google nest hub second gen
CNN  — 

A big appeal of a smart speaker or display is the promise of new features and capabilities down the line. Google’s done a good job of keeping that promise with the original Nest Hub, but there eventually comes a successor.

That successor is the second-generation Nest Hub, a $99 smart display that looks nearly identical to the original with a 7-inch touch screen. What’s new? A Soli sensor, first seen on the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, for gesture control and sleep tracking. Tucked alongside is more connectivity and better sound. The second-gen Nest Hub starts shipping Tuesday, March 30, and we’ve spent over a week with it.

The who, what and how

Who it’s for: The second-gen Nest Hub is for anyone who wants a smart display that can also act as a speaker, mini TV, sleep tracker and even smart home command central. It delivers better sound over the original and adds in sleep tracking, but this isn’t a must-upgrade for existing owners.

What you need to know: Not much is new when it comes to the design of the Nest Hub — it looks nearly identical to the previous version but adds in some new hardware. The star of the show is Soli (aka a mini radar detector), which enables gesture control and sleep tracking. The latter is still in preview, but our early testing is promising.

How it compares: At $99, the Nest Hub is a pretty feature-filled device with a 7-inch screen and a solid speaker. It can be a smart photo frame and a TV for videos of all sorts, and it can even control other smart home devices. Google doesn’t go as far as Amazon, though, as the Nest Hub doesn’t double as a smart hub for controlling your smart home peripherals. That limits the use cases a bit, or requires you to bring your own hardware.

Oh, hello there

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The new Nest Hub really looks identical to the original. There’s a base behind the display, wrapped in a mesh fabric, which acts as the stand for the front panel. It can’t be user-adjusted — and no, it doesn’t follow you around like the Echo Show 10.

We’ve been testing the Mist color, a light blue that matches that version of the Nest Audio speaker), but you can also get the Nest Hub in Chalk, Charcoal and Sand. The only spot where the color is truly visible from the front is on that base. The shade does cover the back of the display as well.

The front, though, is the star of the show, with a 7-inch display that you can touch, or you can ask the Google Assistant to display info on it. There’s a noticeable border around all the edges, which does help prevent accidental touches when adjusting the Nest Hub. And if you opt to place it on a nightstand, it’s helpful when you’re moving stuff around nearby it. It does have a smooth, glossy finish over the front, which can lead to some reflections, especially if you have natural or artificial light sources facing the display.

The top border contains the other star piece of hardware: the Soli sensor, which is essentially a mini radar chip that enables gestures and sleep tracking — or, as Google calls it, “Sleep Sensing.” There’s no camera on the Nest Hub, which does give it some extra points in the privacy department. You’d likely be more comfortable adding this next to your bed than, say, an Echo Show with a lens…right? More on that later.

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On the back of the display you’ll find a switch for physically cutting off the microphone, which is a very nice touch. A small orange-red dot will illuminate on the front and an audible note from the Google Assistant will let you know the microphone is muted. Physical volume up and down buttons are on the back also. It still gets power through a proprietary jack that plugs into the back, and we wish Google had made the jump to USB-C here.

The new aspects of the Nest Hub come in the form of three key areas:

  • A refreshed user interface that focuses on your interests, wellness and home
  • Better sound with more bass and adaptive mixing
  • Sleep tracking and gesture controls

Let’s start with the software. By first impression, the Nest Hub really feels like a smart photo display. We’ve covered these before, and this is probably the smartest of the bunch, along with Amazon’s Echos. You can choose from an album housed in Google Photos or from a curated collection. The result is an array of photos that get cycled on the display. It’s really nice, and it brought back some family and pet memories, which was a real treat. You can even swipe left or right to see other photos, and the time and weather also reside in the bottom left.

We especially like Ambient EQ, which intelligently adjusts the brightness and color temperature of the screen to the room the Nest Hub is in. The result is an easier-to-see image and one that doesn’t hurt your eyes.

Swiping from the bottom up brings you a quick settings bar. Here you can adjust brightness and volume, shut off Sleep Sense, turn on “do not disturb” and even jump into full settings. Swiping from the bottom down unlocks the rest of the experience, with tabs that change throughout the day.

You’ll find Home Control, which is baked into the larger Google Home experience; Media, which is for music or video playback; and Communicate, which taps into Google Duo for phone or video calls. Additionally, if you have other Nest smart speakers, you can broadcast a message to them. Discover shows off new apps and features that it can recommend based on your interests. As you might expect, it’s all tied around your Google account, and that’s a prerequisite for using one of these.

Our favorite panel is “Your morning/afternoon/evening,” which really feels like a command central to your home and day. Each aspect of the Assistant is housed in a different box or card. When listening to music via Spotify, we get a big box with album artwork, with a weather box and home control boxes. Keep scrolling to the right and you’ll see other cards that are based off of recommendations. It’s all laid out very nicely, and if there’s something you don’t like, you can press and hold to make it go away. It’s just very approachable, and we really like how Google’s interface throws a bit more at you than the Echo Show. However, a lot of this comes down to personal preference.

Jacob Krol/CNN

And the Google Assistant is still plenty smart here. It’s a pretty close bar with that of Alexa on Amazon devices, and they both continue to get smarter. You can ask the Google Assistant really any question — to play music, for the weather and even more nuanced requests. For instance, when we ask if we’ll need an umbrella, the Assistant will give us an answer pegged to that.

In terms of connectivity, the Nest Hub is not as feature-filled as an Echo Show or even a fourth-gen Echo. Inside the Nest hub you’ll find Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Thread; you won’t find Zigbee and Z-Wave inside, which are two core standards for getting devices online. The Echo wins in that category, but the promise of Thread here is an exciting one. We’ve seen how it works on the HomePod Mini with Nanoleaf Essentials and are pretty bullish on the future of the standard.

