Google’s second-generation Nest Hub smart display is a year old, so it’s time to wonder if a new hardware release is around the corner. 9to5Google has a new rumor to consider: Google is “working on a new Nest Hub for 2022 with a dockable tablet form factor where the screen detaches from a base/speaker.” The site didn’t provide further details, but the idea would fit in Google’s recent product plan.
Since its inception, Google Assistant hardware has essentially copied Amazon’s Echo line. The original Google Home speaker released two years after the Amazon Echo. The Home Mini came out a year and a half after the Echo Dot. The Google Home Hub smart display hit the market a year after the Echo Show. Google Assistant smart clocks launched a year and a half after the Echo Spot. The lack of hardware innovation from Google isn’t a huge deal since Google is generally considered to have a better voice command system, but it’s pretty clear where Google goes shopping for a product roadmap.
And, of course, Amazon has a whole line of tablets that turn into smart displays. In 2018, the company built smart display functionality into Fire OS, Amazon’s fork of Android. Whenever you stick an Amazon tablet into one of the official docks, it automatically transitions into smart display mode. Google experimented with an “ambient mode” for Android phones a year and a half after Amazon’s launch (Google’s timing is remarkably consistent), but the feature was initially only available on specific third-party phones. Ambient mode did not make it to devices like the Pixel 6. The feature also doesn’t make much sense on phones, which generally aren’t readable from across the room. Smart displays typically are. A tablet ambient mode would have been better, but Google’s launch in 2019 was during a dead period for Android tablets.
This will run Android, right?
What OS would a device like this run? It’s anyone’s guess. Currently, the Google smart display line is supported by a big mess of operating systems. In 2018, the original Google Assistant smart display for partner devices ran Android Things, a stripped-down, single-app kiosk OS based on Android. Google decided not to use the Android Things OS for the first- and second-gen Nest Hub and instead used a souped-up Chromecast OS. In 2021, after the launch of the second-gen display, Google pushed its in-development third operating system, Fuchsia, to the first-gen Nest Hub.
Android Things was shut down in 2020, so that’s probably out. The Cast platform has always been a weird stepchild in the Google OS lineup. While the cheap $30 Chromecast still runs on it and needs a super-simple OS, the higher-end model is now the “Chromecast with Google TV” and runs Android TV. Google has added more features to the Cast OS, though, with the latest being an app drawer UI. Google has some participating third parties like Spotify and Netflix, but the Cast OS does not have a full-blown app platform, and these “apps” are primarily shortcuts to webpages.
We would be more comfortable calling Fuchsia the future of the Nest Hub line if Google pushed the OS to the second-gen smart display, but it never did that, so Fuchsia looks like an experiment relegated to the first-generation line. The Fushia OS on the first-gen hub never got the improvements that the second-gen hub received (like the app drawer), so that OS doesn’t seem like it’s the future of the smart display line.
Really, though, if you want this smart display to be a useful handheld device, what you want is a regular Android tablet. Android isn’t a perfect tablet OS, but if you have to pick something from the Google toolbox, Android is the most appropriate. It has a full OS interface and millions of easily installable apps that cover most things you want from a tablet. What Android doesn’t have is a smart display interface, but with Android 13, Google may be working on changing that.
Android 13 has an improved screen saver mode with “complications,” widgets that show information like the weather, air quality, date, and time. Presumably, these complications would display when you stick the tablet in a dock, making Android 13 work like a Fire OS tablet. There would still be many things you need to add to Android, like big buttons for smart home controls and media, but Android could handle those. The entire Google smart display UI was originally an Android app that ran on Android Things, and now you can simply run something similar on full-blown Android.
Google has pushed for tablets lately, with the release of Android 12L showing the most significant sign that the company cares about big-screen devices again. We’ve wondered when the Google hardware will arrive to back up this software push, and smart display/tablet hybrids may be part of the answer.