The Google Nest Hub Max is a big Google Assistant smart display with a camera on top that you can use for video calls and home security monitoring. It’s coming this summer, and it will retail for $229.
Like the smaller $149 Google Home Hub, the Nest Hub Max has a matte display that adjusts its color temperature to match the room. The 10-inch screen often looks more like a regular photo in a frame than a standard LCD panel.
It comes in both gray and white, though the bezel around the display will always be white. Also, it lets Google know when you’re home, and it can recognize your face so it can show customized personal information on the screen.
The release coincides with Google’s announcement that it’s merging two of its hardware divisions: Nest and Google Home. Instead of having a bunch of smart home products from Nest and smart speakers from Google, they’ll all come from the same group. It’s something more than an org chart shuffle and something less than a grand reimagining of what a smart home can be — though Google executives are all too happy to outline a vision of ambient computing and a new set of data privacy principles that could get you there.
The Google Nest Hub Max is meant to be the first product that begins to fulfill the promise of that vision. I say “begins to” because the Nest Hub Max feels more like a Google product that had some Nest integration tacked on than a Nest product.
At some unspecified point in the future, the distinction between “Google” and “Nest” products will go away, but for now, it still exists in both the products themselves and their branding. The smaller Google Home Hub is getting rebranded to become the Google Nest Hub, but the Google Home, Google Home Max, and Google Home Mini are keeping their names.
The Nest Hub Max does all of the same things the original Hub does. It is an excellent display for your Google Photos albums, a Google Assistant-powered smart speaker, a display for information like the weather or recipes, and a kitchen TV that works with services like YouTube TV and Hulu (but not Netflix).
As a smart display, the main difference from the Home Hub is that it’s bigger, which, duh. The screen is bigger, at 10 inches versus 7 inches, and it has a very slightly higher — but still relatively low — resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels. With the smaller Hub, we found that relatively low resolution didn’t hurt the experience at all, and I suspect the same will apply here.
The other thing that’s bigger is the sound. There are two front-firing 10W tweeters and one 30W woofer on the back. I wasn’t able to do a real sound-quality test in the couple of hours I spent with the Hub Max, but I can tell you that it’s definitely louder than the smaller Hub, and it didn’t obviously distort at high volumes. But a Sonos One or Apple HomePod this is not.
Of course, the most important difference is that the Nest Hub Max has a camera, something Google chose to leave out of the original, smaller Hub. There is a physical switch on the back to turn the camera off, but unfortunately, it also turns the microphone off at the same time. You can turn off just the camera and leave the mic on via a software menu. This seems like a misstep, especially since there isn’t a physical shutter to cover the camera either.
Maybe it’s silly to not trust that the camera is really disconnected if you can’t see it being covered, but Google should have erred on the side of easing consumer fears. It’s reasonable to worry that there are surprises hidden inside Nest hardware — the Nest Secure had an undisclosed microphone in it, after all.
In any event, the camera is used for three things, two of which are new and interesting. The not-so-new feature is video calling. It works with Google Duo, and like the Facebook Portal, it has an additional feature where the camera tries to keep human faces centered in the video it sends. The camera has a 127-degree field of view, which is fairly wide and might be enough to show kids even if the Hub Max is on a counter. It’s only a 6.5-megapixel sensor, but for simple video calls, that may be enough.
Video calls on a smart display are nothing really special, though. The Echo Show and other Google-powered smart displays have been doing that for years. The other two camera features are more intriguing. One comes from the Nest side; the other comes from Google.
The Nest feature is probably what you’d expect: the Hub Max can become a Nest security camera. I wasn’t able to see this demoed, but Google tells me that when the camera is on, the screen displays a message that the camera is on, and a little indicator light next to the camera comes on. Previous Nest cameras allowed you to disable those lights, but Google’s making a big change as part of its new principles of data privacy. There will now always be an indicator light when a camera is active.
The other camera features come from Google. They’re super intriguing, but in the demos I tried last week, they were also super buggy. Hopefully, those bugs will get worked out before the summer release.
The basic idea is that Google is trying to do some proactive computer vision things with the camera. You can, for example, hold your palm up to the camera from anywhere in the room to pause (or restart) media that’s playing. I was only able to get this to work intermittently, but when it did work, it was a lot less frustrating than barking, “Hey Google, stop.”
The biggest thing the Nest Hub Max is doing is facial recognition. If it sees you in the room, the smart display shows your icon on the screen and customizes what’s shown on the display for you. If there are pending messages or reminders, they’ll pop up. It’ll show you calendar events, too. This also needed some work, but it’s a really good idea.
There are some obvious security concerns here: the Nest Hub Max is a Google device that recognizes your face and then tells Google’s servers that you are in the room, after all. You train the Hub Max on your face by using the setup up on your phone, which means that the data has to pass briefly through Google’s servers — even though the company says the facial recognition model is only stored locally on the Hub Max. (It would be better if the facial recognition data never went to the cloud.) Overall, you shouldn’t expect high levels of biometric security here, however. It would likely be pretty easy to trick the camera with a picture or video clip of your face.
The moment when a computer recognizes you on its own and proactively says hello and provides you with information has been depicted thousands of times in science fiction — probably more often in a dystopian context than not — so this will feel creepy to a lot of people, no doubt about it.
But I don’t think that’s only because this thing can recognize your face. It feels creepy because that recognition is a more obvious reminder of what Google already knows about you, anyway. Your phone is likely already giving the company everything it needs to know when you’re home.
I also think it won’t feel creepy at all to an equally large number of people. Although a ton of people don’t trust the Facebook Portal, the Amazon Echo Show has not been the source of as much concern. Where will Google land on that spectrum? We already use our faces to log in to our phones and Windows computers, and it’s convenient to have a device recognize you and personalize itself to you. And there are cameras in virtually every other smart display; they’re just not doing stuff all the time like this.
Whether you’re interested in having a personal encounter with the realization that Big Tech knows too much about you or not, you can buy the Google Nest Home Max this summer from $229 at major electronics retailers.