If you polled the dozen or so of us that make up the CNET Smart Home team, I think a majority would pick the Google Nest Hub as our smart display of choice. The attractive, fabric-bodied design looks right at place in a variety of settings around the home, and the just-right size of that 7-inch screen hits the glanceability sweet spot, all without taking up too much space or calling too much attention to itself. Plus, Google made a savvy show of restraint by choosing not to include a camera in the device.
Enter the Google Nest Hub Max, which goes on sale today for $229 (£219, AU$349), or $100 more than the original costs during the brief periods of time when it isn’t available at a discount. With a 10-inch screen, the Nest Hub Max is bigger than most people probably need or want. It also includes a 6.5-megapixel facial-recognition camera now, which many people don’t want at all. And although you can flip a switch to disable that camera, you can’t cover it altogether with a physical shutter like you can with other smart displays, including the Lenovo Smart Display, the JBL Link View, the Facebook Portal and the Amazon Echo Show 5.
Still, the Nest Hub Max’s camera does some pretty nifty things. If you’re making a Google Duo video call, the 127-degree, wide-angle lens will automatically pan, tilt and zoom to follow you around the frame, similar to the Facebook Portal. If you’re watching a video or listening to music, you can pause or resume playback simply by raising your hand near the camera. As for the facial recognition tech, it lets you tap to see personalized bits of information such as calendar appointments and video messages whenever the display recognizes you. If you want, you can also view the camera’s live feed on your phone, complete with motion alerts and customizable activation zones.
In other words, Google is doing its best to convince you that you do, in fact, want a Nest Hub with a camera. And if that’s the case, then the Nest Hub Max and its new tricks will deliver as promised. It has the same voice-activated Google Assistant smarts and the same snappy operating system as the original, plus a useful mix of new features that all worked well when I tested them out. $229 is a fair price for it, too, matching the cost of the equally sized, second-gen Amazon Echo Show, which came out a year ago.
But part of what made the original Nest Hub so good was that it was small, inconspicuous and camera-free. The Nest Hub Max is none of these things, and it arrives at a time when Google is facing legitimate questions about privacy standards and about the new walls it seems to be putting up around Nest’s smart home garden. It’s a great gadget for regular Google Duo chat users, but in spite of the impressive combination of hardware and software, it’s tough to recommend outside of that.
The Nest Hub’s big brother
Imagine the Nest Hub came across a magic mushroom from Super Mario Bros. and got a lot bigger. That’s the Nest Hub Max. Available in your choice of chalk or charcoal (no color options this time around) it’s the exact same design as before, just larger.
The increase in size means more powerful speakers (two 18mm 10-watt tweeters and one 75mm 30-watt woofer) plus a roomier screen. If the 7-inch Nest Hub looks like a phablet on a stand, go ahead and call the 10-inch Nest Hub Max a tablet on a stand. Just be careful not to let the branding fool you. The Nest Hub Max is no Google Home Max when it comes to sound quality — it’s closer to a regular Google Home smart speaker, whereas the original Nest Hub sounded similar to the Google Home Mini.
That’s still a respectable jump in sound quality, and it’s one that makes for playback that’s noticeably less tinny-sounding than before. It holds up against its chief rival, the Amazon Echo Show, as well. In side-by-side listening tests like the ones we included in the video at the top of this post, I had a tough time telling the two apart. The Echo Show sounds slightly fuller to me, while the Nest Hub Max is a bit more crisp. Take your pick.
The new camera sits in the center of the bezel above the touchscreen, flanked by far-field microphones on each side and an ambient light sensor to its immediate left. That light sensor was one of our favorite features in the first Nest Hub, because it can automatically dim the display to keep the screen from blinding you when the room is dark, and it keeps your photos looking their best when you’re using the thing as a digital picture frame. All of that works well with the Nest Hub Max, too.
As for the camera, at 6.5 megapixels, it puts out a reasonably sharp image — better than the original Nest Cam Indoor, but not quite as sharp as the 8-megapixel Nest Cam IQ. One other note for those interested in using the Nest Hub Max as a security gadget — the camera doesn’t support night vision.
Like the original, the Nest Hub Max features a kill switch behind the screen that disables the microphone. Now, that same switch disables the camera, too. If you want to disable the camera while leaving the microphone on, you’ll need to swipe up on the touchscreen and tap a hotkey in the settings bar.
I just wish Google had ceded us a shutter for that camera. Leaving it out makes it a more jarring jump from a device that didn’t include a camera at all to one where a face-tracking camera is the central feature — particularly one that can’t simply be covered up when it’s not in use. A shutter would have offered some additional peace of mind for anyone planning to use a device like this somewhere like a bedroom.
Leaving the shutter out also raises a big question: Why? What’s the difference between a physical shutter and a digital kill switch, aside from the fact that consumers seem to be more comfortable with the former?
“We’ve included a mic and camera switch that electrically disables both the camera and mics, making it functionally equivalent to a physical camera shutter,” a Google spokesperson told me.
Functional equivalence is one thing, but perception is everything. I’ll bet there are folks who like the Nest Hub and would love a larger version, but who will ultimately pass on the Nest Hub Max because it lacks a shutter.
Facing the facts on privacy
Face Match, the marquee feature that uses facial recognition technology to remember what you look like and offer you personalized info, raises a bunch of questions about privacy, too.
Google says that the camera is always processing the pixels it sees to look for familiar faces (and for raised hand gestures, which can pause or resume playback). But all of that happens locally on the device itself. The Nest Hub Max isn’t constantly uploading what the camera sees to Google’s servers.
The device does upload video through the cloud when someone is streaming the camera feed to their phone or making a video call. Whenever that happens and video is being uploaded, you’ll see a green indicator light next to the camera.
If you enable that Nest Cam functionality, anyone with access to your Google or Nest account can view your Nest Hub Max’s live camera feed and any motion-activated clips you’ve saved on their phone via the Google Home app or the Nest app. Both Nest and Google offer two-factor authentication, which helps protect you if someone steals or guesses your password. Turning it on is a very good idea.
As for your face data, Google keeps it stored on the device but tells CNET that if multiple people are using a device, it may upload the face models to the cloud in order to ensure that each is distinct enough from the other to avoid false positives. Google says it may also use your face data to test future features and recognition algorithms before pushing them to your device.
“In all cases, if we ever process your face data at Google, it is only temporary, and all face models are permanently discarded,” a Google spokesperson said. “You can always review and delete these enrollment images at myactivity.google.com.”
Read more: Google’s got a new face-tracking camera for your home. We’ve got questions
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