Forget Apple’s iPad Or Amazon’s Echo Show, This Is My Perfect Video Call Device

My cynical mind tells me that some devices are created just because. Not to solve a problem, nor to improve an aspect of life, but, instead, because they might sell well and bank a bit of extra cash for the dice-rolling tech company.

That’s business and that’s capitalism, but it does mean some comically pointless tech crosses my examination table on occasion. I initially filed away tablets – when they landed a decade ago – squarely in the just because cabinet.

Five years ago, after I got cosy with Chromebooks (which have the dexterity of a laptop, large screen of a tablet and the speed of a phone) tablets ventured deeper into the drawer. 

When voice command-assisted smart displays were introduced to the world a few years ago, I started making some space in the cabinet. But a year after receiving my Google Nest Hub Max – and partly thanks to being cooped-up at home for four months – my Google smart display has unintentionally become one of the most important lockdown devices in my house. 

Excitedly unwrapping the Nest Hub Max in May 2019, plonking it on my kitchen counter and then thinking “now what?” foretold my relationship with the smart display for the next 10 months. 

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Here are the device’s key features; video playback (specifically YouTube), music playback, cooking recipes, video calling and smart home control. 

Here’s the problem; no one else I knew had a Nest Hub Max and few friends use Duo, so video calls were largely out of the question. I also didn’t video call friends and family very often because at that unusual time in history we were allowed to go outside and meet people face to face. Shocking, I know. 

For music, I have several other connected devices that do a better job in terms of sound quality and the Max doesn’t support Netflix (although Hulu and Plex work). Smart home control is also something a few devices in my house can handle.

It is – was – a shockingly limited device that costs over £200. It’s a big, expensive, undoubtedly frivolous piece of tech that gathers dust and stew splatter in the corner of my kitchen. No one needs a Nest Hub Max. 

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But that is changing. Isolated older relatives have taken advantage of some recent discounts and – independently of my advice – bought Nest Hub Max devices. My auntie and my mother – who both live far away – now own one and have delivered much needed – previously highly classified – Caribbean cooking tips down the wire.

My Guyanese roti, Salara and curry goat recipes are edging closer to elite auntie level – if that’s the only positive that comes out of 2020 then I consider it a big win. Seeing them both be amazed by the device’s auto-framing feature was also a plus.

Juggling between laptops, phones and tablets when video calling – I’ve noticed that the experience is simpler, and smoother, on a dedicated device like the Nest Hub Max.

New beginnings 

The Covid-19 pandemic must have awoken Google’s Nest division because the company has announced a raft of new features for the device that actually make it useful. Not more useful – straight up useful. 

Google announced in the last two weeks that group calls via Google Meet and Duo are now possible, with a maximum number of participants set at 100 and 32 respectively.

There’s also a new speed dial-type feature called “household contacts” that lets any user of a communal Nest device (it can recognise individual users and provide a tailored experience) contact a list of people quickly. If, for example, my partner needs an emergency demonstration of how to roll out roti from my mum, she can make that call without having my mum’s number in her personal contacts.

You can read about the myriad of other improvements here, which include full AMP articles and better back and forth communication with Assistant.

But it’s in these group calls that the Hub Max edges out Amazon’s Echo Show, which can’t do group calls. I’m yet to use the feature because it hasn’t reached the UK yet, but you can see the promise beyond the occasional one-to-one chat. Also, all of my tech briefings, meetings and interviews are over video now.

Having a dedicated device, and a designated space for video calls, is ideal in this new world. The Nest Hub Max, with these new features, goes some way to providing exactly that. 

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What makes all of this better is the fact that more people I know are buying them. A social network will fail without users – no one wants to scroll through a timeline of empty spaces and ads. It’s the same with Nest and video calling, it needs a critical mass of people with the right device and service.

Quick, instant video calling via Meet and Duo to other people with a dedicated video chat device in their home is basically how 90s teleconferencing companies imaged what the future would be like. 

Except convincing people of the need to spend money on niche hardware for a service that is worse than actually seeing someone was a hard sell. The pandemic has changed that and has made virtual face-to-face chats the norm for most.

This is the key difference when it comes to using a tablet, like Apple’s iPad, for video calling. It’s not a dedicated, fixed, device designed almost exclusively for this function. What the iPad gains in versatility, it loses in speciality when it comes to providing a particular type of video call experience. Features like auto-framing, or barking an order to start/join a call in my calendar with the device taking care of everything else, makes a huge difference.  

But there’s still more to do

At a Google event I attended to unveil the Nest Hub Max in May 2019, the organisers were keen to stress how the smart display had been imbued with important privacy features, including; physical off-buttons for the camera and microphones, and facial recognition processing taking place locally on the device rather than on a remote server. 

But there’s another issue that is yet to be addressed: non-Assistant features. Much of the device’s functionality requires users to enable Google Assistant and sign up for web and app activity tracking, even for features that seemingly don’t need Assistant to operate. This means Google records and stores your interactions with the device in order to better understand your habits. If you don’t sign up, the device becomes very limited. As I wrote at the time.

“Setting timers and asking for weather reports still work, but controlling your connected Philips Hue lights doesn’t. Nor does playing radio stations or some search functionality. On my Google Home (not the Hub Max), the speaker even struggles with toggling volume via voice command with Assistant turned off.”

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I presume an enabled Assistant will be needed to make use of the aforementioned incoming Nest features too. Google told me at the time it’s technically possible to do a number of functions without Assistant being enabled, but the company chooses not to. You’ll have to weigh up whether or not the convenience of a Nest Hub Max is worth another data sucking device in your house. 

Outside of that, though, the device is useful – as are its Assistant functions. Having a dedicated video calling device that’s set up in one place has offered my household a level of specialised connectivity that other devices don’t.

The novelty of owning a video-calling specific device, alongside a more pressing need to connect with friends and family in a way phone calls don’t offer – with auto-framing and the new incoming group calls functionality – has quietly made the Nest Hub Max one of the most important lockdown devices in my house.

Had the pandemic never happened, that likely wouldn’t be the case and it’d still be unused in my kitchen gathering stew splatter. 

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