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Google Nest Hub Max review: The bigger Nest Hub isn't the better one

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If you polled the dozen or so of us that make up the CNET Smart Home team, I think a majority would pick the Google Nest Hub as our smart display of choice. The attractive, fabric-bodied design looks right at place in a variety of settings around the home, and the just-right size of that 7-inch screen hits the glanceability sweet spot, all without taking up too much space or calling too much attention to itself. Plus, Google made a savvy show of restraint by choosing not to include a camera in the device.

The Good

The Nest Hub Max offers better sound quality, a bigger screen and a new camera with plenty of tricks. It's the first smart display you can control with gestures.

The Bad

You can't cover the camera with a shutter. Using YouTube is a breeze, but other supported services are a pain. Many connections with third-party smart home gadgets are in limbo.

The Bottom Line

If you wish the Nest Hub was bigger, louder and had a camera, this is the Google Assistant for you. Otherwise, the regular-sized version and other, smaller smart displays are closer to the sweet spot.

Enter the Google Nest Hub Max, which goes on sale today for $229 (£219, AU$349), or $100 more than the original costs during the brief periods of time when it isn't available at a discount. With a 10-inch screen, the Nest Hub Max is bigger than most people probably need or want. It also includes a 6.5-megapixel facial-recognition camera now, which many people don't want at all. And although you can flip a switch to disable that camera, you can't cover it altogether with a physical shutter like you can with other smart displays, including the Lenovo Smart Display, the JBL Link View, the Facebook Portal and the Amazon Echo Show 5.

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The new Nest Hub Max comes in at $229 -- $100 more than the smaller, camera-less version.

James Martin/CNET

Still, the Nest Hub Max's camera does some pretty nifty things. If you're making a Google Duo video call, the 127-degree, wide-angle lens will automatically pan, tilt and zoom to follow you around the frame, similar to the Facebook Portal. If you're watching a video or listening to music, you can pause or resume playback simply by raising your hand near the camera. As for the facial recognition tech, it lets you tap to see personalized bits of information such as calendar appointments and video messages whenever the display recognizes you. If you want, you can also view the camera's live feed on your phone, complete with motion alerts and customizable activation zones.

In other words, Google is doing its best to convince you that you do, in fact, want a Nest Hub with a camera. And if that's the case, then the Nest Hub Max and its new tricks will deliver as promised. It has the same voice-activated Google Assistant smarts and the same snappy operating system as the original, plus a useful mix of new features that all worked well when I tested them out. $229 is a fair price for it, too, matching the cost of the equally sized, second-gen Amazon Echo Show, which came out a year ago.

But part of what made the original Nest Hub so good was that it was small, inconspicuous and camera-free. The Nest Hub Max is none of these things, and it arrives at a time when Google is facing legitimate questions about privacy standards and about the new walls it seems to be putting up around Nest's smart home garden. It's a great gadget for regular Google Duo chat users, but in spite of the impressive combination of hardware and software, it's tough to recommend outside of that.

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The Nest Hub Max beside the original, smaller-sized Nest Hub. We turned the ambient EQ lighting feature off on the original so you can see the difference it makes.

Derek Poore/CNET

The Nest Hub's big brother

Imagine the Nest Hub came across a magic mushroom from Super Mario Bros. and got a lot bigger. That's the Nest Hub Max. Available in your choice of chalk or charcoal (no color options this time around) it's the exact same design as before, just larger.

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You'll find the AC power jack on the back of the device, along with physical buttons for volume behind the side of the screen and a kill switch that disables the camera and microphone behind the top of the screen.

David Priest/CNET

The increase in size means more powerful speakers (two 18mm 10-watt tweeters and one 75mm 30-watt woofer) plus a roomier screen. If the 7-inch Nest Hub looks like a phablet on a stand, go ahead and call the 10-inch Nest Hub Max a tablet on a stand. Just be careful not to let the branding fool you. The Nest Hub Max is no Google Home Max when it comes to sound quality -- it's closer to a regular Google Home smart speaker, whereas the original Nest Hub sounded similar to the Google Home Mini.

That's still a respectable jump in sound quality, and it's one that makes for playback that's noticeably less tinny-sounding than before. It holds up against its chief rival, the Amazon Echo Show, as well. In side-by-side listening tests like the ones we included in the video at the top of this post, I had a tough time telling the two apart. The Echo Show sounds slightly fuller to me, while the Nest Hub Max is a bit more crisp. Take your pick.

