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Nest Hub Max: Google's 10-inch Assistant smart display costs $230, debuts Sept. 9

Google's new premium-tier smart display joins the Nest family and adds a camera.

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Angela Lang/CNET

The Nest Hub Max is the first member of Google's newly expanded Nest product family. It's also the first Google-made smart display with a built-in camera. Launched at the Google I/O keynote in May, this new, higher-end version of the Google Home Hub has a lot of the features that appeared in a listing of the device leaked on the Google store in March. It has a 10-inch HD screen, the camera doubles as a Nest Cam, and it has bigger speakers tuned for stereo sound. It's also competitively priced at $230. That's more than the now $130 Home Hub (now called the Nest Hub), and the same as its main competition, the Amazon Echo Show

The Nest Hub Max combines the best parts of every other smart display on top of the already solid foundation of the Google Home Hub. The Nest Hub Max is gunning for the title of best smart display, and it checks a lot of the right boxes in this early viewing. It will hit store shelves on Sept 9.  

Read moreAmazon Echo Show 5 smart display coming in June for $90

Google kept a few surprising extras under wraps. You can play and pause music and videos with new gesture controls. The camera can recognize your face and show you personalized notifications. You can make video calls, which isn't a surprise, but the camera will also follow you as you talk and move around its field of view -- a trick the Facebook Portal smart display used to great effect when it debuted at the end of 2018.

Just like Google's first smart display, the Google Home Hub, you can control the Nest Hub Max with your voice through the built-in Google Assistant. It will respond to all of the same commands as Google's smart speakers, just like the Google Home Mini. For most questions, Google will show extra info on the screen. You'll see the forecast when you ask about the weather and pictures of restaurants will appear if you search for a place to eat.

Now playing: Watch this: The Google Nest Hub Max soups up the smart display
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You can also use the touchscreen to watch YouTube videos, control your compatible smart home gadgets and look at family photos. In fact, Google will curate an album of photos for you if you'd like and scroll through them as your screensaver. Just like the Home Hub, an ambient light sensor will adapt the brightness and warmth of the pics on the fly, and it makes them look great -- like physical pictures in a frame instead of a blaring image on a billboard. An updated home screen can actually keep your pictures as the background of the touchscreen as well.

Google Nest

You've probably noticed that the name of Google's new smart display resembles scrambled fridge word magnets. That's because it's the first device under a new combined smart home branch of the company -- Google Nest. The original Google Home Hub will now be called the Nest Hub. The Nest Hub, and a few other legacy devices from the formerly discrete Google and Nest hardware brands, are also getting a price cut. The Nest Hub will now cost $130 instead of $150 (you can find it on sale for even less).

Read more: Google is replacing Works with Nest with Works with Google Assistant and it could make your smart home worse.  

Google Nest will encompass smart speakers, smart displays, Chromecast streamers and Wi-Fi routers. It'll also cover products that used to simply sport the Nest brand, including smart thermostats and smart cameras.

The Google Nest Hub Max is intended to showcase what the combined strengths of the two formerly distinct units can do.

Bigger and louder

From a distance, you could easily confuse the Hub Max with the original Google Nest Hub. They feature the exact same design, even down to the volume toggle and a mute switch on the back. The difference in hardware is primarily the size and the camera. The mute button now also cuts the power to the cam to effectively shutter it without an actual physical shutter.

Side-by-side, there's no mixing up the two devices. The 10-inch screen makes the 7-inch original model look puny. The speakers look the same, but the Hub Max speakers have more power with two front-facing 10-watt tweeters and a 30-watt woofer.

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The Hub Max makes the original Hub look puny. 

Angela Lang/CNET

I had a chance to listen to the Nest Hub Max during a hands-on demo. As expected, it sounded much better than the lackluster audio from the Google Nest Hub. I'll be curious to see how it fares against the Amazon Echo Show and the JBL Link View in a controlled environment, but I expect it'll keep up with the best sounding smart speakers. Both with classical music and rock, the sound was crisp and I didn't catch distortion at any volume.

Thumbing its nose at the field

While the Facebook Portal doesn't have as many features as the other smart displays we've tested, it was hard to ignore entirely because the video tracking worked well and made video calls much more lively. I didn't like the device, especially since Facebook is mired in privacy scandals, but having a camera follow you while you talk works well if you have small kids with out-of-town grandparents who want to keep up with the action.

The Nest Hub Max could steal the Portal's thunder, as its motion-tracking camera worked just as well in my demo. You can tap to turn it on or off. When it's off, the 127-degree camera shows a wide-angle view of the room. Turn it on, and it can pan, tilt and zoom to follow the action. It zooms out to capture everyone it can see, or it moves for a tighter shot if you're the only one in the frame.

