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Smart Home

Google Home Hub joins the fight to put a screen on your countertop

Google's smart display cuts the camera and adds adaptive brightness and a smart home control panel.

Google's new smart display is called the Home Hub, and it's available in four different colors for $150.

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Read the full Google Home Hub review

Hey, Google, what do you get when you combine a smart speaker, a touchscreen and a smart home control panel? 

Answer: The Google Home Hub. We've heard rumors of Google's own smart display for months and saw leaked photos a couple of weeks ago -- now, Google's gone and made it official by announcing the thing Tuesday at its Made by Google devices event in New York. 

Thanks to the Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View, we're already pretty familiar with what a Google Assistant-equipped smart display can do. Like those devices and just like the rest of the Google Home lineup does, the Home Hub will respond to Google Assistant voice commands. You can control your smart home, check your calendar, search the web and more with a voice command. 

Now playing: Watch this: The Google Home Hub is a cute, little home control center
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The touchscreen shows extra info if you ask about the weather or search for local restaurants, and it certainly comes in handy when you want to check on your smart home cameras, pull up a map, look at pictures or watch videos. The Google Home Hub uses the same operating system and voice assistant as the Lenovo Smart Display and JBL Link View, both of which I liked when I reviewed them this past summer.

You can buy the Google Home Hub in charcoal, aqua, chalk or sand for a relatively inexpensive $150 (£139) when it comes out on Oct. 22. All four color options will be available in the US, the UK and Australia. (The AU price converts to roughly AU$260; we don't have Australian pricing yet.) 

The price is pretty attractive, despite a relatively small 7-inch screen. The Lenovo Smart Display costs $250 for the model with a 10-inch screen and $200 for the 8-inch version. The JBL Link View costs $250 and has an 8-inch screen.

An unlisted video on the Made by Google YouTube account gave us a bit of a preview of the event. 

Google/GIF by CNET

New tricks

Beyond what the Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View can do, the Google Home Hub will offer a few new tricks to help it stand out in the increasingly crowded field of smart displays.

Like the Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View, the Google Home Hub will distinguish between individual voices in order to offer personalized assistance. Unlike them, it doesn't have a camera. The dot on the upper bezel that looks like a camera is a light sensor. Google wanted you to feel comfortable putting the Home Hub in any room, so removing the camera was meant to provide an increased sense of privacy. You can make calls with the Home Hub, even video calls with Google Duo, but they will be one-way video calls as the recipient won't be able to see you.

The light sensor will also make it easier for the Google Home Hub to blend in, as it aids another new feature called Ambient EQ, which essentially allows the Home Hub to adapt the screen brightness and warmth on the fly to match the surrounding lighting. Google didn't want the Home Hub blaring a blinding image in a darkened room. This sensor and lighting effect will allow the Home Hub to stand out as perhaps the most versatile smart display with Google Assistant, as it helps it blend in to any room.

Seen here beside a Google Home Mini, the Google Home Hub is relatively small, with a 7-inch screen.

James Martin/CNET

Those who have adopted smart home devices will also appreciate the Home Hub's smart home control panel. If you swipe down on the screen, you'll see controls that populate automatically to support the specific settings for any Google-compatible connected household devices you might have installed. This is a feature we've wanted to see on the other Google smart displays, but hasn't materialized until now.

Fortunately, the smart home controls will eventually roll out to the Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View, so Google's not leaving its partners behind on that front.

Other features include parental controls and a new Downtime Mode that'll basically shut the assistant down during prescheduled periods when you'd rather not be distracted. Your alarms will still work, though, so no worries there. 

I still find it odd that Google made a big show of its four third-party smart displays at CES (including upcoming models from LG and Sony) and then rolled out one of its own, especially since the smart displays from Lenovo and JBL have only just recently hit stores. Multiple Google representatives have insisted that the intention is not to undermine its partners, but to offer customers a variety of options. The absence of a camera on the Home Hub might be enough to keep Google's partners happy, although that feels like an obvious upgrade in a next-generation Home Hub. Then what?

Hands-on

I had a chance to spend some time with the Google Home Hub, and it's much smaller than I expected. Even knowing it had a 7-inch screen, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it fit in the palm of my hand. Aesthetically, it reminded me a lot of a Google Home Mini.

It sort of looks like Google tacked a small touchscreen on to a smart speaker. The design isn't nearly as seamlessly striking as the Lenovo Smart Display, but I didn't mind it. It's compact and odd, but a little cute. Clearly, Google wants you to feel comfortable sticking the Home Hub on any surface of your home, and you certainly won't have trouble finding space.

The Ambient EQ feature also worked quite well during repeated hands-on demonstrations. A Google representative showed me an ordinary picture in a frame compared with the same picture on the Google Home Hub's touchscreen. Then, he turned off a nearby light, and the Home Hub adapted to the new ambient light perfectly. In a dark room, it was a little brighter than the actual picture, but it didn't have that blaring billboard effect.

Google leans on its new Live Albums feature to help the Home Hub moonlight as a supersmart digital picture frame.

James Martin/CNET

The rep then held his finger over the sensor to show how dark the screen could get, which would come in handy if you wanted to use it as an alarm clock in your room at night. Between the ambient EQ feature and the integration with the more robust Live Albums -- which allows Google Assistant to sort your pictures by people or place -- Google's put a lot of thought into making the Google Home Hub a digital picture frame when you're not using it for something else.

Fortunately, it still works quite well when you're actively using it. My favorite feature of both the Lenovo and the JBL was the voice-assisted, step-by-step recipe help. Not only can Google Assistant walk you through what you want to cook, you can also ask it to pull up YouTube videos if you need extra instructions on a step. Plus, you can multitask and play videos, listen to music or add an ingredient to your grocery list. Google Assistant will save your place in the recipe so you can jump right back into cooking when you're ready. I'm glad to say this feature is included in the Home Hub.

My favorite new feature was certainly the smart home control panel. Swipe down and you'll see buttons for common tasks like turning off your lights or broadcasting a message. You can also look through your devices room by room to access more in-depth controls.

James Martin/CNET

I appreciate having a centralized place for managing your smart home, and the control panel looks well organized. The quick-access buttons change depending on what devices you own and mirror the new buttons of the Google Home app, so you'll be able to quickly do what you want with the same prompts whether you're on the road with your phone or at home near your Google Home Hub.

You can still control your smart home with voice controls, of course. The JBL and Lenovo screens also show you sliders and buttons for a connected device after a voice command if you want to make adjustments. If you turn the temperature down with a voice command, you can then use a slider to tweak the temp of your smart thermostat. The new controls on the Home Hub go one step further by letting you initiate commands with a touch, which will prove convenient if you're trying to be quiet or you just don't feel like talking.

Trying to show up the Echo

Google initially partnered with companies like Lenovo and JBL to take on the first popular smart display -- the Amazon Echo Show. Both the Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View succeeded in surpassing Amazon's first competent but clunky Show, but Amazon's second generation of the Echo Show is just now launching. It has full browser support and works with the company's newest streaming box, the Amazon Fire TV Recast. Plus, the new Echo Show has a similar drop-down menu with smart home controls.

The Google Home Hub will therefore not only have to outduel the brand-new Show, but it has to have merit above and beyond a now-crowded field filled with other Google Assistant-equipped options. Even Facebook got in the game with the Portal. Still, the Google Home Hub is building off of a sturdy foundation and the new features look helpful and well implemented. I'm hopeful it can be a great multitasker that works well at the center of a seamless smart home.

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