Google let third-party manufacturers develop the first Google Assistant smart displays, like the JBL Link View and the Lenovo Smart Display. The company didn’t put out its own Home Hub (now called the Nest Hub) until months later, and while it’s certainly much less expensive than those third-party options, we aren’t exactly impressed by its sound quality and lack of a camera. Google has largely remedied these issues with the Nest Hub Max, a $229.99 smart display with a bigger screen, more powerful stereo speaker drivers, and a camera for video calls and gesture controls. It still doesn’t sound particularly impressive, but it’s a useful and attractive smart display that offers much more utility than its smaller sibling.
The Nest Hub Max is about the same size as the Amazon Echo Show, at 7.2 by 9.9 by 4.0 inches (HWD) and 2.9 pounds, but with same screen-mounted-on-a-pillar design as the smaller Nest Hub. The design is all white plastic and light gray fabric, dominated by a tablet-like 10-inch touch screen facing forward and tilted slightly back. The screen is framed by a 0.6-inch flush white bezel with two microphone holes and a camera built into the top edge. It sits on a wide, oval base covered in fabric that holds the speakers: two 0.7-inch tweeters and one 3-inch woofer.
The screen itself is a 1,280-by-800-pixel LCD that gets pleasantly bright and colorful. An Ambient EQ mode senses the level of light in the room and adjusts the brightness of the screen, but you can disable this mode and adjust it directly. While its resolution and pixel density aren’t nearly as high as most tablets, it shows a crisp picture with no noticeable softness or pixelation. I was pleased with how photos look on the screen in its passive Ambient Mode (which is what the display shows when you aren’t actively talking to it).
Besides the touch screen, the Nest Hub Max has few physical controls. There’s a volume rocker on the back of the right edge of the screen and a microphone/camera switch on the back of the top edge (the switch isn’t mechanical, and doesn’t move a physical privacy cover over the camera). A single connector for the included power adapter sits on the base of the display; there are no other ports.
Google Home and Google Assistant
Like the Nest Hub, setting up the Nest Hub Max is a simple process that uses the Google Home app. When you plug the smart display in, it will prompt you to install the app on your phone and follow the instructions to connect it to your home network. The process will then walk you into linking it to your Google account and setting up any connected music streaming accounts like Pandora or Spotify. You can then train Google Assistant to recognize your voice, and teach the camera to recognize your face. Once that’s done, you can start using the Hub Max with your voice, touch, or phone.
You’ll probably interact with the Nest Hub Max mostly through Google Assistant. Say, “Hey Google,” then ask a question or give a command. For instance, you can ask for the weather, sports scores, and general information like unit conversion and trivia. You can also ask for more personal information (if you give it permission through the Nest app) like your schedule for the day or your pictures stored on Google Photos. Corporate G Suite calendars still aren’t supported through Google Assistant, though. On the bright side, the Hub Max was able to find and show images of my cat Pixel when I asked it to “show pictures of my cat,” without specifically labeled albums.
You can use Google Assistant to play music or videos on the Nest Hub Max, as well. Voice requests are limited to Deezer, Google Play Music, Pandora, Spotify, and YouTube, but you can stream other content to the display through Google Cast. Using your smartphone or tablet, you can play a much wider variety of media on the screen, including Netflix, Sling TV, and Tidal.
The touch screen itself has very little direct functionality; you can control playback and adjust settings, but actually loading information or content usually requires a voice command or streaming from your smartphone with Google Cast. However, swiping left from the right edge of the screen will load tiles full of recommendations for music, news, videos, and any other information Google Assistant considers relevant.
Camera and Nest Features
The camera on the Nest Hub Max is new to Google’s first-party smart displays, though it has been built into third-party devices like the Lenovo Smart Clock and the aforementioned JBL Live View. It’s a 6.5MP camera that enables a variety of useful features. To start with the most obvious, you can make video calls with Google Duo (you can also make phone calls with the Nest Hub Max, but Skype and other third-party video call services aren’t available).
