Google OnHub review—Google’s smart home Trojan horse is a $200 leap of faith

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Google’s OnHub is a bit of a mystery. Google shipped us this box—well, this cylinder—but it won’t really talk about what’s in it or why it exists. Today, it’s a Wi-Fi router from Google; tomorrow it might be something totally different. But it’s also a funny glowing cylinder with way too much processing power for its own good, a boatload of antennas, and an ever-present cloud connection to a Google update server so that it can evolve at will. OnHub is a tiny bundle of potential and no one really knows what it will turn into.

Still, you’re paying $200 for a Wi-Fi router right now. That’s not an unheard-of sum of money for the director of your home network, but the price certainly puts the OnHub in the high-end of the market. For that money, it has mostly the hardware you would expect: dual-band 2.4 and 5GHz 802.11ac Wi-Fi that goes up to 1900Mbps. The big downside is that you’re stuck with only one LAN port instead of the usual four, and the typical router settings have been reduced from pages and pages of options to just a handful of tweaks. OnHub is much more than a router, though—or at least, it will be, someday. To us, this looks like Google’s smart home Trojan horse.

Google OnHub review—Google’s smart home Trojan horse is a $200 leap of faith

Google’s branding conventions give us some insight into its plans. This little cylinder is called “OnHub,” but the smartphone app is just called “Google On.” Also, on the underside of the OnHub, there’s a label that reads “Built for Google On.” If we want to start wildly speculating (and we do), we’d say that “Google On” is the name of Google’s smart home platform, making “OnHub” the hub for all of your Google On stuff. “Built for Google On” would be the certification process that OEMs go through to ensure their products work with Google’s smart home ecosystem.

The Hardware

This particular OnHub was built by TP-Link and is model “TGR1900.” Google says it plans to “design new OnHub devices with other hardware partners in the future” and that an Asus model would be out later this year. We’re not sure if they will all look alike or if everything will match this design.

OnHub is a 7.5-inch tall plastic cylinder with a 4.5-inch diameter. The cylinder tapers about a half inch on the way down, making it kind of look like a tall flower pot. OnHub has a solid inner cylinder surrounded by a hollow plastic shell, which serves no purpose other than to look pretty. For now the shell comes in blue and black, and Google says more personalization options will be available later.

At the top of the inner cylinder is a distinctive status light ring. It changes a few different colors: blue means OnHub is ready for setup, orange means something is wrong and to “check out the app for details,” green means everything is up and running. Give the outer shell a twist and you can lift it off, revealing the port cluster at the bottom and exposing the vent-covered inner cylinder. There are no fans in the OnHub, so the inner cylinder is heavily ventilated.

The port selection is the big downside to the OnHub. There’s only one gigabit LAN port, meaning you’ll need a separate switch if you want to wire up more than one device. This is really only a downside for people with “medium” sized wired networks. With any other router having more than four wired devices means you would need a switch anyway. Besides the LAN port, there’s the requisite power and WAN ports, along with a reset button and a USB 3.0 port. Like a lot of things on the OnHub, the USB port is mysterious and doesn’t work right now. Will it be for NAS support? A debug mode? Only time will tell.

On the top of the OnHub are a bunch of ventilation holes, but one of the holes is not a hole. It’s plugged up with what Google tells us is an ambient light sensor that will someday adjust the ring light based on the amount of lighting in the room. Right now it’s not active.

OnHub also has a speaker—and not a tiny, quiet speaker, but a really loudspeaker. So far, we’ve only seen it used during setup.

We do know that this little router is packing a ton of processing horsepower. The OnHub is powered by a Qualcomm IPQ8064—a close cousin of the Snapdragon 600 (APQ8064). It’s a dual core 1.4GHz SoC using the Krait 300 CPU architecture. The difference between the “AP” SoCs that usually ship in smartphones and the “IP” SoC here is the removal of smartphone-specific features like support for a display, camera, and cellular modem. Together with 1GB of RAM and 4GB of storage, the OnHub has stratospherically-high specs for a router.

Nmap’s OS detection guessed the OnHub to be running “Linux 3.2 – 3.19.” OnHub’s license page makes several mentions of Gentoo and Chrome OS. According to The Financial Times, OnHub was a project from the Chrome and Google Fiber teams, so it makes sense that they would use parts of Chrome OS.