Google I/O is a couple of days away and with it comes the likely launch of Pixel tablet. In itself is the device just another Android tablet, but when connected to its charging dock, which has built-in speakers, it looks an awful lot like the Nest Hub Max. Like the Nest Hub Max, it can act as a smart home controller – and I really hope it paves the way for a better smart home interface. It was better.
The Nest Hub exemplifies everything that has gone wrong with smart home controls: its interface is unintuitive and inflexible, its responses are laggy, and its responses are unpredictable and often just plain wrong.
Google appears to be using the Pixel Tablet as a chance to remake itself. The Pixel Tablet will run Android and from what we’ve seen so far, it lets you control your smart home directly from the Google Home app, just like you can on any other tablet or smartphone. That’s good for people who buy the Pixel Tablet; The Home app is much more powerful than the Nest Hub interface, and the updated version that’s been in public preview since November comes with powerful new features and increased flexibility.
It’s clear that Google is gearing up for a major overhaul of the Google Home ecosystem. And no part of the ecosystem needs it more than the dilapidated, half-blown Nest Hub interface.
Let’s backtrack. Right now, Google sells two smart touch screens: the Nest Hub Maxwas released in 2019, and the second generation Nest Hubfrom 2021. It also still supports 2018 Nest Hub. All three run the same interface, which has always been a bit clunky but has become increasingly broken as Google adds features and removes others.
Nest Hubs have touchscreens, which make you feel like you should be able to interact with them like you would a tablet. But as my colleague Jennifer Pattison Tuohy, The Verge’s smart home expert, says smart displays are really just smart speakers that can show you things: pictures of your kids, YouTube videos, your home cameras, the weather, etc.
It’s nice that they have screens. The fact that they have touch screens however, is misleading: it’s almost always faster and easier to talk to them than using the touch interface, and you’re more likely to get the results you want.
For the Nest Hub, part of that comes down to the design of the interface, which hasn’t changed in any meaningful way since 2020. The main screen has a series of tabs across the top, and each tab has a bunch of cards on it. There is an overview page, a home control page, one for media, one for communication and so on. But because they have to be big enough to be seen from across the room, the information density is incredibly low, meaning lots of swiping and tapping to get to everything you might want to do.
While you can navigate the interface to find what you want to do, there’s no guarantee that Nest Hub will actually happen. Instead of being hard-coded to do what you expect them to do, most interface elements send a simulated voice commandwhich it’s up to Google Assistant to analyze in real time, based on who’s asking.
For example, the Nest Hub has a thing that looks like an app drawer, which was added in 2021and in that box is a game icon (until further notice). If my editor, Dan Seifert, taps the icon on his Nest Hub Max, it opens the playbox, which is what it’s supposed to do. If I press Play on my The Nest Hub Max, it pulls the video feed from the Nest camera in my game room, which happens to be called the Game Cam. The button don’t know what it should do.
Another example: half the time the Nest Hub Max can’t hear me say “Hey Google” unless I raise my voice. There is a slider in the Google Home app labeled “Hey Google” sensitivity. When I increased it by one level on my phone, the Nest Hub Max recited the definition of sensitivity—just as if I had said “Hey Google, sensitivity.” I don’t know if it actually changed the sensitivity of the microphone.
Google built Duo video calling into the Nest Hub Max and later merged Duo with Meet and forgot to tell the Nest Hub, which still has a Duo icon. When I tap my wife’s name in Household Contacts and select video call, Nest Hub doesn’t know how. Earlier I asked it to call me by pressing the min own profile picture, and it was a completely different Nathan Edwards calling — one of the many guys with my name who I’ve never met but have in my contacts because I get emails meant for them. Just now I launched Duo from the icon. The assistant asked, “Who do you want to call?” I said “I” hoping it would send a video call to my phone. Instead, it pulled up a list of Spotify albums and playlists named “me”.
Another big issue here is that you can’t meaningfully customize the interface, either on the device or in the Google Home app. The only way to change the order of rooms and units is to rename them so that they appear earlier in the alphabet. Google has finally fixed this in the public preview of the Home app, which lets you add devices and groups as favorites and—as of a couple of weeks ago—reorder them. That option has yet to appear on the Nest Hub.
When Google ran games on the Nest Hub, the interface was full of tiles advertising games like Feed my fish or Baby shark stories. I couldn’t dismiss them. I couldn’t even move the tiles further to the right. There was nowhere in the settings where I could disable them, nowhere in the content filters to change them, etc. You could disable news, disable videos, and disable music, but there was no option to disable games.
Now that games are (thankfully) being phased out, Google has added a News tile to my interface. Since I live in America, the News tray usually shows either celebrity nonsense or headlines about people being shot and killed. I can’t change the sources of this news tile, and I can’t remove it from my interface.
Due to the Nest Hub Max’s limited processing power, the fact that it’s not really designed for touch, and the fact that it has to support multiple users, you’ll need to use the Google Home app on a phone or tablet to change most of its settings in all case, and it is far from clear where an option is given life. Is it in the user account settings? Device settings? Assistant settings? Home settings? Nobody knows.
Take that News Tray: I can open Google Home on my phone and tap the card for the Nest Hub Max. From there I go to Notifications & Digital Wellbeing > Digital Wellbeing > Filters > Nest Hub Max (again) > News & Podcasts and tap Block News. This blocks audio news program but does nothing to the news card.
To set meaningful parental controls — which Google introduced in November 2022, more than three years after I got my Nest Hub Max — I had to set up Google accounts for my elementary school kids and teach the Nest Hub Max to recognize their faces and voices. Enables parental control and downtime not remove unavailable options from Nest Hub Max. It just means I heard “Hey Google, play Baby Shark Stories” and “I’m sorry, I can’t do that while content restrictions are on” five hundred times a week until my children forgot.
There’s also a “meditations to try” tile should I need to calm down. I am very calm. You’re calmer, dude.
We know the Pixel Tablet runs Android, and we know the Google Home app is being overhauled, which means the tablet will be much better positioned to do everything I wish the Nest Hub did better. And from what we’ve seen in previews, the updated Home app itself solves most of my issues with the Nest Hub interface — for people who buy the Pixel tablet.