Battle of the smart displays: Google Nest Hub Max vs. Amazon Echo Show 2

The last five years saw a veritable explosion of smart speakers, with all sorts of Amazon Echoes and Google Homes flying off of store shelves and into people’s homes. Smart displays like the Google Nest Hub Max and the second-gen Amazon Echo Show are seeking a similar boom by upping the ante and slapping a touchscreen on the things.

That gives voice helpers like Alexa and the Google Assistant a visual interface with which to show you things — video clips, weather forecasts, song lyrics, business listings, you name it. Throw in a camera into the mix and you can add video calls to that list.

Small-size smart displays like the original Google Nest Hub, the Amazon Echo Show 5 and the Lenovo Smart Clock might be a better fit at your bedside (and this handy guide can help you choose between them). If you’re a power user with plans to really put that touchscreen to use, then you’ll likely want something bigger. The larger version of the Facebook Portal is your biggest option with 15.6 inches of screen size, but it costs $350, and comes packed with more privacy concerns than the average smart display (which is saying a lot). 

You’ll get more bang for your buck with a 10-inch smart display, and your top two options at that size are the Nest Hub Max and the full-size Echo Show, which each retail for about $230. Here’s what you need to know before you pick one:

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Let’s start with your newest option, the Google Nest Hub Max. At $230, it costs $100 more than the original Nest Hub, and it offers the same, voice-activated Google Assistant smarts plus a bigger screen, better sound quality and the addition of a camera.

It’s not just any camera, either; it’s an intelligent, face-tracking camera with a 127-degree wide-angle lens. Teach it what you look like, and the display will show you personalized bits of data like reminders, messages and calendar entries whenever it recognizes you. Making a Google Duo video call? The camera will automatically pan and tilt to follow you as you move about the frame. It can even recognize gestures — just raise your hand to pause or resume playback.

The camera can double as a Nest Cam, too. Enable the feature, and you’ll be able to view its feed via the Google Home app or the Nest app, the latter of which also lets you set motion activation zones and save recordings to the cloud via Nest Aware.

All of that makes for a more sophisticated camera experience than we’ve seen with other smart displays, none of which can recognize faces or gestures. I just wish Google had given us a camera shutter, too. You can flip a switch to disable the camera digitally, but you can’t cover it up. That’s too much of a trust ask for my bedroom, thank you very much.

Beyond the camera, Google’s smart display features the same visual operating system as the smaller-size Nest Hub — a good thing, because that visual interface is better and snappier than Amazon’s. Information is organized and presented well, it frames your photos neatly without too much clutter on the screen, and it’ll actually show you what the Google Assistant is hearing as you speak, something you still won’t get from the Echo Show.

You also get the same ambient light sensor as the original. It can automatically adjust the brightness and contrast of the screen to keep your photos looking their best when it’s cycling through them in ambient mode, and to keep the thing from blinding you when the room is dim. That’s one of our favorite features among any of the smart displays we’ve ever tested.

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Amazon’s second-gen Echo Show is about a year old at this point, but it’s still a competitive choice among smart displays with 10-inch screens. The main reason: Alexa’s ecosystem of third-party partners and services, which is more open and expansive than what you get with Google.

In fact, Google recently ended support for the Works with Nest partner program, which many gadget makers and services providers relied upon to keep their offerings compatible with Google smart homes. Now, as the search giant asks users to migrate their Nest accounts over to a single, unified Google account, those connections are breaking in ways that have left many upset.

For instance, you used to be able to open the Nest app on an Apple TV and stream the feed from your Nest Cams straight to your television. Once you migrate accounts, that app won’t work at all. Same goes for partner products like the Haiku smart ceiling fan and the Abode smart security system — both were Works with Nest partners, but each is now in limbo.

There’s no such drama with Alexa (at least not yet). In fact, Amazon has managed to find ways of playing nice with key competitors like Apple, Microsoft and yep, even Google. All of that makes it the better option for anyone planning on building a smart home setup with a voice-activated smart display at the center. You’ll have more device options as you expand that setup than you will with Google, especially if you’re a fan of connected cameras. 

On top of that, the second-gen Echo Show features its own, built-in Zigbee hub, which the Nest Hub Max lacks. That lets it connect directly with Zigbee smart home gadgets like smart bulbs, smart locks and motion sensors with no need for additional hub hardware.

Beyond the smart home strengths, the Echo Show does a decent job with routine smart display functions. It’s good for streaming music, with support for services like Tidal and Apple Music that don’t work with Google, and, to my ear at least, slightly fuller sound than the Nest Hub Max. It’s great for keeping up with the latest headlines or checking a quick sports score or weather forecast. 

As for video, the Echo Show uses Skype for video calls and supports streaming from Amazon Prime Video and Hulu. Meanwhile, Google places calls via Google Duo and supports playback from YouTube, HBO Now and CBS All Access (CBS is CNET’s parent company, by the way). Each device also works with a number of other video service providers, including names like Dish, so check to see if the stuff you like to watch is watchable on your smart display of choice before you make a purchase. 

And no, the Echo Show doesn’t include a shutter for the camera, either — just a digital kill switch. I’ve included two alternatives with camera-covering shutters that are each worth considering below.

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Google wasn’t the first to release a Google Assistant smart display — that would actually be Lenovo, which launched two of them in 2018.

The bigger of the two, the Lenovo Smart Display 10, is the one that tempts me the most. The front-facing speaker offers strong sound quality and I give it points for design, too, especially the futuristic-looking curvature on the back that’s available in an attractive bamboo print. Plus, since it’s been on the shelf for a while and has some new competition this year, you might have an easier time finding it at a discount. In fact, it’s currently listed on sale for $100 off at B&H Photo through Sept. 14.

Lenovo’s smart display uses the same operating system as Google’s own smart displays, so the user experience is basically identical. You won’t get the Nest Hub Max’s new camera features like facial recognition, autotracking and gesture controls — but you do get a physical shutter that can cover the camera when you aren’t using it.

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Want the smart display with the best sound quality for the money? We say that’s the JBL Link View, another third-party Google Assistant display. Like Lenovo, it uses the same operating system as Google’s own Nest Hub, and it’s the best-sounding of any of them, thanks to the dual, front-facing speakers.

And yep, it comes with a privacy shutter for the camera, too.

The rub is that the Link View has a slightly smaller screen than the others — 8 inches as opposed to 10. At $250, it also retails for more than either the Echo Show or the Nest Hub Max, though at the time this is being written I’m seeing it on sale for closer to $200. At that price (and with that sound), it’s definitely worth considering.

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