an embedded Nest Cam could highlight this year's smart home announcements at I/O, I also expect Google Assistant Connect will lay the groundwork for the company's smart home future. Google will no doubt have several prototypes to demonstrate its capabilities along with dedicated sessions teaching developers what they can do with Connect.

In years past, Android Things looked like it would be Google's bridge to a more robust lineup of smart home devices. Android Things was a trimmed-down version of the company's mobile operating system meant for smart home devices. Last year, it officially launched alongside Google's first smart displays. Lenovo, JBL and LG even used Android Things as the operating system for their respective smart displays. It looked like those displays served both as cool new devices, and as a proof of concept showing what Android Things could do.

Earlier this year, Google refocused Android Things and made it solely a platform for smart displays and smart speakers. Google Assistant Connect could be a potential replacement as a way for developers to focus on creative hardware, then securely tie it to Google's cloud.

At CES, Google showed off its Connect service enabling various devices to communicate directly with a nearby Google Home Mini smart speaker to trigger different features. A credit card-size, Connect-driven e-ink display pinged the Home Mini for weather and traffic information. A Connect-based button turned on lights. Google says you can program a hardware device using Connect to do anything Google Assistant can do through voice commands.

Devices with Google Assistant Connect would be tied to a Google-focused smart home since the smarts come via talking to a nearby Google Home speaker or display device over Bluetooth. In exchange, developers can focus on hardware while letting Google handle a lot of the back-end computing. The nearby smart speaker takes care of sending and receiving info from the cloud, and you should be able to set up Connect devices with the Google Home app.

If developers get on board, Google Assistant Connect could help the search giant greatly expand its lineup of smart home devices in the future and it would help the Google Home app gain a more central place in your smart home setup.

Lenovo Smart Clock

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The petite Lenovo Smart Clock. 

James Martin/CNET

I had a chance to use a working prototype of the Lenovo Smart Clock at CES. No speculation needed on this one; the Lenovo Smart Clock is real, mostly finished and due out soon. It would make sense for Google to show it off again at I/O and possibly announce an official release date.

The Clock would provide an interesting contrast to the possible Nest Hub Max, as it'll be even smaller than the current lineup of Google smart displays. The unit we saw had a 4-inch screen and no camera. The display features have been trimmed for your bedside -- it can only show the weather, calendar, traffic and music. Like the Lenovo Smart Display and the Google Home Hub, it still has Google Assistant built in and can respond to all of the same voice commands, but it can't play videos, show recipes or some of the other features I've come to enjoy in smart displays.

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For example, 30 minutes before your alarm, the display will start to brighten to gently rouse you from sleep. I really liked that feature when testing alarm clocks earlier this year. You can also snooze by whacking the top. It's reasonably priced at $80, which is more than the $50 Google Home Mini, but less than the current crop of smart displays.

$80 is still more than any of the best non-smart alarms I tested, and the trimmed-down functionality might limit the Lenovo Smart Clock's appeal compared with other smart displays. Still, I'm curious to see if it will win over consumers and add another competent piece to Google's already robust lineup of smart displays.