The new camera sits in the center of the bezel above the touchscreen, flanked by far-field microphones on each side and an ambient light sensor to its immediate left. That light sensor was one of our favorite features in the first Nest Hub, because it can automatically dim the display to keep the screen from blinding you when the room is dark, and it keeps your photos looking their best when you're using the thing as a digital picture frame. All of that works well with the Nest Hub Max, too.

As for the camera, at 6.5 megapixels, it puts out a reasonably sharp image -- better than the original Nest Cam Indoor, but not quite as sharp as the 8-megapixel Nest Cam IQ. One other note for those interested in using the Nest Hub Max as a security gadget -- the camera doesn't support night vision.

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You can view the Nest Hub Max's camera feed on your phone from Google's Home and Nest apps, the latter of which also lets you set custom motion activation zones. It doesn't feature night vision, but it supports two-way talk and can alert you if it sees movement.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Utterly shutterless

Like the original, the Nest Hub Max features a kill switch behind the screen that disables the microphone. Now, that same switch disables the camera, too. If you want to disable the camera while leaving the microphone on, you'll need to swipe up on the touchscreen and tap a hotkey in the settings bar.

I just wish Google had ceded us a shutter for that camera. Leaving it out makes it a more jarring jump from a device that didn't include a camera at all to one where a face-tracking camera is the central feature -- particularly one that can't simply be covered up when it's not in use. A shutter would have offered some additional peace of mind for anyone planning to use a device like this somewhere like a bedroom.

Leaving the shutter out also raises a big question: Why? What's the difference between a physical shutter and a digital kill switch, aside from the fact that consumers seem to be more comfortable with the former?

"We've included a mic and camera switch that electrically disables both the camera and mics, making it functionally equivalent to a physical camera shutter," a Google spokesperson told me.

Functional equivalence is one thing, but perception is everything. I'll bet there are folks who like the Nest Hub and would love a larger version, but who will ultimately pass on the Nest Hub Max because it lacks a shutter.

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You'll see a solid green light beside the camera whenever the Nest Hub Max is uploading images or video to Google's servers.

Derek Poore/CNET

Facing the facts on privacy

Face Match, the marquee feature that uses facial recognition technology to remember what you look like and offer you personalized info, raises a bunch of questions about privacy, too.

Google says that the camera is always processing the pixels it sees to look for familiar faces (and for raised hand gestures, which can pause or resume playback). But all of that happens locally on the device itself. The Nest Hub Max isn't constantly uploading what the camera sees to Google's servers.

The device does upload video through the cloud when someone is streaming the camera feed to their phone or making a video call. Whenever that happens and video is being uploaded, you'll see a green indicator light next to the camera.

If you enable that Nest Cam functionality, anyone with access to your Google or Nest account can view your Nest Hub Max's live camera feed and any motion-activated clips you've saved on their phone via the Google Home app or the Nest app. Both Nest and Google offer two-factor authentication, which helps protect you if someone steals or guesses your password. Turning it on is a very good idea.   

As for your face data, Google keeps it stored on the device but tells CNET that if multiple people are using a device, it may upload the face models to the cloud in order to ensure that each is distinct enough from the other to avoid false positives. Google says it may also use your face data to test future features and recognition algorithms before pushing them to your device.

"In all cases, if we ever process your face data at Google, it is only temporary, and all face models are permanently discarded," a Google spokesperson said. "You can always review and delete these enrollment images at myactivity.google.com."

Read more: Google's got a new face-tracking camera for your home. We've got questions

The user experience

With the same Google Assistant capabilities and a scaled-up version of the same, likable operating system used by the Nest Hub, the Nest Hub Max is pleasant and simple to use. No surprise there -- we were big fans of that operating system last time around, with most of us on the smart home team giving it an edge over Amazon's operating system for its Echo Show smart displays.

Now, with the personalized Face Match notifications, gesture controls, video calling capabilities and Nest Cam functionality, the Nest Hub Max has even more features than before -- and more than other Google Assistant smart displays that cost more.

Those features all worked well when I tried them out. Face Match was quick to set up, and the wide-angle lens did a good job of recognizing me whenever I approached the device, or even if I was standing off to the side of it. When it's activated, you'll see your own user icon in the top right corner of the home screen that lets you know that the device recognizes you. If you tap the screen to see your list of recommended actions, it'll read "Just for you," and show personalized cards for video messages, calendar appointments and more.

Face Match never mistakenly thought that someone else using the device was, in fact, me, but the personalizations didn't disappear quite fast enough after I'd walk away. On more than one occasion, our photographer, Derek, was able to walk up to the device after I'd stepped away and see my personalized calendar data. Consider thinking twice before entrusting it with anything truly sensitive that you wouldn't want your family or roommates to see.

