Gesture control and terrific sound make the Google Nest Hub Max a winner

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Updated Mon September 9, 2019

The smart display market has been heating up, and Google's latest play in the space is its premium Nest Hub Max. The device is similar to Google's Nest Hub, with upgrades that include a larger 10-inch touchscreen display and a built-in camera. It comes available in chalk or charcoal, and is currently retailing for $229.

This is the Google alternative to Amazon's $230 10-inch second-generation Echo Show.

I've been testing the Nest Hub Max at home for a few days in my bedroom, home den and kitchen, and below I share my thoughts.

Sleek design

I'll give it to Google, the design team responsible for the Nest Hub Max did a really nice job. The base features non-slip rubber that grips firmly on a counter, nightstand or shelf. Similar to other Google Home speakers, the cloth covering around the base looks great and gives the Nest Hub Max a homey look that allows it to blend into almost any room.

The base contains the speakers as well as a lot of the internal hardware. The 10-inch display protrudes out at an angle from the base, and on both the charcoal or chalk unit there's a bezel around the perimeter of the display. Centered above the display is a camera that lives in the bezels. There's an LED indicator next to it that glows green or orange, as well sensors that measure ambient room light so the device can adjust display brightness for optimal viewing.

The Nest Hub Max is compact at just seven inches tall and less bulky than Amazon's Echo Show. It's powered by an included power adapter and fairly short cord that I would have preferred be longer. There's a volume rocker behind the right side of the display, and behind the camera, there's a physical switch to turn cameras and microphones on or off. It's a simple yet thoughtful touch that should help Google sell privacy control as a core feature of the Nest Hub Max.

Voice and touch navigation

As with any smart display, you can use your voice to navigate the Nest Hub Max. Google Assistant gives you access to anything the search engine does. You can also connect this Nest Hub Max to services like Spotify, YouTube Music, YouTube TV and Pandora and set defaults for music or video streaming. While much of this is done in the Google Home app for iOS or Android, you can also add services via voice command once initial setup is complete.

You can use your fingers on the 10-inch smart display to navigate as well. A swipe up from the bottom gives you access to quick settings. Here you can change the brightness, volume, turn the camera on or off, engage do not disturb mode, set an alarm and access a full settings menu. A swipe from the top lets you adjust your smart home, like setting up a bedtime routine to lock your doors, close the blinds and turn the lights off.

Like with Amazon smart speakers, you can use the Nest Hub Max to broadcast to other Google Home speakers. You just tap the broadcast button, record a message, then broadcast it to all the other Google smart speakers in the house.

The Nest Hub Max home screen can display an array of preset photos, like a gallery of images from NASA, or can pull directly from your Google Photos account. In this way, the smart display acts as a digital photo frame that automatically updates when new photos are added. This feature makes the Nest Hub Max a great gift for doting relatives, especially come holiday season.

A swipe from the right to the left will give you a view of your Google account, which appears in the top corner. If you use Google Maps or have a work address in your account, the Nest Hub Max can give you different travel options for going to work, information about the weather and even run through your calendar for the day. It's a pretty handy section.

Gesture control

One of the most impressive features on the Nest Hub Max is gesture control, providing a third way to navigate the device. The ability to control certain features hands-free is really genius and definitely comes in handy. For instance, imagine you're working in the kitchen. The blender is whizzing, the music is loud, and you have dirty, wet hands. Instead of smearing raw chicken on the screen or yelling at the top of your lungs to get the device to hear you, all you need to do is raise one hand to pause that music or stop the timer alarm from ringing. It's really cool and definitely gives the Nest Hub Max a leg up in the smart display market. I wouldn't be surprised if Amazon attempted to add gesture control to their devices in the future.

The Nest Hub Max is also capable of detecting who is using the smart display. You can set up Face Match through the Google Home app on your phone. The app takes a quick photo of your face, and then the smart display is able to recognize you. You'll just need to link the Nest Hub Max with your own Google Account. It worked pretty well in my testing across four separate accounts associated with my one device. This feature works in conjunction with Voice Match, which means your Nest Hub Max will be able to recognize both your voice and your face.

Ridiculously good sound (for a smart speaker)

I certainly had high hopes for the sound on the Nest Hub Max given the impressive sound quality of other Nest Hub and Google Home speakers, especially at their respective price points. The Nest Hub Max did not disappoint, offering great sound that really did fill the room.

I tested the Nest Hub Max with music coming from a connected Bluetooth phone or linked up streaming service, specifically Spotify, Pandora, YouTube Music, YouTube and Google Play Music. As a baseline, I always test "Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen from the original 1975 album. I didn't experience any distortion, and the opening wall of sound from drums, guitars, piano and saxophone came through crystal clear with great definition across low, mid and high tones.

Even at full volume (the Nest Hub Max has levels from one to ten), the smart display offered a crisp experience that was still vibrant. When you have the Nest Hub Max up against a wall, the sound is even more filling as it bounces off of walls. You can also group the device with other smart speakers for full home audio.

In comparison to Amazon's Echo Show, I think the Nest Hub Max is the clear winner. Not only can it get louder, but there's less distortion. You can hear the different nuances of each track a bit better, and when you pair the Hub Max with other Google Home's you get a really robust experience.

Security cam option

The Nest Hub Max has Nest in its name, and true to form, it can function as a Nest Cam. Using the camera on the front of the device, you can drop in via your phone or another Nest Hub to check in on your room. You can even set up the Nest Hub Max as a full-fledged Nest Cam, though some of the features require a subscription to Nest Aware. But you can set up a motion zone, which means you'll get an alert if there's activity detected on your couch. It's a pretty neat feature and performs well.

The Nest Hub Max can really feel like command central for Google Nest devices. The Hello doorbell, Nest cams and even Nest Thermostats can all be controlled from this device. You can even use the Hub Max to be a dedicated screen for one of the cameras. So if you're already in that ecosystem, this makes sense as the logical next step. You can easily use the Google Assistant to control your Nest system and integrates with other devices-- all by using your Google account.

You can of course turn this feature on or off via the Home app. It's actually turned off by default, as Google aims to make privacy a priority. Full control over the camera and microphones is found in the companion app.

The bottom line

Google's latest smart home device really impresses. It's been a while since the Nest Hub Max was first announced, but I think it's certainly worth the wait. For $229 you're getting an excellent addition to the Google smart home ecosystem. The Nest Hub Max is complete with a sharp display, three navigation methods, a great camera and really good audio. And with its sleek design, it can fit in seamlessly with almost any room in any home.

If you're already engrained the into the Google or Nest ecosystem, the Hub Max makes sense as the next addition. It really integrates well and can act as the main system to control your Nest devices.

At the end of the day, it really depends on what ecosystem you've joined and what your plan is to adopt more devices. Both the Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and even Siri know a lot and provide access to a solid knowledge base. The Nest Hub Max works well as both an introduction to and an addition to your existing Google ecosystem, so it's hard to go wrong. For $229 you're getting big value.

Note: The price above reflects the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.