IF you’re thinking of a smart speaker to replace a radio or something to connect up other ‘smart’ gadgets you have in the house, a smart screen makes a lot of sense. The visual aide makes controlling things like lights or calendars a lot easier.
But in terms of other things you might expect them to do, they’re a mixed bag for functionality. Google’s new Nest Hub is handy as a fancy bedside alarm clock or a kitchen counter-top radio that plays YouTube videos and reminds you of lists you’ve made, but it misses out on some things that could make it a compelling home gadget.
Its audio quality is relatively basic and, because it doesn’t have a camera, you can’t use it for things we really need to stay in touch right now, like video calls.
It also falls victim to the turf wars between tech giants, meaning you can’t get services like Netflix or Amazon Prime on it, let alone things like Disney Plus. Indeed, just about the only commonly used third-party service you can get on it is Spotify.
On the other hand, it’s very aggressively priced. Here’s a 7-inch smart display with a creditably smooth, bright, vivid screen, a working speaker and very decent voice controls for €90. That’s at least €20 cheaper than its direct Amazon rival, the Echo Show 8, even if the Echo has undisputedly better audio quality as an actual speaker.
This is probably handiest for someone who already has a couple of other Google smart devices set up – such as a security Nest, for example – or who just wants something cheap and cheerful for a handful of specific purposes, like a radio that also plays YouTube videos. There are actually hundreds of physical devices, from lights to TV controls, that now work with the Google Assistant. Many of these are accessible directly from the Nest Hub (although they’re also usually accessible from your phone’s ‘Home’ app, too).
For anyone who already has any Google smart devices set up, it’s a fairly seamless process to integrate this one. Switch it on and finish your settings within the Google Home app.
It’s a reasonably elegant little screen, too, with fairly thick white bezels. It has ambient lighting control, meaning it adjusts to whatever brightness is in the room.
I think it bears repeating, though, that in terms of audio quality, this is basic. It’s fine, but not noticeably any better than Google’s small Nest mini or equivalent €50-ish smart speakers. It’s certainly not a patch on Amazon’s (slightly pricier) Echo Show 8.
So if you plan on using it frequently for Spotify, Google Music or YouTube Music, or for internet radio stations through the likes of TuneIn, there’s a low ceiling on quality.
For those new to smart displays, there are also hard walls when it comes to the kind of content you might think of watching on a smart screen. For example, you can’t play Netflix on it. Or Amazon Prime Video or Disney Plus or Apple Plus or any other major video services. (American buyers of the Nest Hub can watch some other video selections such as CBS, HBO Now or Starz.)
Arguably the biggest disappointment of the Nest Hub is that it doesn’t support some of Google’s-own video calling services.
You can’t participate in a Google Meet or Hangouts meeting on this device, mainly because it doesn’t have a camera. Instead, you have to hope that others are using Google Duo (almost no-one I know uses this regularly) and start a group voice call within that application.
So if this is an important part of what you want in a standalone large screen, the Nest Hub isn’t really a substitute for a tablet.
Instead, it’s more like a visual radio that can also visually remind you of things like shopping lists and alarms.