Google spoils an otherwise brilliant product with plans to charge for its best feature
Pros Sleep tracking works wellAlarm clock functions are improvedSounds better than the previous modelCons Sleep tracking only free until 2022Can’t distinguish between two partners’ coughs and snoresBetter sound but still not brilliant bass
Once products have matured, improvements typically come in small steps or big lurches in direction. The second-generation Google Nest Hub unusually combines both, making a series of incremental improvements and adding one major new feature that alters the trajectory of Google’s smart screen.
The new Google Nest Hub is designed not only to act as a smart speaker – for listening to music, podcasts and radio, answering questions, viewing your photos and controlling smart home tech – it also employs Soli low-energy radar technology to track your sleep. In doing so, Google has turned what was once a general-purpose smart screen into the ultimate bedside alarm clock.
Google Nest Hub (2nd gen) review: What do you get for the money?
What the new Google Nest Hub doesn’t give you is a radical new design. There is a new colour this generation (Mist) and the enclosure is now built from 54% recycled plastic, but to look at it’s indistinguishable from the old Hub, with a 7in, 1,024 x 600 pixel touchscreen mounted at a slightly tilted-back angle on a fabric-covered base.
If you look really closely you can see that the plastic rear panel no longer wraps around the edges of the glass front, lending the speaker a sleeker, more sophisticated look. Other than that, it’s business as usual.
Just like the first Nest Hub, there’s no camera; instead, the three dots you can see are the speaker’s two far-field microphones and an ambient light sensor, which is used to set screen brightness and colour temperature. The only physical controls are a microphone mute switch situated on the rear of the display at the top and a volume rocker behind the screen on the right side.
As with other Google Home speakers, set up is carried out via the Google Home Hub app on your phone or tablet (both Android and iOS are supported) and, once you’ve set it up, the speaker connects to the internet over Wi-Fi (Bluetooth connectivity is also available), using Google Assistant to do all the usual smart speaker things. You can answer queries, play music and radio from your favourite streaming services and control compatible smart home devices such as light bulbs, smart plugs and security cameras.
You can also watch TV or movies from Netflix, Disney+, YouTube or All4, or Cast from any compatible app. And it’s good to see that one of the first Nest Hub’s best features makes a reappearance here: its integration with Google Photos, which turns the Nest Hub into a great digital photo frame as well.
Google Nest Hub 2 review: Sleep tracking
The biggest change to the (2nd gen) Nest Hub is one you can’t see. Using the Soli low-energy radar tech first seen in the Google Pixel 4 smartphone, it’s able to detect motion, including small movements such as breathing, and it combines this with its light sensor and microphones to build a picture of how disturbed or restful your sleep was.
Before you get too excited, though, it’s worth noting that, technically, “Sleep Sensing” is an optional feature. That means that, while it’s available on “free preview” at first, Google plans to charge for the feature via a paid subscription after a year or so.
That’s disappointing to say the least and a very odd decision on Google’s part. Not only will it likely annoy customers who have been using the feature daily, but I can’t see anyone paying for it, either, especially as every fitness tracker under the sun has some form of sleep tracking already.
Nonetheless, it is an ingenious feature. For the Nest Hub’s sleep sensing tech to work, the speaker needs to be level with your sleeping position. You may, therefore, have to pop a book or two under the base to get it to the right level. It also needs to be placed a foot or so away from your body with nothing in between you and the speaker and set at an angle so the radar can detect your movements correctly. Once you’ve dialled that positioning in, you calibrate your “sleep spot” so the Nest Hub knows where you sleep and you’re good to go catch some Zs. Don’t move the speaker, though, or you’ll have to recalibrate.
Once you’ve slept with the Nest Hub 2 next to your bed for a while, the data gathered appears in two places: either as a card on the Nest Hub’s display, which you can tap to drill into, or within the Google Fit app.
As with most sleep tracking tech, it tells you how long you were asleep and how much of that time was restful or restless, and it shows you when those periods were, plus periods when you got out of bed. The app doesn’t split sleep into REM, deep and light like many wearable sleep trackers but it does tell you your breathing rate and gives you a sleep “efficiency” score based on how much of the time you spent in bed was sleep.
