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Google Nest Hub review: Google's smart display is still the one to beat, thanks to Google Assistant

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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 ahead of Alexa's similar recipe feature on the Echo Show.

Oddly, Google didn't use the same operating system on the Nest 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 Nest Hub is based on 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."

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

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Despite the different operating systems, all Google Assistant smart displays generally offer the same features and look the same when responding to your commands. You can scroll through anything you see on screen with a touch or with your voice. Most changes and updates hit all of Google Assistant's smart displays in relatively short order, though expectedly, they come to the Nest Hub first. 

A Digital Well-being section of the Google Home app allows 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 Well-being section debuted on the Nest Hub, but is now available for all Google Assistant displays.

One feature in particular helps the Hub stand out from the competition in perpetuity.

A super-smart digital picture frame

Instead of a camera, the Google Nest 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 Nest 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 Nest Hub is much better at it as it also makes adjustments based on color temperature.

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Pictures look great in any light on the Nest 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 Nest Hub adapts and fits dim lighting conditions perfectly as well.

You can customize the ambient mode of the Nest 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 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 Nest 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. 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 Nest Hub for a smart home control panel.

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My favorite feature of the Nest Hub is now available on third party Google Assistant displays as well. 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 drop-down menu, Google shows lights for the current location you've assigned to the Nest 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 Nest 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 Echo Show 5 that organizes your devices by type or custom group. The new panel is a big step forward from the clunky previous version that debuted with the second generation Amazon Echo Show, but I still prefer the way Google organizes everything by room. 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.

Holding the crown

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The Google Nest Hub Max will feature gesture controls. 

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The Nest Hub has been our favorite smart display for awhile, but the Echo Show 5 recently debuted and put up a good fight. Amazon's latest smart display has an even smaller 5.5 inch screen, but it's inexpensive at $90 and specifically tailored for your nightstand. 

In addition to the new smart home controls mentioned above, the Show 5 let's you customize alarms in a lot of handy ways — you can wake up to a variety of tones or your own music and you can smack the top of the Show 5 to get it to snooze. Even better, the Show 5 can play a gradually brightening sunrise animation to ease you out of your sleep starting 15 minutes before the scheduled alarm.

The Show 5 also has a camera for video calls and a physical shutter if you're worried about privacy. It combined the robust alarms of the Lenovo Smart Clock with all of the normal functionality of a smart display like the Nest Hub, so it was positioned to be the best of the bunch. 

Despite the challenge, the Nest Hub remains our favorite smart display. It's still better at showing you pictures, walking you through recipes and controlling your smart home. The Show 5 might be a better fit for your bedroom, but the Nest Hub works better in any other room.

On the other end of the spectrum, the upcoming $230 Google Nest Hub Max will have a built-in Nest Cam so it can watch for motion when you're away. The Cam will allow Google's next smart display to do some cool tricks. It can recognize gestures so you can play and pause music just by holding up your hand. It can recognizes faces so it can go through personalized notifications when you walk in the room. Plus, the camera can pan and zoom automatically when you're on a video call to keep you centered in the screen. 

The Hub Max won't compete with the current Nest Hub on entry level pricing, but it'll offer a few compelling reasons to spend more and the advanced camera functionality might render the displays from Lenovo and JBL obsolete. 

The verdict

The smart display crowd is becoming increasingly competitive. Current options include the second-generation $230 Amazon Echo Show, the $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. Upcoming options including a rumored Facebook Portal update will make the landscape even trickier. For now, check out our best smart displays list to navigate your options. 

As it stands, the $130 Google Nest Hub is the best smart display. It 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. Even with more upcoming options on the horizon, the Google Nest Hub is a good enough smart home centerpiece to buy with confidence, especially if you can snag it during one of its frequent sales. 

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