It’s here! As a YouTube TV subscriber, I received an email saying I could get the Google Home Hub (now called the Google Nest Hub as Le Goog begins to rebrand it’s smart home acquisitions and internal products under the Nest name) for a mere $49.99 USD (original price is something like $149.99). Although we are an Echo household, $50 for a swanky looking display is nothing to sneeze at, so I took up the offer and found the device waiting patiently for me when I went home for lunch. I took the time to set it up, but haven’t really devoted a whole lot of time to it, so this is merely an initial impression post. A further refined post may follow later if I find that my quick observations and assumptions have changed.

What’s It Do?

Like the Echo, Google’s “smart home assistant” products allow you to shout out to no one in particular and get a disembodied vocal response. We don’t really need to cover this, do we? Even if you have sworn off all home assistants you know what they do, right?

This one is slightly different from the rank-and-file assistants because of the obvious screen right there. This is really why I wanted to pick this up: I have an Echo Spot, which is the small “Magic 8-Ball” version that comes with a tiny round screen, but this device has a screen that’s actually usable, and this opens up a whole new set of features that the rest of our individual Echo Dot’s do not.

Setup

If you have experience in the Google ecosystem, specifically with the Chromecast or other Nest devices, then setting up this device is no different. For starters, you need a smartphone with the Google Home application installed. When you power up the Hub, it’ll boot straight into discovery mode, and (at least on an Android phone) the Home app will detect a fresh new device waiting to be set up.

The rest is just push-button simple. It’ll use whatever Google account is tied into your Home App (again, for Android users that’s your phone’s native account). It’ll ask you which wifi you want to use, and then there’s a few options for app integration. You can set a basic display mode — photos from Google Photos, a random image from Google’s archives, or a clock — and choose a music provider — Google music which is pre-set, but also Spotify, Pandora, and…Deezer? were my options. I set up Pandora and Spotify. After that, you’re pretty much set.

What’s it Do Revisited?

On to the meat of the matter. You can shout out “Hey Google” or “OK Google” and then follow it up with a question or command. The device will present you with an audio response, but in the case of the Hub, you can also get a display response. For example, I can say “give me directions to the Portsmouth Brewery” and I’ll get an audio response from the speaker and a display from Google Maps. I can then say “send the directions to my phone” and I’ll get the details on my Pixel 3. Now, I could cut out the middleman by just holding the action button on my phone and asking the same thing, but with the Hub I don’t have to physically interact with the device to get it to listen.

Because it’s Google you have the power of their ecosystem behind it. I can ask it to play the latest video by BoredGamer (a great Star Citizen YouTube creator), or basically search the web using Google: The Search Engine. Our circle has been using Google Duo, which is a Snapchat-like app which allows us to send a few seconds of video that expires in 24 hours, and also features real-time voice calling. When I was done setting up the device, I used Duo via the hub to call my wife. The clarity was pretty good…better than what we get when we use the Echo as an intercom, I can say that for certain.

Assistant Throwdown

Because I clickbaited you here with my scintillating title, we need to talk about how this device — and possibly the entire Google Assistant network — fares against the more established Amazon Echo. As a seasoned Echo user (we have 5 in our house), it is the stick against which the Hub will be measured, so let’s talk about what the expectations are.

Far and away the number one thing we use the Echo for is the shopping list feature. When we run out of something in the kitchen, we just have to tell Echo to “add X to the list” so when we’re at the market we can pull up the Alexa app on our phone to see what we shouted about. It’s extremely easy and once you get into the habit of using it, you’ll curse yourself if you return from the market without an item because you’re a dumbass for not having yelled your needs into the aether before you left home in the first place.

The Nest network has this feature, but according to the instructions on how to access it, it’s…a little more involved, including the need to actually set up “a list” via your smartphone before you can use it. That doesn’t seem very intuitive for what it’s meant to do, although there are allusions to having multiple Google users, which is something that the Echo can’t do (AFAIK).

Asking questions is probably going to go to Google on account of “search” being their bread and butter. I’ll have to come up with some questions that the Echo can’t handle and pose them to the Hub and see what results I get.

