bigger, better and smarter display
Google’s latest smart display is larger and can recognise your face for proactively showing you personalised information making it just that little bit smarter than competitors.
The £219 Nest Hub Max is Google’s second own-brand smart display and is essentially a super-sized version of the excellent original Home Hub (now renamed Nest Hub). But where the Nest Hub is a veritable bargain at £119 or frequently much less, the Nest Hub Max is a different proposition at a little under twice the price.
Bigger is better
A bigger screen is definitely better for viewing from across a room. The 10in 720p HD screen is bright, crisp enough at normal viewing distances and has Google’s ambient EQ colour tone system so that photos on it look very much like printed photos, not displayed on an overly white and clinical LCD screen.
If you use Google Photos, the Hub Max is the best digital photoframe you can buy by far, pulling your pictures from your library and looking fantastic doing it. I’m still amazed at just how good it is to have my cherished memories from holidays and good times seamlessly displayed around the house.
The larger display also makes seeing text and information retrieved from questions and commands easier from across the room compared with the 7in display on the Hub Max’s smaller sibling. Video is also better.
YouTube is integrated, of course, as are Netflix and All 4, meaning they can be directly commanded via voice. Other services can be Chromecast to the display from your phone, which makes it more versatile than Amazon’s Echo Show devices. That means BBC iPlayer and ITV Hub, but not Amazon Prime Video in the UK, which doesn’t see the Hub Max despite supporting dedicated Chromecasts.
Other than on-screen things, the Hub Max does anything a regular Google smart speaker does making it the best question answering machine you can buy. Timers, alarms, reminders, requests for the weather and most other questions are accompanied by visual information, such as a photo of the actor you’ve just asked about.
Assistant has a short-term memory too, so you can ask multiple questions on the same topic without repeating the topic. It works well.
The Hub Max, however, has a harder time hearing you than other Google smart speakers. I’m not sure why, but you have to speak more directly to it. But as a consequence not once has it activated by accident when I wasn’t talking to it, which is a big plus for privacy as much as being less irritated by the occasional random outbursts frequently experienced with smart speakers.
The speakers are hidden in the fabric pedestal that supports the screen. The Hub Max has two 18 mm tweeters aiming forwards and one 75 mm woofer aiming backwards for richer sound than the smaller Hub. It sounds good, able to fill a room without sounding overly shrill or loud, but not much better than a standard Google Home and not quite on par with the Amazon’s larger Echo Show. It is good enough for watching videos while cooking and for a full rendition of Assistant’s voice, but it won’t match a Sonos One, Home Max or similar for audio quality.
Smile for the camera
The big new addition for the Hub Max is a camera, which some will see as a mixed blessing, introducing more worries about privacy. The camera is used for several things. The first is video calling via Google Duo, which I did once for testing and then never thought about again. It worked well enough with a good wide angle to fit you in frame, but video calling just never seems worth the faff on any device for me.
More interestingly the Hub Max can use the camera to recognise faces and hand gestures. The Face Match system works on-device, meaning the camera isn’t constantly streaming to the internet and being used to surveil your every move. It’s really rather impressive and, rather than being a gimmick, I found it genuinely useful.
When it recognises me or a family member it proactively shows information relevant to whomever is standing in front of it on cards on the screen. Perhaps that’s your calendar appointments for the day, your reminders, your commute or other personal bits. A little chime, my photo and a small greeting appears on screen when it sees me. It feels far smarter, more intelligent use of the display and was very much the killer feature for me.
Of course it can recognise you or members of your family with Voice Match too. In the morning you simply say “Hey, Google, good morning” and it’ll rattle off your customisable routine of weather, commute, news and so on. Assistant can even reply with different voices for different people, which is quite fun.
Gestures for controlling media playback or Assistant speech work well. Show it a hand and the video or audio pauses. That’s handy if you don’t want to shout at it or touch the screen.
Finally, the camera can also be used as a Nest surveillance camera similar to one of Google’s dedicated Nest cameras. You can view it any time from the Nest app, automatically turn it off and on when you’re at home or on a schedule, get motion and noise notifications and with a Nest Aware subscription you can record video. It works great, except for two things. If it’s on a shelf the upwards angle of the camera is a bit too high to be useful and there’s no night vision like a dedicated Nest cam so it’s not great in the dark. To be clear it’s not as good as a dedicated Nest Cam IQ, which is £299 on its own.
Smart home command and control centre
The Hub Max has the same smart home control system as its smaller sibling. Swipe down from the top to access a collection of your smart home tech including a quick summary of what’s on, what the temperature is and other bits you might have.
Panels for lights, routines, media, broadcast, thermostats and cameras allow you to jump straight in and control things, or you can view your devices grouped by rooms as in the Google Home app. If you’re not a fan of commanding things via voice and more want a central control panel this is it.
You can view streams from supported smart cameras such as Nest and Arlo, but not Amazon’s Ring cameras, and if you have a Nest Hello, when the doorbell rings a live view of the front door pops up so you can immediately see who it is.
You can broadcast a voice message to the rest of your Google smart speakers, handy for announcing when dinner is ready or similar
There’s a green light and a message on the screen when the camera is actively streaming to the internet for Nest functions
A mute switch on the back disables the mic and camera temporarily, or you can disable the camera permanently in settings (but there’s no physical shutter)
Volume buttons are on the back side of the display, or you can request volume levels via voice or sliders on the screen
The Google Nest Hub Max costs £219 and is available in white or charcoal.
The Google Nest Hub Max is the best smart display you can buy because it’s simply smarter than the rest. Most smart displays have to wait for you to invoke something before showing useful, personalised information, or they show the same things to everyone in your home.
Face Match allows the large screen to be the central at-a-glance information source for all the family, personalised to the individual, not just whomever set the thing up in the first place.
There are privacy implications of having a camera, as there are putting microphones in your home, but Google has negated my webcam fears by making the useful functionality powered by local AI and not constantly streaming a feed of me to the internet. You have to trust the manufacturer to buy a product like this.
Having photos displayed on the 10in screen with tonal matching to ambient light is excellent; so is watching Netflix or YouTube on it. Smart home control is excellent, if Assistant supports your devices. The morning routines are quite good, and it sounds good enough. Sometimes it can’t hear me as well enough as I would like, but on the flipside it never once activated errantly listening in on conversations because it thought I was talking to it.
While a price of £219 is in line with competitors of this size, it’s still fairly expensive when 7in versions can frequently be bought for less than £100. But if you’re looking for the smartest, most useful smart display, the Nest Hub Max is it.
Pros: big, good-looking display, Google Assistant, Face Match, Voice Match, Google Photos integration, proactive information display, Nest Cam function
Cons: expensive, sound could be better, no Ring integration, no Amazon Prime Video or Sky support, privacy implications