Lots of content and gesture controls

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At just 7 inches, we wouldn’t recommend watching a full-length film on the Nest Hub. But if it’s on your nightstand or even a desk, it’s a handy way to take in some news bites, a YouTube video or even a quick show. And there’s a lot of content you can watch natively on-device, as YouTube is built right in. There’s no weird workaround in a browser, like you’re required to do on the Amazon Echo Show screens.

YouTube, Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, CBS All Access and Sling TV are supported natively or with Chromecast. The latter allows you to cast visuals or audio content from your phone to the smart display. And with any of these, you can hold up your hand to pause playback and do it again to play. It’s just as good as on the Nest Hub Max and really a joy to use. We found that with play and pause, you have your hand open and kind of “force push” it toward the Nest Hub. The Soli sensor recognizes it and does the proper action. It’s a lot more natural than reaching over to touch the display and then play or pause.

Those same gestures work for music playback, and the respective app — let’s say Spotify — will take the command even if it’s not front and center. This way you can view photos while listening to music. It’s just play and pause — no forward or backward controls. Still, it’s pretty handy, and we’re hopeful a surprise software update could add in some extra features.

The base of the Nest Hub is also home to the sound hardware. It’s a full speaker with a 1.7-inch driver, and Google is promising better bass. That’s true, and it does a better job of filling the room. Like we wrote with Nest Audio, it’s a solid mix that lets low, mid and high tones all have a chance in the spotlight. When listening to “Ghosts” by Bruce Springsteen, the Nest Hub clearly depicts Springsteen’s vocals at full range, with the lows being covered by drums and bass, and mid and high factoring in piano, chimes and guitar. It’s a complex mix that Google’s smart hub balanced appropriately with significantly better bass over the former model. It’s just not the loudest smart display out there, but it’s still great for music playback that doesn’t need to shake your nightstand.

Sleep tracking with no armband or sensors required

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Beyond gesture controls, that Soli sensor works with microphones, an ambient light sensor and a temperature sensor to track your sleep. That might sound kind of creepy, but much less so when you remember there isn’t a camera here. So how exactly does the Nest Hub track sleep, then?

During setup, it will give you directions on where to place it and run a calibration, making an array of tones while also looking to detect your body. It will also see only one half of the bed, or rather just one person. If you sleep with someone and want to track both nights’ rest, you’ll need a Nest Hub on both sides.

And for Sleep Sensing to work, you’ll need the mode activated and the microphone on. The Nest Hub listens for breathing, coughing and snoring. Fun fact: Our snoring ranges from 15 minutes to 26 minutes a night thus far. To be even clearer, Sleep Sensing is an opt-in feature of the Nest Hub that’s currently in preview. It’s not perfect, and it’s not a final product yet. Google and Nest are still figuring out what comes after preview — might it be bundled with Fitbit Premium or a separate subscription service? Parts of it could remain free with other features becoming paywalled.

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We don’t know yet, but we can tell you that it’s an unobtrusive way to track sleep and seems pretty on the money, similar to that of an Apple Watch or Fitbit. During setup, you’ll choose the general time you want to go to sleep and wake up. You can set individual alarms as well, but it will base sleep tracking off of this. So if you get into bed at 12:05 a.m., it will know when you’re in bed and then estimate how long it is until you fall asleep. When you wake up, you can just ask the Google Assistant, “How’d I sleep?” It will give you the broad strokes of your sleep, like how long you slept and the quality of sleep you got.

We’ve been tracking for a good few nights and we keep getting that we’ve been restless but have hit the recommended seven hours or so. The Nest Hub says that’s normal for us and it fits with the recommendation from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. You can also see a timeline view when you snored, drastic temperature changes or even light changes.

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The Nest Hub clearly aims to provide a well-rounded report, and it can make suggestions for how to improve your sleep. If the temperature soars hotter overnight and causes you to toss and turn, it can suggest having the Nest Thermostat kick in to keep the temperature steady throughout the night. Then you can trial it for a few days and see if it improves. Similarly, if your lights automatically turn on at 6 a.m. and you don’t wake up until 7 a.m., it can suggest that automation will be pushed back. It’s all tangible, which is really nice, and the Nest Hub aims to provide just the right amount of information to help you make an informed decision about your sleep.

After a few days, we’re committed to trying this for the long term, and we plan on reporting back with any major changes. For the most part, though, the Nest Hub has been in line with our Apple Watch for time asleep and zooms past it with other info. The smart home integrations and tangible recommendations aid in this as well. And yes, we’re working on improving restlessness.

Bottom line

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At just $99, the Nest Hub brings a lot to the table, and even if you don’t plan to use Sleep Sense, it’s a strong smart display with an intuitive user interface and good sound. It’s also tiny enough that it won’t take over your nightstand or desk.

In terms of the playing field, the Google Assistant and Alexa are pretty close with each other, and we think it comes down to the ecosystem you really want to play inside of. Once you decide on that, there are options within either of them. Those who want a Google smart device should look at the Nest Hub. It’s feature-filled and the most affordable smart display made by the folks in Mountain View. Those who prefer Alexa should take a look at the Echo Show 8.

Those with a current Nest Hub don’t need to rush to get it, unless sleep tracking and gesture control are must-haves. And those who are getting a smart screen for the first time will be very pleased with the features and speed of the Nest Hub. The second-generation Nest Hub is available now for $99 in Mist, Chalk, Charcoal and Sand.