Google's Nest Hub smart displays have a lot of self-evident uses: checking the weather, setting timers, or watching a little YouTube. But they can feel a bit underwhelming out of the box, especially if you're not the kind of person to go diving into various settings menus and start tuning and tweaking things to your liking. But there are a handful of things we think are worth knowing about using your smart display that can make it a more personalized and more useful companion, even if may not be the powerful stationary home tablet you might have envisioned.

In this guide, we'll go over some helpful features in Google's line of smart displays in particular: the Nest Hub (formerly named the Home Hub) and Nest Hub Max. Most of these features should also work on third-party Assistant displays, like the Lenovo Smart Display, but there are subtle and not so subtle software differences between the two categories.

Change the photo frame

By default, the Nest Hub displays recent images from your Google Photos library when not in use. You can change this behavior by selecting your smart display in the Google Home app, then tapping the Settings gear button, and finally selecting 'Photo frame.'

Here you can select what will appear on the Nest Hub's main screen: images from Google Photos, an art gallery, a fullscreen clock, or content from external services (Facebook and Flickr are supported, as of the time of writing). If you choose Google Photos, you can pick specific albums, in addition to the default 'Recent highlights' collection.

There are a lot of settings in the Photo Frame menu you can try out, including a temperature display, alerts for upcoming events, and even how quickly the display cycles through photos. You can get a pretty personalized look, and this really is a killer feature for smart displays in general.

Turn off the screen at night

If you keep your Nest Hub in a bedroom or other area where it could be distracting when the room lights are on, you can set the Nest Hub to turn its display off when it detects the room is pitch black. Just select your Nest Hub in the Google Home app, tap the Settings gear button, and select Display Settings.

There are a few different options you can play around with on this menu, but the one we're looking for here is the 'During low light' setting. Select 'turn off screen,' and your Nest Hub will never bother you again in the dark with its screen glow — unless you ask Google Assistant a question, anyway.

Cast (most of) your content

You probably already know that you can watch YouTube on the Nest Hub, but what about other content? Perhaps the most versatile aspect of the Nest Hub is that it functions as a Chromecast target, so you can press the Cast button in almost any app on your phone to play content like music, podcasts, and movies on the Nest Hub's screen.

You can play podcasts from Pocket Casts, watch series from services like Hulu and Disney+, stream your favorite games from Twitch, cast a Chrome tab from your PC, and much more. In most cases, you can even pause or skip content with voice commands ("Hey Google, pause") or by tapping the screen.

Pocket Casts on the Nest Hub

The main catch is that a handful of content providers block the ability to Cast to smart displays. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are the main offenders here ⁠— while Netflix's reasoning is still unclear, it's probably safe to assume that Amazon would rather you buy an Echo Show if you want to watch Prime Video on a smart display.

Get an interpreter

Did you know Google Translate's interpreter mode is available on all Assistant smart displays? The feature arrived in mid-2019, and allows two people to speak to each other in different languages, with your smart display acting as a two-way translator.

The feature is still prone to Google Translate's usual problems with complex sentence structures, and it only works with around 30 languages, but it's still an interesting function that could come in handy.

Search in Google Photos

While there are probably better ways to show off your vacation photos, you can start a slideshow of images from your Google Photos library on your Nest Hub. Just say a command like "show my photos from Florida" or "show my photos of Tracy," and matching images will cycle through on the display.

This works with the same search queries as the Google Photos app, so matches are usually very accurate — even specific commands like "show my photos of raccoons" worked for me. Did I mention I see raccoons a lot?

Set up Routines

Google Assistant Routines are as close as you can get to automation on the Nest Hub. Once you create a Routine and give it a command phrase, saying the activation phrase will start any actions contained in the Routine. For example, I created a Routine called "rain" that sets my Nest Hub to a certain volume before playing rain sounds. To activate it, all I have to say is "Hey Google, rain."