Both have timers, alarms, and can tell us the weather. The Echo tends to tell us what the temp and conditions are currently, and then what the conditions, highs, and lows are forecast to be later in the day. The Hub launched into a relatively flowery recitation of meteorological conditions now, later, and provided a history lesson on the art of predicting the weather. It seemed that way, but I did get a nice graph on the screen showing me the temps at specific times during the day, which was pretty nice. I know that the Echo can have multiple, named timers, but I am not sure if the Hub can do the same. I hope so.

Most devices in both the Nest and Echo lineup are “dumb” in that they have a speaker and a mic, but some — like the Echo Spot and the larger Echo Show — have cameras in them so you can video call someone else (only those using an Echo device, natch). The Hub does not have a camera, which is something privacy-minded individuals should appreciate. This kind of puts a damper on the Duo’s video calling, but voice will suffice and I don’t think that the lack of a camera detracts from the usability of this device.

The overwhelming positive for this particular device is that it does have the screen, and even at the full $149 price, it’s really affordable compared to the larger Echo Show. The screen is really nice (and it’s a touchscreen, which I forgot to mention) and the form-factor is slim enough that you could easily put this on a desk in photo frame mode and no one would really be any wiser that Google has another way to listen in on your life. I think this is a stellar device for a kitchen above all other rooms in the house, because you can shout for a YouTube video on how to filet a fish while you’re elbow deep in that large-mouth bass you caught that morning. If your household is like ours, company tends to congregate in the kitchen, too, so this is a cool little entertainment device for playing music or showing off that wacky news story to a small crowd.

I have one concern about the Hub in relation to the Echo, however, and that’s regarding third-party functionality. The Echo has the concept of “skills” which developers can create and users can “install”. I don’t think we really “install” them, however; we just activate them on our Amazon account, and can then access their functionality from any Echo device on our Amazon account. That’s super useful as we have both of our bedroom devices play the same noise generator at night while we sleep.

Like the Chromecast, I don’t believe that the Hub has access to any “cloud” apps in this way. Instead, we need to have an intermediary app to “kick off” the functionality on the Hub. This can be problematic at times. We’ve had cases where we were casting YouTube or Google Movies to a Chromecast from a phone, but eventually lost the ability to control the video from the phone, resulting in having to unplug the Chromecast from the TV to get the damn video to stop. If needing an originating app on a smartphone is necessary for the Hub to include non-Google, non-freemium services, then that’s going to limit the number of apps that we can use with this device to only those whose developers have specifically built their app to accommodate this integration. I noticed that when I set up Spotify to work with the Hub I had to log into my Premium account to get them to sync, but didn’t have to actually open the Spotify app on my phone. I don’t know if the Spotify option would have been available if I didn’t have the app on my phone, so this is a case of “you don’t know what you don’t know”. I have to do more digging on this front and will be the primary investigation I perform after this post goes live.

Initial Winner – Echo

I have to continue to side with Echo at this point mainly because we’ve gotten so used to incorporating it into our routine and from the looks of things it’s kind of a PITA to get the same functionality out of the Hub. The question on the availability of an expanded skill-set for the device puts the Hub into a kind of holding pattern; as a digital picture frame with benefits, it’s pretty stellar. As a replacement for our family’s needs, it’s falling pretty short.

One way that this would have easily rocketed past the Echo would be if I got off my ass and smartened up my home more than I have. Nest is synonymous with home automation, with the thermostat, the video doorbell, and other devices from lighting to outlets. I have a hodge-podge of various smart home devices (bulbs, lighting strips, and outlet-intermediaries) that I control with the Echo, but having a bunch of Hubs around to control these with routines and schedules would be a massive plus in the Hub’s column as I could get status updates on what was left on, who’s at the door, and so on.

As stated, though, this is an initial impression post. I’ve not done the proper due diligence on what the Hub can do or how it does it, so I’ll be back at another time to refine my findings and see if the Echo can withstand the might of More Information.

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