Google Nest Hub Max: A closer look at Google's bigger smart display

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As for the gesture controls that let you raise a hand to pause playback, they worked reliably well at close range, but the success rate plummeted once I moved more than 5 or 6 feet away from the device. Still, as a means of shushing the Nest Hub Max during loud music playback or when people are talking and you don't want to interrupt them, it seems, well, handy.

Also useful: the Auto-Tracking feature that lets the camera follow you around during video calls. Google puts the Nest Hub Max's 127-degree lens to work quite well here, with a wide field of view that gives you plenty of room to wander without leaving the frame. It sometimes takes a second after moving before the camera will follow, but it was fast enough for me, and I was never able to confuse it without outright cheating.

One other note -- you can't use augmented reality to add silly hats or other filters to yourself during a call like you can with the Facebook Portal. Given Google's focus on AR technology, I was surprised not to have that option.

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Google's engine for creating voice-activated routines is powerful and straightforward, and it includes obvious presets like this "good morning" routine that you can customize as much as you like.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Outside of the new stuff, Google's Nest Hub Max does everything the original Nest Hub does. It's still a helpful cooking companion and a terrible joke teller. It's still quick to offer up a sports score or a weather forecast upon request. With the bigger screen, it's the better option for streaming video, too. YouTube is obviously the chief offering, but you can also sync up with HBO Now and CBS All Access (disclaimer: CBS is CNET's parent company). 

My only complaint: While the YouTube search interface works well, there's no easy way to search for a specific episode on those last two platforms. There's also no support right now for Netflix or Hulu, though Google says that it's always looking to work with partners.

On that subject...

Works with Nest no more

The Google Nest Hub and Nest Hub Max each have plenty of appeal as smart home command centers. Apart from accepting your voice commands, they offer physical control over your devices at a quick touch and they can quickly call up the livestream from any smart security cameras or video doorbells you might be using.

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Google is asking people to migrate their Nest accounts into a single, unified Google account. Doing so is irreversible, and locks you out of existing Works with Nest integrations from third-party manufacturers who haven't been able to jump over to the new software yet.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

But some people were upset this summer when Google decided to sunset the Works with Nest partner program as part of its push to migrate Nest users over to Google for centralized controls. Doing so is irreversible. It also kills the connections between Nest devices and third-party gadgets that connect to them via the Works with Nest APIs.

Google and some of its third-party partners have already worked to re-establish new connections that use the new Works with Assistant software. Other partners are still scrambling.

"After Aug. 31, you will no longer be able to link Abode to your Nest account. Therefore, if you disconnect your Abode plus Nest integration for any reason beyond Aug. 31, you will lose your integration and there is no way for us to get it back to you," said a spokesperson for Abode's smart home security system, which relied on the Works with Nest API to sync user systems with Google's popular thermostat and smart speaker.

An even bigger loss is the Apple TV Nest app, which people could use to view their Nest Cam feeds on their televisions. It relied on Works with Nest, too -- once you migrate, you won't be able to log in at all.

One positive: Google says you'll soon be able to watch the Nest Hub Max's feed on Amazon Fire TV streamers and on Amazon Echo Show smart displays using Nest's Alexa skill. 

At any rate, the result is messier than Google probably wanted or intended. Tracking which integrations are affected and which ones aren't gets confusing fast, but it's something you'll want to take a close look at if you've already got several legacy smart home devices and you're thinking about buying in with the Nest Hub Max to put Google Assistant in control.

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The verdict

For $100 more than the original Nest Hub, the Nest Hub Max is bigger and louder, and it comes equipped with a surprisingly versatile camera. I don't have any qualms with that $229 price tag -- that's the same as the second-gen Amazon Echo Show, and less than the retail price of other full-size Google Assistant smart displays that don't do as much, such as the Lenovo Smart Display 10.

But the original Nest Hub bucked the trend of tablet-sized smart displays in favor of something more compact and understated. It was a shrewd move, making for a smart display that blends into modern homes better than any other we've tested. I can't say the same of the Nest Hub Max.

Still, if you regularly use Google Duo or if you're looking to give Google Assistant a bigger footprint in your home, then the Nest Hub Max definitely merits consideration. For most people, however, I think the smaller Nest Hub is the much better buy.

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7.5

Google Nest Hub Max

Score Breakdown

Features 8Usability 7Design 7Performance 8