Google has begun rolling out a major software update for its Nest Hub smart displays, bringing new top-level navigation and a re-thought Home Control screen for smart accessory organization and control. The update also brings dark theme support to these smart displays for the first time, as well as support for home and away automation routines.
A New Face
This marks the first major user interface overhaul to the company’s Google Assistant-enabled smart displays since the original Google Home Hub launched in October 2018—an update that will also be rolled out to Google-compatible smart displays from third-party makers.
Prior to this update, the primary Nest Hub touch interface for most controls consisted of a sea of scrollable tiles, accessed by a tap from the Photo Frame screensaver and navigable by dragging left or right. Here, you could view your calendar, see the latest news, play videos, and more. But to get to your connected home accessories, a drag down from the top of the Photo Frame screen was necessary. Then you got a pop-up overlay on top of the screensaver image—which seemed to be somewhat disjointed from the primary interface—populated with device control groups and a View Rooms button for room-by-room access to devices previously set up through the Google Home app.
Following the update, a tap from the screensaver displays the new integrated Home screen (see image at the top of page), which has a scrollable top menu with various tabs. The Home screen defaults to the time of day tab—which may be titled Your Morning, Your Afternoon, or Your Evening—and may include weather, a reminder for your next meeting, news, and other tiles. The next tab is Home Control, followed by Media, Communicate, and Discover.
While these appear to be discrete tabs with definitive sets of relevant tiles beneath them, that’s really not the case. For instance, when you tap the Your Afternoon tab then scroll right to reach the end of its tiles, the interface moves straight into the Home Control tiles. Then continued scrolling beyond that will bring the Media tiles, Communicate tiles, and so on.
Elevated Home Control
While Google Nest retained the pull-down gesture from the top of the Photo Frame for consistency, that action now drops you directly into the new Home screen interface with the Home Control tab selected. Whereas the old interface presented a set of icons representing groups of smart devices such as Lights, Media, Broadcast, Thermostats, and Cameras (depending on what Google Home knew to exist in your home), it was not always clear what a tap on them would do. In addition to the icons, a button on the top right for View Rooms enabled access to a scrollable list of rooms in the home with their respective devices listed.
This update makes the Nest Hub feel more like a smart home hub for the first time, since these icons have been replaced with buttons that better reflect what lies beneath them and the evolving device landscape. In our case, the two Nest Hubs in our labs presented 7 buttons, including Lights, Speakers & TVs, Cameras, Routines, Locks, Rooms, and Climate. Tapping any of these buttons displays another page with a vertically scrollable list of relevant devices, routines, or rooms.
The Rooms button, as before, drops you into the familiar scrollable list of smart device icons and there is not much new to see down here. Tapping an icon generally provides direct touch access to device controls, but not all third-party devices support that. As a nice touch, the room list defaults to the specific room where the Nest Hub resides.
Furthermore, in another change Google also lists some active tiles on the screen that can directly control a device, though these are presented at the discretion of the software and cannot be configured. These may include access to a Google Nest thermostat, a Google Nest camera, Sonos speaker, or other devices. Here, Google should offer a way to explicitly hide or show these tiles by the homeowner. Some tiles of a purely informational manner can be dismissed by using a long press on them and selecting the Dismiss option.
Of course, Google Assistant voice commands can always be used for control of most—if not all—smart devices added through Google Home.
Home and Away is Back
In what will be good news for long-time Nest users, some of the former Works with Nest type of automations are beginning to come back to the Google Assistant ecosystem. Effective with these latest updates, you can now easily set Home and Away routines from the Google Home app. In the case of our lab setup, the only smart devices that could be integrated into these device automation routines were Philips Hue lighting, Google Nest Cameras, and Nest Thermostats. We expect more and more devices to be supported in this fashion.
Home and away modes are automatically determined by what Google calls presence sensing technology, which is based on the location of your smartphone. Once configured, the mode can also be set manually by using Google Assistant commands or tapping the Home/Away switch at the top of the Google Home app.
Support for Personal and Work Accounts
Google says this update should support adding multiple email accounts for a given user, so you can view and interact with meetings and events without having to switch between personal and work accounts. However, from our testing, this feature does not appear to be in place yet in the latest production version.
As an alternative, if your work account is hosted on Google Workspace (formerly branded as G Suite), your administrator can apply for access to the Google Assistant Beta Program. Once your work domain is accepted into that program, Google Workspace accounts can be integrated with Google Home and Google Assistant.
Dark Theme Support
Unlike many Google Home features that need to be set from the Google Home or Google Assistant app on your smartphone, the new dark theme for smart displays can be set directly from the Nest Hub interface. Just swipe up from any screen to display the settings bar, then tap the gear icon to show the System Settings screen. Then tap Display to set the theme to Light, Dark, or Auto.
Better Interface, But Slower
Generally, these interface changes are for the better, but both of our Nest Hubs were slightly more sluggish after the update. This primarily manifested itself as the Home screen interface was painted. These two hubs represented both a very early product from late 2018 as well as a recent example from mid-2020. Both were showing a production software version of 126.96.36.1999373933 and cast firmware versions 1.50.229149.
If you’re experiencing significant delays or notice unresponsive devices (particularly those from third parties), it’s always a good idea to remove these devices from the Google Home app then re-enable them.
More to Come for Nest Hubs
Some of the new features promised by Google in their October 19, 2020 pre-announcement blog post regarding Nest Hub updates are still to come. This includes Nest Hub Max support for the Zoom video conferencing app, which is slated for later in 2020 (Google Meet and Duo are already supported).
Additionally, a Sunrise Alarm feature is coming soon for smart displays used at your bedside as an alarm clock. When activated, this will enable the brightness of the screen to rise gradually prior to alarm activation, while support for different ringtones will enable tailoring alarm sounds to specific days of the week.
Tom Kolnowski is the Chief Content Officer & Founder of Digitized House Media, LLC, the publisher of Digitized House | Guide to the Connected Home. When he isn’t writing about smart home technology, sustainability, and high-performance architecture, you’ll find him exploring faraway destinations with his family.