The Google Nest Hub and Hub Max have seen more feature removals than additions in the past year. As we head into the holiday season, it’s worth asking whether the Nest Hub is a good buy in its current state.
As Assistant goes, so goes…
Google Assistant is undergoing a transition in light of generative AI and large language models (LLMs). The company is working to infuse those technologies into its voice assistant, and the resulting “with Bard” experience will first debut on phones, like the Pixel 8.
While that’s underway, the legacy Assistant experience has lost functionality as the company cuts what hasn’t been working or is seeing low usage. Earlier this year, Google ended support for Assistant voice apps on the Nest Hub, including games, third-party notes/lists, and some smart home integrations. Google specifically shut down Conversational Actions, the first way for developers to integrate with Assistant, in favor of a more app-centric approach on Android phones, tablets, watches, televisions, and cars.
Smart displays are notably left out of that. As such, most of the things you can do today are limited to first-party experiences. That still leaves the main set of features, like controlling smart home devices from various manufacturers and watching/listening to content from various services. Then there are the beloved slideshows, timer/alarm functions, and simple commands for weather, sports scores, and other similar queries.
If you (or the person you’re buying for) just want a music streaming device and Google Home controller, I think the Nest Hub still makes for a good buy when it is discounted.
The $49.99 (usually $99.99) 2nd-gen Nest Hub from 2021 will handily accomplish those tasks. Going up to the 2019 Nest Hub Max — currently $129 from $229 — is a harder sell, in my opinion, for any feature — better speakers and camera — besides the larger screen to get a bigger always-on clock (which is underrated functionality) and the occasional video playback.
However, I think this is the last year Google can get away with selling the Nest Hub without telling us the future of Assistant for this form factor or providing meaningful updates. What sets apart smart displays from analog equivalents like alarm clocks or even digital photo frames is their capacity to get more features. Over the past few years, that has stagnated from the early days:
Google appears to be sitting on a rather significant redesign of the smart display UI, as first spotted in March 2022. You can swipe down from the top of a quick setting shade that includes a Control Strip for brightness, volume, toggling Sleep Sensing, do not disturb, alarm shortcut, and preferences. Below that, you get smart home controls for devices in the same room as your Nest Hub and shortcuts to other categories. Meanwhile, swiping up from the bottom of the screen opens the full “app” launcher.
The redesign accidentally rolled out to some devices before it was pulled, while it later appeared in marketing material earlier this year, signaling it was fairly close to launch. That revamp would have been a good way to demonstrate Google’s commitment to the Nest Hub.
Meanwhile, a common complaint that people have is that Assistant seems to be getting “dumber” over time rather than improving as a cloud device should.
In terms of smart displays, Google’s current focus is clearly the $499 Pixel Tablet, which is currently discounted. However, I do think the Nest Hub still serves a market, given that the price point is orders of magnitude lower. It would be foolish for Google to not serve that audience.
That said, I don’t think Google is making a new Fuchsia-powered Nest Hub anytime soon. That’s not to say that a modern design with a faster processor for a smoother UI wouldn’t be nice. However, another cheap device that doesn’t run Android won’t let you do more than what’s already offered today, so Google might as well keep selling what it has.
I also don’t think existing speakers and displays will be killed anytime soon. Google has easily sold more speakers/displays than Pixel products. Arguably, that form factor is people’s primary interaction with Google-built hardware, and ending support in a year or two would be too reputationally damaging for the division’s future efforts.
What needs to happen by this time next year is an upgrade to Assistant that makes it more conversational and better able to understand you. Basically, the talkative nature of Bard and SGE, but in audio form, is needed to keep the Nest Hub competitive.
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