One thing the Nest Hub (2nd gen) can do that wearables can’t is pick up noises with its microphones, reporting back in the morning how many times you coughed or how long you spent snoring. It can also detect sudden light changes so you can tell what may have triggered a period of restlessness or poor sleep. Alas, the Nest Hub 2 has no way of distinguishing one snore from another, so if both you and your partner snore, this data won’t be of much use.
The idea behind all this is to pick up on patterns and habits and report back, with the ultimate aim of helping you get a better night’s kip. Like any sleep-tracking tech, it has its limitations. You have to actually act on the information it provides, perhaps changing your bedtime routine, or going to bed earlier. However, to its credit, it does offer up suggestions based on the data it gathers so you do have somewhere to start.
I also prefer having a sleep tracker that’s on the bedside table instead of wrapped around my wrist for a couple of reasons. First, you never forget to put it on and it doesn’t need charging, so overall it’s more likely to provide data on a consistent, long-term basis. Second, it’s never going to be thrown off by you sitting motionless on the sofa watching TV, like many wrist trackers are. And, in general, it does seem to work pretty well, the results matching up with the tracking data garnered via the Polar Vantage V2 I’ve been wearing on my wrist.
It’s not about sleep tracking, either. Google clearly wants the Nest Hub (2nd gen) to be a smart speaker for the bedroom and has put in a lot of work to improve its alarm clock functions.
It’s now possible, for instance, to set up a “sunrise” alarm. This gradually brightens the display over a short period before the alarm goes off in order to wake you up more gradually. The Soli radar lets you snooze the alarm by waving your hand in its general direction, although it’s just as easy to simply dab the snooze button on screen. It’s also good to see that the screen dims low enough not to disturb you at night while keeping the screen just visible so you can see what the time is.
Google Nest Hub (2nd gen) review: Sound quality
Whether or not you think you’ll make use of the sleep tracking tech, other improvements will be universally appreciated. The main thing here is a huge improvement in sound quality. Google has taken what it learned in the development of the Nest Audio and has applied it here and the result is a much more musical listen.
The Nest Hub 2 can’t match the dynamism and impact of the Nest Audio, but it delivers a far fuller, more rounded sound in the lower registers than the first generation Hub, which sounds scratchy and thin in comparison.
Indeed, Google says the new Nest Hub is capable of outputting 50% more bass and although I’m wary of putting such a precise number on what is such a subjective notion, it certainly sounds a lot richer and bassier.
Melody Gardot’s silken vocals On My One and Only Thrill, slip out of the speaker with a lot more body, underpinned by a nicely rounded and tubby-sounding double bass, topped off by plenty of detail and atmosphere.
The Nest Hub’s single 1.7in full-range driver still isn’t quite beefy enough to cope with bass-heavy tracks, however, where the lack of low end robs tracks such as Floating Point’s Karakul or Kraftwerk’s Elektro Kardiogramme of presence. As a famous starship engineer once said: “You canna change the laws of physics, Jim.” Again, however, these tracks do sound a huge amount better than they did on the original Nest Hub speaker.
Google Nest Hub 2 review: Verdict
If you’re in the market for a smart speaker that you can pop in your bedroom that’ll do a bit more than just wake you up or play the radio at it, the Google Nest Hub 2 is a good option. The sleep tracking works well, the new alarm clock functions are handy and the sound quality is vastly improved. At £90, it’s pretty good value, too.
However, it’s far from the perfect all-rounder. If music is a priority, the Nest Audio would still be our pick of the smart speakers below £100, since it has that bit more punch and muscularity than the Nest Hub second generation.
It’s also disappointing that Google is planning on introducing subscription fees for sleep tracking from 2022, which means most people will miss out on its best new feature once the subscription kicks in. That doesn’t make the Nest Hub 2 a bad product per se, but it does leave a rather sour taste in the mouth.