Love it or loathe it, smart home technology is here to stay.
Over a quarter of UK households now own a voice-controlled smart speaker, such as an Amazon Echo or Google Home, and 41% plan to own one in the next five years, according to EY’s latest digital home report.
But while smart speakers kicked off the revolution, it has now moved far beyond that, with increasing numbers of people installing smart thermostats, lighting and cameras in their homes.
Only this week, Amazon announced a catalogue of new Alexa-enabled products, ranging from a voice-controlled smart oven to a ring that lets you check in with Alexa on-the-go.
As these devices proliferate, there is a growing need for a control centre or “hub”, for users to control and manage them all.
Enter the Google Nest Hub Max – a counter-top unit with stereo speakers, a microphone, a 10-inch screen and a camera, which acts as a portal for your smart home.
This isn’t Google’s first hub device – last year it bought out a smaller version called the Google Home Hub with a seven-inch screen and no camera.
Amazon also has a similar product called the Echo Show – the latest version of which has an 8-inch HD display, improved sound, and a camera for video calls.
However, with a built-in Nest security camera, Google hopes that the Nest Hub Max will not only control the smart home, but become part of its fabric.
Here’s my review of the Google Nest Hub Max.
Google Nest Hub Max review
Out of the box, the Nest Hub Max is a well-designed and impressive-looking device that is quick and easy to set up.
Just plug it in, download the latest version of the Google Home app on your smartphone, and follow the set-up instructions.
You’ll want to set up a Google Duo account if you don’t have one already, so you can make video calls, and you’ll have to decide if you want to set up the built-in Nest Cam as a home security camera.
If you have other devices you want to connect, such as a Nest Cam, thermostat, or any other smart lights, plugs or devices that work with Google, there are instructions in the Google Home app.
One thing you’ll quickly realise when you start using the Nest Hub Max is that you need to be on board with a lot of Google services.
As well as Google Home and Google Duo, you’ll need Google Photos if you want the hub to act as a digital photo frame when it’s not in use, and you’ll need to get your Google Contacts in order if you want to make calls from the hub.
Frustratingly, there’s no way to add these on the hub itself, so you have to keep going back to your phone or computer to get everything set up properly.
However, once you’ve got the basics sorted, it all starts to fall into place.
Ask Google Assistant to play music from YouTube or Spotify and it will oblige, with the Hub Max’s stereo speakers offering a full, rounded sound,
You can also watch video clips on the screen, which is handy if you’re following a recipe on YouTube or need a demonstration of how to dice an onion or boil an egg.
Google Assistant will set timers, add items to your shopping list, and tell you the latest news headlines, just like on a Google Home speaker, but with the added benefit of a visual aid.
One of the best features is video calling. The Nest Hub Max’s camera not only provides a really crisp wide-angle picture, but automatically zooms in and pans around, so the other person can see you as you move around the room.
You can also record video messages and send them to friends and family directly from the Nest Hub Max.
If you Swipe down from the top of Nest Hub Max’s screen, you can access home view, which acts as a dashboard to manage all of your smart home devices.
You can view devices by room, and perform quick actions like turning all of the lights on or off or pausing what’s playing on your Chromecast.
You can also set up routines on Nest Hub Max, which help you carry out a series of tasks with a single voice command.
So when you say “Hey Google, good morning”, for example, Hub Max can control the lights, temperature, music, or whatever action you need to get you going in the morning.
If you decide to set up the Nest Cam as a home security camera, you can check in on home from your phone when you’re away via the Nest or Home app, and get motion and sound alerts.
While all of this is great when it works, the Next Hub Max just isn’t slick enough for my liking.
You shouldn’t have to keep going back to your phone or computer to edit your contact details or reorganise your photos – and when you do, they should update on the hub instantly, not hours or even days later, as I found.
The interface is also too simplistic, and while there are some clever features like Face Match, which can tell you apart from others in your household and show personalised info meant just for you, it’s frustrating that you can’t control more from the screen.
There are annoying bugs, like every time I said ‘Hey Google’ to summon the Assistant, the sound on my Android smart TV (which is in another room) would mute. There’s probably a way to fix this but it’s not obvious.
I also found Quick Gestures – which supposedly let you pause and resume any media playing on the device by just looking at it and raising your hand – very hit and miss.
What’s nice to see is that Google has taken the time to ensure that privacy is baked-in.
There’s a hardware switch on the back of the device that electrically disables both the camera and the microphone, so you can be use no one is “listening in”.
You can also swipe up on Quick Settings to disable just the camera, so you can continue to use Google Assistant.
There’s an LED light to tell you when the camera is turned on and streaming. It also blinks when a member of your household is viewing the camera’s stream remotely via the Nest or Home app.
While I was a bit disappointed with the Nest Hub Max overall, I feel like it’s got the makings of something really useful – particularly as the smart home evolves and takes shape.
The concept is great but the execution is still slightly lacking.
The Nest Hub Max is a key component of Google’s vision of “ambient computing”, which the company sees as the next big paradigm shift after mobile computing.
Earlier this year, I spoke to the Vice President of Google Nest, Rishi Chandra, about what ambient computing is, and what it means for consumers.
“The idea is an always-accessible computer at your fingertips that understands who you are, and provides you help in real-time and real-context,” said Chandra.
He explained that four things are necessary to make this a reality.
All the “smart” devices distributed around your home need to work together as a single system;
The system has to understand that there are often multiple users within the home, and the experience has to be tailored to each person individually;
Users have to feel like they are in control and feel confident that their privacy is being protected;
The system has to be simple to use – whether you’re five or 95 years old, and whether you’re as a single person living in apartment or a huge family living in a big house.
The Nest Hub Max is the first product designed with these core principles in mind, and while Chandra acknowledges we’re not there yet, he believes this product will help to set the course for Google’s long-term vision of ambient computing.
“We want to architect this in a way that it becomes a foundation for the ‘helpful home’ going forward,” he said.
“Introducing capabilities like Face Match allow us to really make that transition seamless between understanding who you are and understanding the context of other people in the room.”
He said that, increasingly, smart home products are being designed to “fade into the background”, using natural materials and fabrics to blend into the home environment.
However, it’s important that the technology becomes prominent when people are using it, so that it doesn’t catch them unawares or make them feel uncomfortable.
This point is particularly pertinent for Google, after it emerged earlier this year that the company’s Nest Secure home security system had a built-in microphone that users didn’t know about.
“It’s got to be ambient when you’re not using it and prominent when you are. That is an important distinction,” said Chandra.
“Any time it’s recording, it will be very prominent about the fact it’s recording – whether it be a camera or a microphone. When it is on, it better have an LED indicator to show that it is on.”
Chandra added that one of the big challenges for Google over the next few years will be finding ways to make smart home products work together more effectively.
“Now that we have smart displays, which I think was the missing piece, the real opportunity here is making this all work really seamlessly, so that we can actually solve the problems that people have,” he said.
He also said that the tech industry has a long way to go when it comes to understanding context.
“The context we have right now is: ‘You tell us what you need’. That’s not great context,” he said.
“The context we have to go build towards is understanding what you really care about; understanding your daily patterns inside your home; when you say ‘play music’, actually really find the music that you want.
“We are very far away from that. But when I think of ambient computing, that’s the magic that we have to enable, so you don’t have to program everything.”
He added: “This is a multi year journey for us. I think it’ll take us some time to get to realising the full vision, but that’s kind of where we want to go in the future.”