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The Hub Max tracks everyone in view during video calls. 

Angela Lang/CNET

I couldn't see a way to tell it to focus on one person in a group. You can do that with the Portal, but the Nest Hub Max automatically tries to track everyone. You also need to use Google Duo -- the company's video chat app -- to use the feature. Facebook similarly forced you to use Facebook Messenger, but the company just added the option to use the popular WhatsApp messaging service with Portal. I also didn't see a way to add any augmented reality hats and glasses using the Hub Max, which is a fun feature of the Portal.

Thanks to the cam on the Hub Max, you can also opt-in to a new Face Match feature. When the camera recognizes you, it can automatically start playing video messages. It can tell you about your day or give you an update on traffic. Face Match can essentially trigger personalized routines as soon as you walk into a room.

Google representatives were quick to point out that you can opt out of the feature if you're not comfortable with it, among other privacy features, and noted that it's meant for personalization and convenience as opposed to security. You won't be able to make face-verified purchases, for example. Your face data will also be stored locally on the device, as opposed to on Google's cloud servers.

Face Match will allow the Hub Max to change the home screen based on who's in the room. With the original Hub, you can opt in to showing your calendar and other info on the screen. If multiple people sign into the device, the Hub does it's best to combine everyone's info -- you'll see everyone's calendar merged into one. The Nest Hub Max will automatically switch to individual profiles on the fly.

The built-in 6.5 megapixel cam can also function as a security cam when you're away. You can drop in on the cam's feed -- another function you can disable if it makes you uncomfortable. If you're watching the live feed, the cam will show a green light -- typical of a Nest Cam, and the Hub Max will show a message on the screen. You won't be able to spy in secret.

You can also get alerts via the Nest app if it detects motion and you can use the camera with Nest's premium Nest Aware subscription so you can get person-specific alerts and set motion zones. The cam doesn't have night vision, unfortunately.

With the Amazon Echo Show, you can use the camera for video calls and you can drop in on the live feed, but that's it. The Nest Hub Max's cam does a lot more, and I doubt it's a coincidence that Google chose the same $230 retail price.

Making gestures

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Hold up your hand to pause the music. 

Angela Lang/CNET

The Nest Hub Max's camera will also allow some gesture controls, which is unique among smart displays. At launch, you'll be able to play and pause whatever music or video you're playing. Look at the camera and hold up your hand as if you're saying stop and it will. If you're simply waving, the Hub Max smartly won't respond, as you need to be both looking at it and making the gesture.

This feature could come in very handy if you have a noisy household. All smart speakers and smart displays we've tested tend to struggle hearing your commands over loud background noise. Even if you're playing music loudly, you might have to shout to get it to stop with a voice command. Now you can save your voice and still not have to touch the device if you're cooking and have contaminated hands.

During my hands on demo, the feature worked flawlessly most of the time. It never failed to recognize the gesture from the presenter. It occasionally struggled when I tried to do it. We had particular trouble capturing it on film as our strong backlight gave it fits. Even without that light, it missed my signal a couple of times, but had a few perfect streaks where I moved all around the room and it picked me up every time.

Fortunately, Google still has a little time to polish the feature.

Outlook

The Nest Hub Max is due out on September 9 for $230. You'll be able to buy it in the US, the UK and Australia in chalk or charcoal. It will cost £220 in the UK and AU$350. I'm a little disappointed the Nest Hub Max doesn't have the more colorful aqua and sand options of the original Hub, but it has a Thread built-in. Thread is a mesh networking signal which could allow the Hub Max to act as a bridge for future smart home sensors.

In the meantime, the gesture controls, built-in Nest Cam, face match, and auto framing during video calls all help it stand out from an increasingly competitive crowd of smart displays. The Nest Hub Max could easily outshine the competition if these features work well when it ships.

Unfortunately, it could also outshine its friends. Last year, Google partnered with Lenovo, JBL and LG on smart displays. The best ones from Lenovo and JBL cost $250 and are great devices, but can't match the Hub Max in features. When the original Hub rolled out as the Home Hub, it debuted a new smart home control panel that eventually made its way to those third-party displays so they weren't left in the dust.

The new home screen, which keeps your pictures in the background as you scroll, will roll out to existing models. But most of the unique tricks of the Nest Hub Max will be impossible for the others to match without a similar built-in camera. People who bought a third-party Google smart display when they rolled out last summer might have a bitter pill to swallow when this new model outshines their own roughly a year later.

Nevertheless, it's hard to be too mad at the Nest Hub Max for positioning itself as potentially the best smart display on the market at a competitive price. Now it just needs to live up to that billing.

Read more: Here's everything we've learned so far at Google I/O 2019  

Update, July 24: Added the official release date of Sept. 9. 

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