Google Nest Hub Max review: The bigger Nest Hub isn’t the better one

If you interviewed the dozen of us that make up the CNET Smart Home team, I think the majority would choose Google Nest Hub such as our smart display of choice. The eye-catching, fabric design fits perfectly with a variety of settings around the house, and the right size of that 7-inch screen hits the sweet spot of visibility, all without taking up too much space or drawing too much attention to itself. In addition, Google has created a skillful show of moderation choosing not to include a camera on the device.

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Google Nest Hub Max

Enter the Google Nest Hub Max, which is on sale today for $ 229 (£ 219, AU $ 349) or $ 100 more than the original costs during the short periods of time 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 now also includes a 6.5-megapixel facial recognition camera, which many people do I don’t want at all. And while you can flip a switch to disable that camera, you can’t quite cover it up with a physical shutter like you can with other smart displays, including the Lenovo Smart Display, the JBL Link display, the Facebook portal and the Amazon Echo Show 5.

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The new Nest Hub Max comes in at $ 229 – $ 100 more than the smaller version without a camera.

 

James Martin / CNET

However, Nest Hub Max’s camera does some pretty nifty things. If you are make 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 Facebook portal. If you’re watching a video or listening to music, you can pause or resume playback by simply raising your hand near the camera. As for facial recognition technology, it allows you to tap to view personalized 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 trigger zones.

Nest Hub

In other words, Google is doing its best to convince you that, in fact, you want a Nest Hub with a camera. And if so, the Nest Hub Max and its new tricks will keep as promised. It has the same intelligence as the voice-activated Google Assistant and the same snappy operating system as the original, plus a useful mix of new features that all worked well when I tested them. $ 229 is also a fair price, which is the cost of an equal sized nozzle, Amazon Echo Show 2nd generation, released a year ago.

But part of what made the original Nest Hub so good was that it was small, inconspicuous, and had no camera. The Nest Hub Max is none of those things, and it comes at a time when Google is tackling legitimate questions about privacy standards and as for the new walls that appear to be erecting around Nest’s smart home garden. It’s a great gadget for regular Google Duo chat users, but despite the impressive combination of hardware and software, it’s hard to recommend outside of this one.

Nest Hub Max alongside the original smaller Nest Hub. We turned off the ambient equalizer lighting feature on the original so you can see the difference it makes.

The big brother of Nest Hub

Imagine Nest Hub encountered a magic mushroom from Super Mario Bros. and got much bigger. This is Nest Hub Max. Available in your choice of chalk or charcoal (no color options this time) it has the exact same design as before, only bigger.

The increase in size means more powerful speakers (two 10-watt 18mm tweeters and a 30-watt 75mm woofer) plus a more spacious 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 be fooled by the brand. The Nest Hub Max is the no Google Home Max when it comes to sound quality, it’s closer to normal Google Home smart speaker, while the original Nest Hub looked similar to the Google Home Mini.

Google Nest Hub Max review
Google Nest Hub Max review

This is still a respectable leap in sound quality, and it’s one that makes the reproduction noticeably less metallic than before. It also stands up to its main rival, the Amazon Echo Show. In side-by-side listening tests like the ones we included in the video at the beginning of this post, I had a hard time distinguishing the two. The Echo Show feels slightly fuller to me, while the Nest Hub Max is a bit sharper. Make your choice.

New Camera

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 immediately to the left. That light sensor was one of our favorite features in the first Nest Hub, because it can automatically dim the display to prevent the screen from blinding you when the room is dark and keep your photos looking their best when you use the thing as a digital photo frame. All of this works well with the Nest Hub Max too.

As for the camera, at 6.5 megapixels, it produces a fairly sharp image, better than the original Nest Cam Indoor, but not as sharp as 8 megapixels Nest Cam IQ. Another note for those interested in using the Nest Hub Max as a security gadget: the camera doesn’t support night vision.

You can view Nest Hub Max’s camera feed on your phone from Google’s Home and Nest apps, the latter of which also allows you to set custom motion trigger zones. It doesn’t have night vision, but it supports two-way conversation and can alert you if it sees motion.

Completely without shutter

Like the original, the Nest Hub Max features a kill switch behind the screen that disables the microphone. Now, the same switch also disables the camera. If you want to disable the camera by 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 given us a shutter for that camera. Leaving it out makes for a more jarring leap from a device that didn’t include a camera at all to one where a face-detection camera is the central feature, especially one that can’t simply be hidden when not in use. A shutter would have offered added peace of mind to anyone planning to use a device like this somewhere like a bedroom.

Leaving the shutter open also raises a big question: why? What’s the difference between a physical shutter and a digital kill switch, other than the fact that consumers seem to be more comfortable with the former?

“We’ve included a microphone and camera switch that electrically disables both the camera and microphones, making them functionally equivalent to a physical camera shutter,” a Google spokesperson told me.

Functional equivalence is one thing, but perception is everything. I bet there are people who like the Nest Hub and would like a larger version, but will eventually stream the Nest Hub Max because it lacks a shutter.

You’ll see a solid green light next to the camera whenever Nest Hub Max uploads images or videos to Google’s servers.

Addressing the privacy facts

Face Match, the selection function that uses facial recognition technology to remember your appearance and offer you personalized information, it also raises a number of privacy questions.

Google says the camera always processes the pixels it sees to search for familiar faces (and for raised hand gestures, which can pause or resume playback). But all of this happens locally on the device itself. Nest Hub Max doesn’t constantly upload what the camera sees to Google’s servers.

The device uploads video through the cloud when someone is streaming the camera feed to their phone or making a video call. Whenever this happens and the video is uploaded, you will see a green light next to the camera.

Nest Cam

If you enable the Nest Cam feature, anyone with access to your Google or Nest account can view the Nest Hub Max live camera feed and any motion-triggered clips you have saved to their phone via the Google Home app or app Nest. Both Nest and Google offer two-factor authentication, which helps protect you if someone steals or guesses your password. Turning it on is a great idea.

As for face data, Google keeps it stored on the device, but tells CNET that if multiple people use one device, it could upload face models to the cloud to ensure 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 sending it to your device.

“In all cases, if we ever process your face data on Google, it is only temporary and all face models are permanently deleted,” a Google spokesperson said. “You can always review and delete these recording images at myactivity.google.com.”

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