Here's how to create and edit your Routines:

  1. Open the Google Home app on your phone.
  2. Press your profile icon in the top-right corner, then select 'Assistant settings.'
  3. Tap the Assistant tab, then 'Routines.'

Routines are actually one of the most powerful features you can use on the Google Home platform, so they're really worth checking out. Google has some ready-made ones you can play with, too, like the popular "Good morning" routine that will tell you the news of the day, the weather, and more. They're not as powerful or customizable as something like Tasker, but they can bring a lot of convenience (and simplicity) to your smart display or speaker.

Connect with IFTTT

IFTTT, short for "If This, Then That," is an online automation platform that connects hundreds of different services together, including social media platforms and smart home services. You can use it to create DIY integrations between Google Assistant and other platforms, like creating notes with Evernote, restarting your PC, or posting a tweet with a voice command. Basically, they're like the routines above, but with essentially limitless third party service support.

If there's something you can't do with your Nest Hub on its own, there's a chance it could be done with IFTTT. The main catch is that there's no easy way to execute multiple actions on IFTT in a single command ⁠— each voice command will only perform one action. To get started, browse through some of the pre-made applets, or create your own (that last link only works when you're logged in).

IFTTT has been around for years, and while it is powerful, the other thing to remember is that you're using a 3rd party provider to trigger the specified action, not Google itself. If IFTTT fails to execute the action for whatever reason, Google has no way of knowing (and often IFTTT doesn't, either), and won't tell you the command didn't actually work.

Developer: IFTTT, Inc
Price: Free

Manage multiple calendars

By default, the Nest Hub only displays upcoming events from calendars you have created yourself. For example, if you subscribe to an external calendar for upcoming sports events, asking your Nest Display "what's on my calendar" won't include results from the sports schedule. Fortunately, you can change this behavior.

The setting for which calendars Assistant can access is buried deep, so you'd be forgiven for not discovering it on your own. Here's one way to get to it:

  1. Open the Google Home app on your phone.
  2. Press your profile icon in the top-right corner, then select 'Assistant settings.'
  3. Tap the Services tab, then select 'Calendar'.

Here you can change which calendars Google Assistant (and by extension, your Nest Hub) can read. You can also set the default calendar for creating events to any calendar you have permission to modify.

Add all your services

This one might be obvious, but if you don't want to cast everything from your phone to your Nest Hub, you should connect your favorite video, music, and radio services to Google Assistant. This way, you can start playing media from Netflix, Spotify, YouTube TV, and other platforms straight from your Nest Hub.

You'll need to open the Google Assistant settings to add or remove third-party services. Here's how to get there:

  1. Open the Google Home app on your phone.
  2. Press your profile icon in the top-right corner, then select 'Assistant settings.'
  3. Tap the Services tab.

Here you can add services for music (Spotify, Pandora, etc.), video (Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, etc.), radio, and other categories. You can also set a default for most services, so you can say something like "play Coldplay" instead of "play Coldplay on Spotify."

Enable start/stop sounds

By default, the Nest Hub doesn't play a sound after you say the activation hotword (either "Hey Google" or "Ok Google"), so there's no way to know if it hears you until you stop talking. If you want to add an audio confirmation that tells you the Nest Hub is listening, you can do that.

Select your Nest Hub in the Google Home app, tap the Settings gear button in the top-right corner, then select 'Accessibility.' You can enable start and stop sounds for Assistant on this screen.

Connect via Bluetooth

If you want to play audio content on your Nest Hub from another device, and you can't Cast it for whatever reason, there's one more option. The Nest Hub can act as a Bluetooth speaker, allowing you to stream audio from any device that supports the Bluetooth protocol.

To get started, select your Nest Hub in the Google Home app, tap the Settings gear button in the top-right corner, and pick 'Paired Bluetooth devices.' Here you can enable pairing mode, which causes the Nest Hub to appear as a Bluetooth speaker to any nearby devices.

This is especially useful with PCs, iPhones, and other devices that have limited Chromecast support. Even your Windows Phone or Blackberry PlayBook can stream to the Nest Hub!