Google Home Hub displaying a city at night.
Josh Hendrickson / How-To Geek

The Google Nest Hub and Home Hub are exceptional for controlling smart homes, checking weather and news, and setting alarms or timers. But, if you don’t have the Ambient Display set to show your photos, you’re missing out on one of its best features.

Google Nest Hub Is More Than a Voice Assistant

You probably use voice commands quite a bit with your Google Nest Hub, but that’s neglecting the main feature that separates the Hub from other Google Nest smart speakers—the display. The Nest Hub’s display can show you the weather, play news with video, offer step-by-step recipe instructions, control your smart lights, and even play YouTube videos. But one of the Nest Hub’s best features, ambient display mode, only appears when you’re not using the hub.

With the Nest Hub, Google introduced the “Ambient EQ” light sensor, and this allows the device to change its brightness and color temperature to work best with the current environment. Essentially, the Hub should look good no matter what room you put it in. It’s hard to overstate just how well this works, but you will almost swear you’re looking at a printed photo instead of a screen.

So, when you’re not working with the Google Nest Hub (which is probably most of the time), why not have it display your photos? Think of those digital photo frames from a decade ago—only, in this case, the final product isn’t terrible.

If you have more than one Nest or Home Hub, you can even have them show the same set of photos without adding them one at a time to each device—your photos just need to be stored in Google Photos. You can even choose which people and pets show up on your Hub.

Upload Your Pictures to Google Photos

To view your photos on your Nest Hub, you’ll need to upload them to Google Photos. If you just want to see some beautiful art, however, you can skip straight to turning on Ambient Mode on your Google Nest Hub.

If you haven’t already, you’ll want to start by uploading your pictures to Google Photos. It’s possible that all the photos you care about are already there, especially if you use an Android phone to take your pictures. But if you haven’t, start by going to Google Photos and logging in with your Google Account. Then upload any images you want to display on your Hubs. You can do this from the Google Photos iPhone and Android app as well, but if you already have all your photos on a computer, then you can load up everything at once from the browser.

Once you do have your photos uploaded, click on the search bar at the top of the screen (to the left of the Upload button). You’ll see a row of faces—click on them and label those faces to group your photos by people. This is useful later if you want your Google Nest Hub to display specific people (like family members or pets).

Take time to identify the people in more than one picture—especially children who may have photos at different stages in life. Initially, Google may not recognize a person at age four and then at age six as the same person, but if you label each with the same name, it will offer to merge the pictures. Keep doing this and, eventually, Google will learn and accurately display children as they grow even when you haven’t identified specific photos. Impressively, we’ve also seen Google recognize a person with an obscured face based on the outfits they are wearing. Google calls this feature Live Albums, and it isn’t limited to the Google Nest Hub. You can share these albums with family and friends using the Google Photos app, too.

Unfortunately, Face Grouping isn’t available in the UK, Illinois, or Texas.

Activate Ambient Mode on Your Google Nest Hub

Google Home App showing Living Room display header with 'Showing ambient' text

You will set ambient mode on each Google Nest or Home Hub you have. First, open the Google Home app on your phone, scroll to your Google Nest device, and tap its icon just above the words “Play Music.” In this example, we’re using a Hub named Kitchen Display.

Google Home App with box around Kitchen Display option (a named Google Home Hub)

If you have a Personalize Ambient option in the lower left-hand corner, tap that. Otherwise, tap the more options menu (which looks like three vertical dots), and then “Ambient mode settings.”

On the next screen, you’ll choose what to display when your Google Nest Hub is in Ambient Mode—Google Photos, Art Gallery, Fullscreen clock, or Experimental. Google Photos will pull photos from your Google Photos albums; Art Gallery will show Google chosen images such as fine art, NASA-generated images, pictures of cities, and so on. The fullscreen clock is just what it sounds like; you’ll always see a clock face. Experimental will pull images from your linked Facebook or Flickr accounts (given that this is experimental, that may change).

In this example, we’ll choose Google Photos to view our personal photos.

Ambient Mode settings with call out around Google Photos, Art Gallery, etc. options

If you have existing albums, you can choose them. Alternatively, you can try Recent Highlights which will rely on Google’s algorithms to surface interesting photos you’ve taken recently. Unfortunately, A.I. can learn things, but it doesn’t understand them, so this can lead to odd results, like a collage of carpet swatches being featured.

For this example, we’ll tap “Select Family & Friends” and choose four people to highlight. Once you’ve chosen the people you want to feature, Google creates a new album named Family & Friends, which you can use on other Google Nest Hubs. Tap the back arrow in the upper left-hand corner to leave this screen once you’ve made your choice.

Unfortunately, since it relies on Face Grouping, the Family & Friends album feature is not available in the UK, Illinois, or Texas.

Google Photos settings with call out around Select Family and friends option

Now that we’re back in the Ambient Mode settings scroll down to find more settings options. Here you can turn on and off Weather, Time, and Personal Photo Data. The first two, Weather and Time, are self-explanatory. Personal Photo Data adds marking to the display that explains what album the photo came from and who it belongs to (if you’re sharing your Google Photos).

If you set “Personal photo curation” to “Live albums only,” Google will try to weed out any blurry or badly exposed photos. If you leave the setting on “All albums,” then all photos will be shown, good and bad. Below those options, you’ll find the slideshow speed. We recommend setting this to one minute, but choose whatever feels best to you. Select the options you prefer and tap the back arrow in the upper left corner.

Ambient mode additional settings with call outs around weather and other options

You’re done! You’ll need to repeat these steps for any other Google Nest or Home Hubs you have. If you want to use the same list of people you chose above, then choose the Friends & Family album instead of the “Select family & friends” option. Go take a look at your handiwork and marvel how good your pictures look on this display. When you turn off the lights in the room, your Nest Hub will dim automatically and change to displaying the time instead.

Profile Photo for Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson is the Editor-in-Chief of Review Geek. He has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smarthome enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code.
Read Full Bio »