More interestingly, you can use the Nest Hub Max as a Nest security camera. Tapping the camera icon in the Google Home app the first time will walk you through enabling the Home Max for home monitoring and optionally adding it to any present Nest device network or creating a new one with the separate Nest app. If you forego the Nest account, you can still look through the camera whenever you want by tapping the camera icon in the Google Home app.
If you configure the Nest Hub Max to work with a Nest account, however, the camera’s security features expand to include many of the same options and functions as standalone Nest Cams. With a free Nest account, the Hub Max can send motion and sound alerts to your phone. If you also subscribe to Nest Aware, it will continuously record video with cloud storage for 5, 10, or 30 days (with $5, $10, or $30 monthly fees), and automatically detect people and identify familiar faces when it sees them.
The camera is bright and sharp in well-lit rooms, though its angle isn’t nearly as wide as Nest Cams, nor does it have the same night vision functionality.
The camera also enables a less invasive and slightly more useful feature: Gesture control. When playing music or videos on the Nest Hub Max, you can pause and resume playback by looking at the camera and holding up your hand. I found this method of control to work well, but it requires facing the camera directly for gestures to register.
Like other smart displays, the Nest Hub Max can control your smart home devices. Google Assistant supports a wide variety of home automation brands, including most major names like Kasa, Philips Hue, TP-Link Kasa, WeMo, and, of course, Nest. While Amazon Alexa technically has a higher number of compatible devices, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a modern smart home device that doesn’t work with both Alexa and Google Assistant.
You can use the Google Home app to define different rooms with multiple devices, and set routines that activate many at once, like turning down all the lights and adjusting the temperature. Controlling smart home devices individually, by room, or with routines works both through Google Assistant voice commands and by accessing the smart home menu on the Nest Hub Max’s touch screen by swiping downward from the top of the screen.
Don’t expect the Nest Hub Max to offer the same booming sound as the Google Home Max (and you shouldn’t, as the Home Max is a $400 dedicated speaker). It’s certainly larger than both the Nest Hub and the Google Home, but it can’t put out nearly the level of volume or bass depth as the Google Home Max’s twin 4.5-inch woofers. This means our bass test track, The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” can easily fill a room through the Nest Hub Max, but doesn’t have much low-frequency rumble and flirts with distortion at maximum volume. It doesn’t outright warp, but there’s a slight pop in the kick drum hits that sound like the woofer is struggling with the bass.
The Crystal Method’s “Busy Child” doesn’t reach quite as low into the sub-bass frequencies, but its drums sound punchy and full at medium-high volume levels. The synth melody comes through clearly, and both it and the drums get plenty of presence. The higher-frequency effects, like the snare and high-hat at the beginning of the track, sound a bit hollow and lack much clarity, indicating a balance that leans toward the low-mids.
This balance comes through in Yes’ “Roundabout,” where the opening acoustic guitar plucks get some string texture but round off with little crispness. When the electric bass and vocals kick in, they stand in front of the mix, pushing the drums and guitar strums a bit into the background. This isn’t a bad sound, but the limitations in the lows and highs are clear. It’s the opposite sound signature as the Echo Show, which gets impressively booming and heavily sculpts the lows and highs, while leaving the midrange a bit underpowered. The JBL Link View has a similarly mids-focused profile to the Nest Hub Max, but it offers more power and a wider reach, getting remarkably loud and offering a bit more high frequency crispness. Its front-facing stereo drivers are also a bit better at left-right imaging.
Bigger and Better
The Google Nest Hub Max is exactly what it says it is: a bigger version of the Nest Hub. It’s larger and louder, though it doesn’t have quite the same impressive boom as a dedicated speaker. Still, it’s reasonably priced at $229.99, full of useful media features, and can even keep an eye on your home while you’re away. So while it isn’t the best-sounding Google Assistant smart display (that honor goes to the $250 JBL Link View), it’s one of the most useful, and it sounds better than the smaller Nest Hub and Lenovo Smart Clock, making it one of the better values for your smart display dollar.