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Smart Home

Google Home Hub wants to finish the job started by the Amazon Echo

The continuity between the Google Home Hub and the new Google Home app could help make the smart home seamless.

James Martin/CNET

Once upon a time, the smart home was a mess. Plenty of individual devices worked fine for the person that set them up, but sharing access with other members of a household and syncing devices from multiple companies was a pain. 

Smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and the Google Home helped fix the problem somewhat with voice controls available to anyone within shouting distance of Amazon's Alexa or Google Assistant. With its new Google Home app, as well as its new Home Hub smart display, Google's goal is to finish making the smart home seamless by leaving voice options intact, while going back and fixing touch controls.

Continuity is the key

At the Made by Google event on Tuesday, the search giant announced the Google Home Hub -- a smart display that combines the features of smart speakers like the Google Home with a touchscreen for looking at pictures, watching videos and controlling your smart home devices. 

Alongside the Hub, Google showed off a revamped Google Home app. Whereas before the Home app was purely for setting up Google's various smart speakers, it's now a much broader smart home control center. Like the Amazon Echo and the Google Home, both the new Hub and new app allow you to control the smart home with your voice, but they also bring simplified touch controls front and center.

On the Google Home Hub, you access the smart home control panel by swiping down on the touchscreen. The panel contains shortcut buttons for tasks like turning off the lights, checking your connected cameras, broadcasting a message or playing music. The buttons will change based on what smart home gadgets you own. Plus, you can easily pull up a more in-depth view of all your devices sorted by room if you want to tinker with the temperature of your smart thermostat or the brightness of a particular bulb.

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The Google Home Hub offers quick shortcuts and detailed controls of your smart home gadgets.

James Martin/CNET

The new Home app features a very similar control scheme on its main page. The same quick-access buttons populate at the top and you can scroll down for a room-by-room view of all of your devices. According to Ben Brown, Google's senior product manager for apps and connectivity, the mirrored effect was intentional.

The goal of the app was to create "the simplicity and the elegance that we've already built for voice where I can just think something and say something and have it happen," Brown said. "And we wanted to try to bring that to mobile."

Brown used the word "continuity" and talked about using similar interactions to make controlling devices easier for people. "It's the idea that you're actually creating the same interaction model from a pure voice conversational medium all the way through something that's multimodal like the Google Home Hub -- wherein I can talk and then see a visual response -- all the way to the Home app, which is more touch-driven even though you can have voice interaction there as well."

After spending some hands-on time with the app and the Google Home Hub, the organization of the touch controls looks like it makes sense. The shortcuts seem handy and you'll see visual feedback when you want it. Like Amazon's assistant Alexa, Google Assistant has long been a good digital assistant for controlling your smart home. Now, it looks like it'll help you get everything organized as well.

What's more, you'll be working with the same organizational logic whether you're commanding your phone or your smart display and whether you're talking or swiping.

Now playing: Watch this: The Google Home Hub is a cute, little home control center
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A hub or not a hub?

Even though it's called a "hub" the Google Home Hub doesn't have the same functions as a discrete smart home hub like those from SmartThings or Lowe's Iris Hub. Those devices talk to smaller smart home sensors through low-power wireless frequencies called Zigbee and Z-Wave. They act as bridges so the smaller devices don't need to send a signal directly to the cloud themselves.

Disappointingly, the Google Home Hub can't do that -- it doesn't have a Zigbee or Z-Wave radio. You also can't set up your smart home with the Google Home Hub or the Google Home app -- at least not entirely. You'll still need to use the Philips Hue app to set up Philips Hue smart bulbs, for example, but GE smart bulbs have partnered with Google and you can set them up within the Google Home app.

That's a start. When the Google Home first launched in the fall of 2016, it worked with four smart home partners. Now, Google Assistant can command more than 10,000 devices from over 1,000 different companies. Perhaps more of those partnerships will expand to include setup at some point.

Instead of being a hub in the traditional smart home sense, Google's newest device is trying to simplify the meaning of the word. "We have to start making these things easier for everyone in the home in a very communal way," said Mark Spates, Google's product lead for smart speakers. "The Hub is more of the control center, not the technical things that are in it, and the interface really brings that to life."

He talked about getting away from the early adopter phase of the smart home with the Google Home Hub and making this interface something that even his mom could use. Smart speakers started to solve one of the biggest problems of the early smart home -- multiple users. The Google Home Hub and Google Home app are an effort to finish the job.

You can share your smart home controls via the app quickly, and the Home Hub offers a centralized place for controls that go beyond voice options. If, in practice, they prove to be easy enough for anyone to use without training, that could help make the smart home appealing to even the tech-phobic members of your family.

Nevertheless, my idealized version of the Google Home Hub would allow me to do away with my SmartThings Hub, and this doesn't. You'll still have to put in some legwork while you set up new devices, but Google will try to take things from there, both for your own convenience and for the convenience of the rest of your family.

Alexa and Siri

Google isn't alone in its attempt to unite the smart home under its own brand. Apple and Amazon have their own efforts, and both arguably got a headstart on the search giant. The Amazon Echo and its built-in assistant Alexa revolutionized the smart home in 2014, and Apple's smart home platform HomeKit -- allowing users to control their home with Apple's digital assistant Siri -- predated the Echo. The Google Home and its built-in Google Assistant didn't debut until 2016.

Apple's HomeKit still works with fewer smart home devices than Google and Amazon. Amazon works with the most -- 20,000 devices from 3,500 brands as of September -- and offers a smart speaker with a Zigbee radio called the Amazon Echo Plus (£140 at Amazon.co.uk).

All three companies offer fairly polished voice controls for their compatible devices, but the push for better touch controls is new, at least for Amazon and Google. Google's new app is similar to Apple's Home app for its HomeKit smart home platform, which has been out for a couple of years.

Amazon has just started quietly rolling out smart home controls in its own Alexa app and the new Echo Show (an updated version of the first popular smart display) has a drop-down menu with smart home touch controls as well. The Show's organization looks a little clunkier than the Home Hub's -- it doesn't have as many handy shortcuts -- but it's a good step in the right direction, as the first Show didn't have any smart home touch controls.

Google and Amazon have long debuted similar features for their digital assistants and smart speakers in close proximity to each other; both brought calling to their smart speakers within a month of each other last year. From a competitive standpoint, the battle is far from over.

For the time being, though, Google's clear and consistent organization of your gadgets makes it easier to engage with your connected home and makes the experience uniform across all compatible devices. The ideal of the smart home is having it simply do what you want with little to no effort on your part. Google now offers as many ways as possible to make that happen, and it's making the smart home more seamless in the process.