Google’s next smart display is rumored to be a detachable tablet

Nest Hub 2nd Gen.
Enlarge / Nest Hub 2nd Gen.

Corey Gaskin

Google’s second-generation Nest Hub smart display is a year old, so it’s time to wonder if a new hardware release is imminent. 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 into Google’s recent product plan.

Since its inception, Google Assistant hardware has essentially copied Amazon’s Echo line. The original Google Home speaker came out 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. Google’s lack of hardware innovation isn’t a big deal since Google is generally considered to have a better voice control system, but it’s pretty clear where Google is going to buy a product roadmap.

And, of course, Amazon has a whole line of tablets that double as smart displays. In 2018, the company integrated smart display functionality into Fire OS, Amazon’s Android fork. Whenever you insert 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 specific third-party phones. Ambient Mode hasn’t reached devices like the Pixel 6. The feature also doesn’t make much sense on phones, which aren’t usually readable from across the room. Smart displays usually are. A tablet ambient mode would have been better, but Google’s 2019 launch came during a dead period for Android tablets.

It will work on Android, right?

What operating system would run a device like this? Guess what. Currently, Google’s range of smart displays is supported by a large number of operating systems. In 2018, the original Google Assistant smart display for partner devices ran Android Things, an Android-based single-app kiosk operating system. Google decided against using the Android Things OS for the first and second generation Nest Hub and instead used a bloated Chromecast OS. In 2021, after the launch of the second-generation display, Google pushed its third operating system in development, Fuchsia, to the first-generation Nest Hub.

Android Things was shut down in 2020, so it’s probably out. The Cast platform has always been an odd son-in-law in the Google OS lineup. While the cheap $30 Chromecast still runs on it and needs a super-simple OS, the top-end model is now the “Chromecast with Google TV” and runs Android TV. However, Google has added more features to the Cast OS, the latest being an app drawer UI. Google has third-party participants like Spotify and Netflix, but the Cast OS doesn’t have a full-fledged app platform, and those “apps” are mostly shortcuts to web pages.

We’d 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, so Fuchsia looks like a experience relegated to the first generation line. The Fushia OS on the first-gen hub never got the improvements that the second-gen hub did (like the app drawer), so the OS doesn’t seem to be the future of the smart display line.

Really, though, if you want this smart display to be a useful portable device, what you want is a regular Android tablet. Android is not a perfect tablet operating system, but if you have to choose something from Google’s toolbox, Android is the most suitable. It has a comprehensive operating system interface and millions of easily installable apps that cover most things you 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 when you stick the tablet in a dock, making Android 13 work like a Fire OS tablet. There would still be a lot of stuff you need to add to Android, like big buttons for smart home controls and media, but Android could handle those. Google’s entire smart display UI was originally an Android app that ran on Android Things, and now you can just run something similar on full-fledged Android.

Google has been pushing 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 Google hardware will arrive to back up this software push, and smart screen/tablet hybrids could be part of the answer.