Tech Guide

Review: Google Nest Hub's new smart display can read your face, but some may find that too creepy

Key Points
  • Google's newest smart display, the Nest Hub Max, is now available to buy.
  • It can recognize your face and present things you might need, like how long it'll take you to get to work.
  • It has a built-in camera for video chats, supports YouTube TV and Spotify, lets you control your smart home and more.
  • CNBC's Todd Haselton's favorite feature is its digital photo frame.
I liked using it to watch live sports and recaps with YouTube TV.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Google's Nest Hub Max, a larger version of the Nest Hub that was announced during Google I/O in June, is now available for purchase. I've been using it for the past several days, so I wanted to let you know what it's like.

It's similar to the Nest Hub, which launched last year and serves as a smart display that lets you watch YouTube TV ($50 a month), stream music and speak to Google Assistant. It also helps you learn more about your day, with information on your commute to work, reminders and more.

The Nest Hub Max represents yet another way Google is getting into our homes, and this time with a camera. It's similar to the Facebook Portal+, but it has a smaller display and can do a lot more. It's also Google's answer to Amazon's line of Echo Show products, which range in size, price and capability.

While the $129 Nest Hub is best served in places like the bedroom, given its small 7-inch screen, Google wants the $229 Nest Hub Max and its larger 10-inch screen to take over your kitchen or living room. It has a camera for video chats with family or for monitoring your house while you're away. That camera can also recognize each member of your family's face, so it can display unique information for each person it sees.

Here's what you need to know.

What's good

The Hub Max is a great digital photo frame.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I like the big screen on the Nest Hub Max, since I was able to watch a football game in the kitchen and still see the score. The bigger screen makes it easier to see menus, too, if you use the Hub Max for recipes (I'm a terrible cook, so I didn't try this) and for viewing photos.

It's a great photo frame. Here's my dog Mabel.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

That's one of the best parts of the Hub and Hub Max: It serves as a great digital photo frame for displaying any albums you want from Google Photos. My wife and I love seeing old memories pop up on the regular Hub when we walk into the kitchen, and now they're even bigger.

The camera can be turned off with a physical switch.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There's a built-in wide-angle camera that lets other people easily see you during a Google Duo video call. It follows you around the room, too, so you can walk and talk at the same time, much like the video chat feature on the Facebook Portal.

You can call people who have Duo installed on either an iPhone or an Android phone, and it's free. One problem, though. I tried calling someone on Duo who was using a phone rather than another Nest Hub Max, and the video on my end wasn't good, even with the big display.

You can fit a lot in a video call with the wide angle lens. It can track you if you move around, too.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

They were able to see me and my entire kitchen, though, which means they benefited from my better camera. I think video chats would be most appealing between two Nest Hub Max owners, so I want to get a couple for my family over the holidays.

It's bigger than the regular Nest Hub, on the left.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The camera can be added to your Nest account to double as a security device when you're away. I set it so it turned off when I was home, but it automatically switched on when I was away to let me check in on the kitchen from my smartphone. You can get alerts if someone walks into the room, and it synced well with my existing in-home and outdoor Nest cameras. If you're worried about the camera, you can turn it off. There's a switch on the back of the Hub Max to turn the camera and the microphones off. Google says it's a hardware switch, so, in theory, someone can't hack in and turn it back on.

The speakers aren't amazing but good enough for filling a room with music.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Google Assistant is built in, so you can ask it to play music on Spotify, launch YouTube videos, play TV channels from YouTube TV, check the weather, call people and more. It understood me really well, even when I was across the room. And when you're blaring music, you can pause it by simply holding your hand in the air, or resume it doing the same gesture. This also works for timers, if you don't want to talk to Google but have a bunch of cake batter on your hands.

One of the most unique features is also a bit worrying, though.

What's bad

The camera will recognize you and recommend content you might like.
Todd Haselton |CNBC

The Nest Hub Max's camera can be used to recognize anyone who walks in the room. One morning, it showed me how long it was going to take me to get to work, recommended YouTube videos and Google News catered to me. It could do the same for my wife, switching up all of that information when it recognized her face.

Except my wife won't register her face. Even though Google says it keeps your facial recognition data locked down to the device and doesn't use it for anything else, I'm a bit skeptical. For one, you need to register your face on a phone, so it has to travel to Google's servers first before it lands on the Hub Max. My wife told me she thinks it's "creepy." Maybe your family will feel differently, but Google hasn't gained everyone's trust yet.

There are volume controls and a switch to turn off the camera and mic on the back.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The speakers sound just OK. For $229, I expected something better, but they get irritating at high volumes. They're fine for just playing casual music in the kitchen, but you won't want to replace your Sonos speakers for this. That's kind of annoying, since I now have to keep a Sonos speaker in the kitchen in addition to a smart display, just to make sure I have good music in the room everyone hangs out in.

Should you buy it?

The Hub Max is recommending YouTube videos and recipes Google thinks I might like.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I like it a lot. The Nest Hub Max is a big screen for viewing photos, recipes, TV shows, your schedule and more, all wherever you decide to plug it in. It works well at what Google says it can do: The cameras are solid, it connects to Nest just fine, it's good at recognizing my face (even if it's creepy to my wife) and it's priced well for what you get. I like the information more than what the Echo Show can provide, but you should stick with that if you're already an Echo household. If that appeals to you, then yes it's a good buy.

You can control gadgets in your smart home, if you have any.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

If you're not wild about the $229 price and don't care about the camera features, then give the regular Nest Hub a try. It has a smaller 7-inch screen, costs $129 and is often on sale for about $99 but does most of the same things that the Hub Max can do.

Amazon and Google are becoming omnipresent whether you like it or not
Amazon and Google are becoming omnipresent whether you like it or not