Google’s second-gen Nest Hub smart display is a year old, so it’s time to start wondering 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 website didn’t provide any further details, but the idea would fit into Google’s current product roadmap.
Since its inception, the Google Assistant hardware has essentially copied Amazon’s Echo range. The original Google Home speaker was 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 came out a year after the Echo Show. The Google Assistant smart watches launched a year and a half after the Echo Spot. Google’s lack of hardware innovation isn’t a big deal as Google is widely considered to be the better voice command system, but it’s pretty clear where Google is looking for a product roadmap.
And, of course, Amazon has a whole range of tablets that turn into smart displays. In 2018, the company built smart display capabilities into Fire OS, Amazon’s fork of Android. Whenever you plug an Amazon tablet into one of the official docks, it automatically switches to smart display mode. Google experimented with an “ambient mode” for Android phones a year and a half after Amazon launched (Google’s timing is remarkably consistent), but the feature was initially only available on certain third-party phones. Ambient mode didn’t 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 tend to be. A tablet ambient mode would have been better, but Google’s launch in 2019 fell at a dead time for Android tablets.
This will run Android right?
What operating system would a device like this run? It’s anyone’s guess. Currently, the Google Smart Display range is supported by a big jumble of operating systems. In 2018, the original Google Assistant smart display for partner devices ran Android Things, a stripped-down, single-app kiosk operating system based on Android. Google has opted not to use the Android Things OS for the first and second generation Nest Hub, instead using a souped-up Chromecast OS. In 2021, following the launch of the second-gen display, Google brought its third operating system in development, Fuchsia, to the first-gen Nest Hub.
Android Things shut down in 2020, so that’s probably out. The Cast platform has always been an odd stepchild in the Google OS lineup. While the cheap $30 Chromecast still runs on it and requires a super basic operating system, the high-end model is now the “Chromecast with Google TV” and runs on Android TV. However, Google has added more features to the Cast OS, the latest being an app drawer UI. Google has a few participating third parties like Spotify and Netflix, but the Cast OS doesn’t have a full-fledged app platform, and these “apps” are primarily shortcuts to websites.
We’d rather call Fuchsia the future of the Nest Hub line if Google pushed the OS to the second-gen smart display, but it never did, so Fuchsia looks like an experiment relegated to the first-gen line became. The Fushia OS on the first-gen Hub never got the improvements that the second-gen Hub got (like the app drawer), so the OS doesn’t look like the future of the smart display line .
But if you want that smart display to be a useful handheld device, you’ll want a regular Android tablet. Android isn’t a perfect tablet OS, but when you need to choose something from Google’s toolbox, Android is the best. It has a full operating system interface and millions of easy-to-install apps that cover most of the things you’d expect from a tablet. What Android doesn’t have is a smart display interface, but with Android 13, Google may be working to change that.
Android 13 has an improved screensaver mode with “complications”, widgets that display information such as weather, air quality, date and time. Presumably these complications would show up if you put the tablet in a dock, which makes Android 13 work like a Fire OS tablet. There are still many things you would need to add to Android, like big buttons for smart home controls and media, but Android could handle it. The entire Google Smart Display UI was originally an Android app running on Android Things, and now you can easily run something similar on a full-fledged Android.
Google has been pushing tablets lately, with the release of Android 12L being the main sign of the company’s renewed interest in big-screen devices. We’ve been wondering when Google hardware will arrive to support this software push, and smart display/tablet hybrids could be part of the answer.