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Google’s Home Hub gives Google Photos the hardware it deserves

This photo-frame gadget isn’t perfect, but it’s a powerful extension of the Google Photos ecosystem.

Google’s Home Hub gives Google Photos the hardware it deserves
[Photo: courtesy of Google]

If there’s one major distinction between the Google Home Hub and other Google-powered smart displays, it’s the intent behind the gadget.

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While other companies like Lenovo and JBL have put out smart displays in hopes that users will figure out what to do with them, Google had a specific goal in mind for this $150 device: It wanted to make the best digital photo frame it could–one you’d feel comfortable putting on a nightstand–while also giving it the capabilities of Google Assistant.

As a result, the Google Home Hub feels like a new kind of product, even though the current smart-displays trend started last summer with Amazon’s Echo Show. This is the hardware for which Google Photos was made, and it shows that Google actually understands why people might use a smart display in the first place.

Trying to fit in

Like other smart displays with Google Assistant, the Google Home Hub takes the brain of a Google Home speaker and augments it with a screen. Instead of just hearing the forecast when you ask about the day’s weather, you’ll see an hour-by-hour rundown. Instead of just listening to music, you can play videos from YouTube. Instead of just asking to control your light bulbs and other smart home devices, you can tap on the touchscreen to make adjustments.

Those kinds of uses, however, all seem secondary to looking at pictures from Google Photos. Whenever you leave the Google Home Hub alone for more than 10 seconds, it flips over to photo mode, showing pictures from whatever albums you’ve selected. Nearly all of your time with Google Home Hub will therefore involve looking at pictures.

The same is also true of previous Google-powered displays like the JBL Link View and Lenovo Smart Display, but the Google Home Hub makes a few deliberate changes in service of being a better photo frame.

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The most notable is Google’s decision to exclude a camera, thereby increasing the odds that you’ll install the Google Home Hub in private spaces such as your bedroom. (Ditching the camera also presumably helped keep costs down.)

In the spot where a camera might be, Google instead put in a light sensor, which lets the display get cooler or warmer to match the ambiance of the room. At night, when all the lights are off, the screen fades to black and shows a clock that’s faint enough not to disrupt one’s sleep.

The mentality of blending in extends to the hardware’s design, which tries to hide everything but the screen itself. Whereas the Lenovo Smart Display is a statement piece, with a large speaker grille on the front and light wood paneling that juts out from the back, the Google Home Hub tucks its speaker into the fabric-clad base behind the display.

The Google Home Hub is not totally successful in its attempts at minimalism. The hardware design, while simple, looks sort of like a low-budget Android tablet glued to a Google Home Mini speaker. (If there are future Home Hubs, maybe they’ll trim the bezels around the display and make the screen and speaker components more cohesive.) Meanwhile, the ballyhooed “Ambient EQ” feature, which matches the display’s brightness and hue to the room’s lighting, tries a little too hard at inconspicuousness out of the box. Until you dig deep into the device’s settings in Google’s Home app and find the “auto-brightness offset” option, the display tends to be too dim for all the photos it’s showing.

There’s also no denying that the Home Hub’s audio quality is subpar by smart speaker standards, more in line with Google’s Home Mini and Amazon’s Echo Dot than the full-sized Home or Echo. While it’s sufficient for hearing answers to voice commands or waking up with some light music, it’s not going to fill the room with rich bass or crystal-clear treble.

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Enter Google Photos

Previous Google-powered smart displays worked well as digital photo frames almost by accident. Lenovo, for instance, doesn’t mention Google Photos in the marketing for its own device, even though photos look better from afar on Lenovo’s 10-inch display than they do on the Google Home Hub’s 7-inch screen. Same goes for JBL’s Link View, which focuses more on audio quality with two bulbous speakers around its 8-inch screen.

Google, by contrast, knew what problem it was tackling with the Home Hub: On a given day, we might take dozens of photos, and we might share a few of them on social networks so we can bask in likes and comments. But too often, we forget about those photos soon after, and seldom think to sit down and look through them later.

The Home Hub’s ability to resurface those photos was the result of direct collaboration with the Google Photos team. To complement the new hardware, Google Photos introduced a new feature called Live Albums, which uses facial recognition to automatically update albums with pictures of specific people. You can then share those albums with other users and have them add their own photos. Ashton Udall, Google’s product lead for Home Hub, says his team drove the development of Live Albums, having realized it would complete photo frame experience.

The Home Hub also has a clever way of handling portrait-orientation photos. Instead of just surrounding a photo with black bars or a blur effect, as other smart displays do, the Home Hub finds another picture of the same place and displays both images side-by-side, creating a “then and now” effect. That feature is now available on other devices as well–including the Pixel Stand wireless charger for Google’s Pixel 3 phones–but again, it was driven by the needs of the Home Hub team.

The ecosystem play

A funny thing happens when you have a Google Home Hub, a Pixel 3 phone (with the Pixel Stand charger), and either a Chromecast or Android TV device at home. Suddenly it’s possible to have every screen filled with photos of your family members and friends, and it becomes clear that Google Photos is a powerful kind of glue in the Google ecosystem. It’s already one of Google’s most successful products–with more than 500 million users, and more than 1 billion photos and videos uploaded every day–but it could also be vital to Google’s burgeoning hardware ambitions. No other company is offering this kind of experience around photos.

Google’s competitors seem to be taking notice. I recently discovered, for instance, that Amazon’s Echo Show smart display no longer covers up your personal photos with its “trending” news headlines. Those headlines now have their own background image and alternate with your own photos in full-screen.

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Perhaps more notably, Apple now has an eye on the same problem that Google has been solving. In a recent interview with Financial Times, Apple design chief Jony Ive said this:

“We have such a high-quality camera with us all the time. But it becomes irrelevant if you can’t actually enjoy the photographs you’ve taken. Even 30 years ago there was always a box somewhere containing hundreds and hundreds of photographs. So this isn’t a new problem. What is a new problem is the sheer degree, the colossal volume of memories that we have recorded, and as important as the recording is the way of enjoying what you’ve recorded, and I think that’s something that’s just an ongoing experiment, and it’s an ongoing creative project for us.”

It’s not hard to imagine Apple releasing a Siri-powered alternative to the Google Home Hub, integrating with iCloud Photo Library instead of Google Photos. But it’s also not hard to imagine Apple’s take on the idea being a high-priced alternative, like the HomePod is to the Google Home and Amazon Echo speakers. Not only does Apple favor premium hardware, it also cuts off free storage at 5GB for all iCloud data, including photos. The reason Google Photos–which is available on iPhones as well as Android devices–has become such a hit is because it can back up an unlimited quantity of photos for free. (This involves some barely noticeable compression, which you can avoid by using Google Drive storage space instead.)

The Home Hub isn’t flawless. The design could use improvement, the Ambient EQ feature needs some fine-tuning out of the box, and I’d really like to see a bigger version with better audio. It is, however, Google’s clearest attempt yet to build a device ecosystem around Google Photos. I won’t be surprised if it’s a big hit.

Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested that that the Home Hub’s Ambient EQ feature can’t be adjusted. A brightness offset option is available within the Google Home app by selecting the Home Hub, opening the Device Settings menu, and opening Display settings.

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About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com

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