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Google Home Hub review: Google Assistant helps this tiny screen feel powerful

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Let Google expand your cooking repertoire.

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If you ask "how much tomato sauce?" Google will understand that you're referring to the recipe and will give the appropriate answer. You can also multitask while you cook and watch videos, play music, set a timer or add something to your shopping list. Simply say "resume cooking" when you're ready and Google will go right back to where you left off in the recipe. It's a great feature that's well ahead of Alexa's similar recipe feature on the Echo Show.

Oddly, Google didn't use the same operating system on the Home Hub that it used for the Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View. The third-party devices make use of Android Things -- an open version of the company's famous mobile operating system trimmed down for the sake of connected devices. The Home Hub is built off of Cast -- the same operating system you see when you use Chromecast on your TV.

Diya Jolly, Google's VP of product management, told Ars Technica there was no particular reason for the change. "We just felt we could bring the experience to bear with Cast, and the experiences are the same. We would have easily given the third-parties Cast if they wanted it, but I think most developers are comfortable using Android Things."

Building all of this functionality onto a different operating system resulted in a few annoyances. When you search for recipes, you can easily scroll through your options with your voice. In this case, scrolling works better than it does on the third-party displays. When you search for restaurants, Google won't recognize the scroll command and will return to the home screen and make you start your search over. The third-party displays don't suffer from this glitch.

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All Google Assistant smart displays make similar use of the touchscreen.

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Despite the different operating systems, the three devices generally offer the same features and look the same when responding to your commands. Google did save a couple of unique tricks for the Home Hub.

A Digital Wellbeing section of the Google Home app will allow parents to set filters on what videos and music can be streamed to the device. It also allows you to set "downtime" hours in which the Hub won't react to voice commands and can only be used for alarms. You can also screen calls so only recognized contacts come through and only during certain times. The Digital Wellbeing section will be available on third-party displays soon.

Most of the other changes will be rolling out to the third-party displays eventually, but one in particular will help the Hub stand out from the competition in perpetuity.

A super smart digital picture frame

Instead of a camera, the Google Home Hub has an ambient light sensor and a new AI feature called Ambient EQ. The feature gauges the light in the room, and adjusts both the brightness and warmth of the picture on the screen to match. The results are fantastic. The Ambient EQ feature is undoubtedly why videos look so good on such a small screen, but it's at its best when the Home Hub has a picture on display.

The other smart displays we've tested can also automatically adjust their brightness based on ambient light to an extent, but the Home Hub is much better at it.

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Pictures look great in any light on the Home Hub.

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Pictures look like they would if you'd printed them and framed them. Turn off the lights or move the Hub and the sensor adapts the picture quickly. In a darkened room, other displays blare light such that they look like a glowing billboard. The Home Hub adapts and fits dim lighting conditions perfectly as well.

You can customize the ambient mode of the Home Hub using the Home app to show Google's collection of artwork or a variety of different clock faces. You can also tell the Hub to show personal pictures and Google can curate them for you using the new Live Albums.

Using the Google Photos app on your phone, Google Assistant can help you sort pictures by people or places based on where they were taken and who it recognizes. Then, if you tell the Home Hub to use pictures of your kids in ambient mode, you can keep taking shots and Google Assistant will automatically add new ones to the mix. Google successfully curated the pictures I took of my coworkers this week. It filtered out the bad ones where the subject was out of focus or not properly framed, and showed the rest on the Hub.

A smart home control center

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Swipe down on the Home Hub for a smart home control panel.

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My favorite new feature of the Home Hub will come to Google's third-party displays via an update soon. Swipe down on the touchscreen for a smart home control panel. The panel shows a status of your home including how many lights are on and the current temperature. You'll see shortcut buttons for common tasks that change based on what devices you have synced to your Google Assistant.

You can quickly turn off lights, lock doors or broadcast a message with these shortcuts. At the bottom of the dropdown menu, Google shows lights for the current location you've assigned to the Home Hub. You can also use this menu to "view rooms" and see all of your devices organized by room.

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See your smart home devices room by room. 

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The Home Hub's smart home control panel mirrors the new Google Home app. The app used to be strictly for setting up Google's smart speakers and connecting your smart home devices. Now it functions as a smart home control center as well. You can assign devices to rooms. You can invite family members to your home. You can also segment your gadgets into multiple homes if you have an office and an apartment.

In practice, the organization of the panel works well and makes a lot of intuitive sense. For the most part, I still prefer controlling connected devices with my voice, but the panel provides a handy visual reference. If you forget the name of a device, you can check it with a couple of taps.

Amazon introduced a similar control scheme in the new Show, but it doesn't offer the same handy shortcuts or room-by-room breakdown. I like that both Amazon and Google are expanding beyond voice controls for your smart home, but right now, Google's touch controls are more intuitive and generally more useful.

The only issue I had with the Home Hub's smart home controls came from the Nest Hello video doorbell. You can have the Home Hub show the feed from the door when someone rings the bell, but you can't actually answer it and talk to the person with the Home Hub yet. Even getting this announcements feature to work is a pain as you'll need to search around in Nest's settings to enable it.

Using the Nest Hello as an ordinary cam and checking on the stream with a voice command is a breeze, but I wish the interaction with the Home Hub when someone rings the bell was more seamless and complete.

The verdict

The Google Home Hub has entered a newly competitive field of smart displays that includes the second-generation $230 Amazon Echo Show, the upcoming $200 Facebook Portal and $350 Portal Plus, as well as two other smart displays with Google Assistant -- the $250 Lenovo Smart Display and $250 JBL Link View. The Facebook Portal will feature Alexa, but it looks more focused on video calls and less on using the touchscreen to help answer your questions. As for the Echo Show, it has the best mics and speakers of the bunch, but Google Assistant offers better touch controls for the smart home and for cooking than Alexa.

Between the three Google Assistant equipped displays, you'll want to go with one of the other options for booming sound quality or a built-in cam. The Home Hub is the cheapest and cutest of the bunch. It's also just as good as the competition in every way other than sound quality. It's even better than the competition when you're not using it, as it'll blend in and beautifully display your family's pictures. Given its appealing look and relatively inexpensive price, I'm guessing the Home Hub will be popular, so if it leads the fledgling field of smart displays into the mainstream, I'm happy to say it's up to the job.

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