Google News and Notes

As promised, here’s my take on this morning’s Google announcements.

The most important is, of course, the announcement that Google is spending $600,000 to create free wifi in San Francisco parks. Thirty one parks are included; Google will build the necessary infrastructure and manage it for two years before turning it over to the city.

No, I’m not serious. Haven’t you figured that out yet? The story is true, but it’s hardly earthshaking, even if you live in San Francisco (and a good thing too, in light of the Bay Bridge’s seismic concerns.)

As expected, Google finally announced Android 4.3. Given the modest increase in version number and the fact that it’s still being called “Jelly Bean”, it should be no surprise that there aren’t major new features. It does have some nice tweaks, though:

  • Bluetooth 4.0 / Bluetooth Low Energy – This will allow Android devices to more easily connect to more devices and types of devices, including fitness gadgets and watches. Watches? See next item.
  • App access to notifications – There have been a heck of a lot of rumors about various companies working on smart watches. This new feature in Android 4.3 will allow apps to directly access OS notifications and, per the Android developer blog, update, delete, and push notifications to nearby Bluetooth devices (emphasis mine). Sure sounds like a useful thing for a watch, doesn’t it?
  • Multi-user restricted profiles – Let your kids use your phone? Now you can block them from taking certain actions (running particular apps, making in-app purchases, and so on). For those of us who don’t have kids, it should mostly be useful to keep our cats from getting out of the photography app and into the web browser to download kitty porn.
  • OpenGL ES 3.0 and new DRM APIs – I’m lumping these together because they’re largely invisible to consumers. The results, though, is that high-resolution graphics will be faster and smoother. The first consumer-visible change is that Netflix has already been updated to use the new DRM, allowing it to stream content in 1080p.

The update is rolling out now to Nexus devices. It’s not on my Nexus 7 yet, but that’s no surprise: the last Jelly Bean update took almost a week to get to me. The usual delays getting it onto non-Nexus devices are also beginning now. Note that “usual delays” apparently also applies to the “Pure Android / Google Play Edition” devices from HTC and Samsung: Multiple sites are reporting that Google is not distributing updates for those devices. HTC and Samsung have yet to commit to release dates (HTC is saying “soon”; Samsung says “in the coming months”).

Also as expected, Google has taken the wraps off the new Nexus 7. As with Android, it’s a set of incremental improvements rather than something pathsetting.

  • The screen has been beefed up from 1280×800 to 1920×1200. Yes, slightly higher resolution than your HD TV. That’s actually the same resolution as my 24-inch monitor. I’ll be very interested to see how sharp that kind of pixel density looks; early reports are that it’s a huge improvement over the original Nexus 7.
  • The dimensions have changed a little. The new version is a smidge taller, and about half a smidge narrower and thinner. It’s also a squoosh lighter. Yes, those are precise technical terms. Not a major improvement, but those who have seen it in person say the change does make it slightly more pocketable.
  • The new quad-core CPU is supposed to be about 80% faster than the original’s CPU. Combined with a bump from 1GB of ram to 2GB, it should make for noticeably smoother performance, especially with a lot of apps running.
  • Wireless charging is a nice touch, but you’ll have to pay extra: it ships with the traditional micro-USB charger and cable.
  • HDMI out. Well, sort of. The micro-USB port is SlimPort-enabled, so with an appropriate adapter you can connect to a TV. The adapter is not, of course, included. It’s an improvement over the original Nexus 7, but feels like something of an afterthought–more on that below.

The new Nexus 7 will be in stores next Tuesday. Best Buy is taking pre-orders, and I imagine other sellers will be soon. For what it’s worth, Staples is showing a $20 discount on the old 16GB model and a $50 discount on the old 32GB model.

Should you buy it? IMNSHO, if you don’t already have a tablet, this is the seven-inch to buy. If you’re thinking about upgrading, it’s only worth it if you’re actually seeing limitations with your current one. Me? I do a lot of switching between ebook reader, news reader, and browser and I frequently see several seconds of lag on each switch, so yes, I’ll probably upgrade, but I won’t be in a huge hurry to do so. I’m not pre-ordering, but will grab one when I see it in a store.

Finally, there was one unexpected announcement: The Chromecast HDMI Streaming Media Player. This is Google’s response to Apple’s AirPlay. A $35 “box” roughly the size of a fat thumb drive, you plug it into an HDMI port on your TV and join it to your wifi network. Once that’s done, you can stream video from any app that supports the technology. Yes, “app”. Unlike AirPlay, which is an OS-level technology, Chromecast is built into individual programs. That means that it’s not tied to a single OS (AirPlay requires you to be solidly in Apple’s infrastructure). Chromecast is already available in Netflix’ app, is coming soon from Pandora, and in the Google Play media apps. It’s also in beta for the Chrome browser. Yes, anything you can display in your browser can be streamed to your TV on all OSes where Chrome runs (Windows, Mac, Linux, Android). Note that all of those media players are streaming only; that means that at the moment you can’t display local content, but that should be a temporary limitation: once media player apps pick up the necessary APIs, that problem will be solved. My guess is that we’ll start seeing Android apps with the support next week and desktop programs not long after.

This is why I said that the HDMI/SlimPort support on the new Nexus 7 feels like an afterthought: if Chromecast lives up to its billing (and the early reports suggest that it does–though granted that’s based on not much more than demos), why would anyone want to tether their tablet to the TV when they can get the same result wirelessly?

No surprise, the Chromecast is sold out directly from Google already. Best Buy is expected to be selling it next week. If you can’t wait, you can order it from Amazon. Mine is supposed to arrive Friday. If it does, I’ll check it out over the weekend and publish a report here on Monday.

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