On Tuesday, Google announced the Google Home Hub, the first smart display hardware made by Google. While the Home Hub is the first hardware from Google, it’s something like the fourth Google smart display to be announced—third-party OEMs actually launched the Google smart display platform earlier this year. On the surface, the Home Hub seems identical to these third-party devices; under the hood, though, they couldn’t be more different.
First, let’s talk about what the third-party smart displays run. When Google created its smart display software, it also came up with a turnkey solution for OEMs. So far, we’ve seen Lenovo, LG, and Samsung’s JBL all produce devices on the same basic platform. Just like with smartphones, these devices are all an extension of the Android/Qualcomm partnership—they run Android Things on Qualcomm’s SD624 Home Hub Platform. Android Things is Google’s stripped-down version of Android that is purpose-built for IoT products, and the third-party smart displays are the first commercial devices to run the OS.
Unlike regular phone Android, Android Things is not customizable by third-parties. All Android Things devices use an OS image direct from Google, and Google centrally distributes updates to all Android Things devices for three years. Android Things doesn’t really have an interface. It’s designed to get a device up and running and show a single app, which on the smart displays is the Google Smart Display app. Qualcomm’s “Home Hub” platform was purposely built to run Android Things and this Google Assistant software—the SD624 is for smart displays, while the less powerful SDA212 is for speakers.
When it came time to build the Google Home Hub, Google didn’t use any of this. At the show, I had a quick chat with Diya Jolly, Google‘s VP of product management, and learned that Google’s Home Hub doesn’t run Android Things—it’s actually built on Google’s Cast platform, so it’s closer to a souped-up Chromecast than a stripped-down Android phone. It also doesn’t use Qualcomm’s SD624 Home Hub Platform. Instead, Google opted for an Amlogic chip.
When asked why Google was using a totally different platform from the third parties, Jolly told me, “There’s no particular reason. We just felt we could bring the experience to bear with Cast, and the experiences are the same. We would have easily given the third-parties Cast if they wanted it, but I think most developers are comfortable using Android Things.”
Still, it seems strange for Google to create a platform for smart displays and then not use it in its own smart display. If I had to guess, I think the primary “experience” Google wanted to get across with the Home Hub was “low price.” The cheapest third-party Google smart display is Lenovo’s 8-inch model at $ 200, but the Google Home Hub is undercutting this device by fifty bucks. You can see cost cutting all through the design of the Home Hub. The device is tiny, with only a 6-inch screen that isn’t much bigger than the body of a smartphone. Google says it excluded a video camera because it wants users to feel “comfortable” with the Home Hub, but the absence of a camera will also save on the bill of materials.
Similarly, cutting out the Android Things and Qualcomm package under the hood could be seen as a cost-cutting move. Android Things (and Brillo before it) has always been an IoT OS that needs a lot more hardware than you would normally associate with IoT devices. Even the low-cost Android Things boards ship with at least 1GB of RAM. We don’t yet know the specifics of the Amlogic system in the Google Home Hub (we will update this article if Google sends us a spec sheet), but the company is known for low-end chips that typically land in smart TVs and media players.
None of this is to say that the Google Home Hub feels cheap or that I disagree with any of Google’s decisions here. The Home Hub feels like a high-quality device and has a very attractive, minimal design. In person, I would actually describe it as “cute.” One of the things I don’t like about the Lenovo devices is the hulking size, and a 6-inch screen is a fine size when you’re standing within touch range of the device. It also looks gorgeous. I don’t think any part of the smart display software is meant to be viewed from across the room, anyway. The smaller screen won’t be great for YouTube videos, but the YouTube functionality on Google smart displays—which can’t even show your YouTube subscription list—is awful. The Home Hub isn’t really “cheap”; it’s more like Google put the bill of materials where it counts.
On the user side of things, though, there isn’t a single difference between the Google Home Hub interface and third-party smart displays. There are a few hardware related differences, though. The lack of a video camera means you can’t do Duo video calls on the Home Hub, while you can on the third-party devices. If smart displays had an app model where you could do video calls through Skype, Hangouts, or other video chat services, I might be concerned, but I’m not sure a lot of people care about Duo video chats. The Home Hub is also the only Google smart display with a temperature changing display, thanks to both the high-quality display and the brightness sensor that can pick up the ambient light color.
Google also showed off some new features coming to all smart displays. A new smart home control panel gives you touch access to all the usual Google Assistant functionality, like lights and thermostats. Displays also finally learned how to play nice with Google Home speakers, so they can now be added to a speaker group in Google Home for multi-room audio. The only Google Home feature that hasn’t yet made it to smart displays is Google’s “continued conversation” ability, which I’m told is still being worked on.
One final Google Home news tidbit I managed to get out of the event: Google and GE quietly showed off the first “Actions on Google Hardware” device, the “C by GE” bulb. This smart bulb uses Bluetooth LE to communicate directly with a Google Home Mini, using it as a smart home hub. Google and GE have a “Smart light starter kit” product, which pairs a Google Home Mini with a single light bulb in one box. Other than dropping the “Actions on Google Hardware” name, no one would talk to me about how this ecosystem will work, how widespread it is expected to be, or what other manufacturers are participating. It seems to be a second Google-owned smart home ecosystem, after ‘Works with Nest.”
The Home Hub will be out October 22.