Google Looks to 2018

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at Microsoft’s hardware announcements. This week, it’s Google’s turn. Where Microsoft was looking ahead to 2020, Google seems to be looking backward. Think I’m kidding? Consider the evidence:

New “Pixel Buds,” true wireless headphones that–in addition to letting you listen to music and made phone calls–allow you to talk to an electronic assistant. Regardless of your feelings about Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and HeyGoogle, these earbuds would have been revolutionary a couple of years ago; now they come off as “We’re going to jump off the same bridge as all of our friends.”

Then there’s the Pixelbook Go. Hmm. Where have we heard the word “Go” in a computer name lately? Microsoft used it for a machine that focused on portability. Sensible, even logical. Google uses it for a computer that, uh, has long battery life and was “thin”.

I don’t see the connection. (Google’s Go, by the way, is approximately twice as heavy as Microsoft’s.)

And, let’s be frank here. People didn’t buy zillions of the earlier Pixelbooks because they were too heavy. They didn’t buy them because nobody saw the benefit of a ChromeOS device at that price point. The Pixelbook Go will be cheaper, but it’s still at the upper end of the Chromebook price range.

Moving on, we have a new incarnation of the Google Home Mini. It’s now the Nest Mini, comes in a new color–blue–and has a wall mount. Supposedly it also has twice as much bass (which at least answers one of the major concerns about a device that small designed for playing music) and an additional microphone so it can eavesdrop on you more accurately.

After the “Apple is listening to you having sex” scandals, does Google really want to be promoting its enhanced listening capabilities?

The changes really feel like Google is repairing the deficiencies of something that wasn’t all that exciting or original in its first incarnation.

Of course there has to be an update to the mesh Wi-Fi gadget. The new version looks cooler. Slightly. It’s got Google Home built in, so your Wi-Fi network can listen in on youplay music and answer questions. Isn’t that what the Nest Mini and your phone are for?

Is it any faster than the previous generation? Able to support more simultaneous users? Dunno. Google didn’t say.

Again, incremental tweaks to a “me too” gadget.

And, finally, there’s the Pixel 4.

That actually has a unique feature: a radar sensor. No, not for detecting speed traps. For registering nearby motion so you can control it with hand gestures without picking it up.

I can see so many uses for that. Like changing the volume when listening to music while driving. Dismissing notifications while driving. Pausing videos while, uh, driving. Um. Let me get back to you on this one.

I’ll admit the new audio recorder with built-in speech recognition to transcribe lectures sounds neat. I do have to wonder how long it’ll be before they get hit with a lawsuit because someone figured out how to use it to transcribe song lyrics.

And, of course, there are the usual highly touted improvements to the camera, some physical and some in the software.

Granted, better and better cameras are, IMNSHO, a more useful arms race than bigger and bigger screens, but still, I have to wonder who the audience is. How many people use their phone camera in anything other than full automatic mode? Do the majority of us really need control of Google’s HDR algorithms? Or would we be better off with a cheaper phone that takes decentish pictures, while the few who actually need total control of their photos put the money they save on the phone toward a better lens for their DSLR?

The End of an Era

The mystique has come to an end.

According to multiple reports, Android will no longer have sweet-themed release names.

If this is true, Pie is a good way to go out, but it’s an interesting decision on Google’s part. Not only do they lose a wildly popular bit of their brand, but the stated reasons for making the decision don’t quite add up.

It’s a rare corporate decision that can’t be revisited. Change your logo and lose sales? Change it again to something closer to the original. Refocus on a new target market and take a bath? Bring back an old corporate spokesperson to re-engage with the original buyers (anyone remember when Snap, Crackle, and Pop vanished, only to return?)

But this is a decision Google can’t take back. If, a year from now, they announce that Android R will be named “Rice Pudding,” then retroactively the “Android Q” move will seem like a ploy to get free advertising from the media. Nor would (ahem) sugar-coating the news by claiming that Q was named Quisp (or Quince, or anything else really) within the company improve the look.

Why are they doing this? I’ve seen two claimed reasons.

The media focuses on the name rather than the new features. So? As long as users use the OS and manufacturers license the Google apps, do you think Google really cares whether the free advertising focuses on the name or the spiffy new Back button functionality?

People complained that the names weren’t inclusive enough. People switch phones for a lot of reasons, but I really doubt Google was losing business to iOS over the code names. But if I’m wrong about that, Google could improve the naming process. The company is already in the spotlight over diversity issues; improving representation in the group that chooses Android names would fall right in line with their efforts to do more improve representation throughout the company.

Of course, the reports could be wrong. Android Q will be out next month, possibly as soon as next week. Maybe we’ll find out that it’s actually named Quinoa–hey, if you can make rice pudding, why not a sweet quinoa-based cake?

Google I/O 2019

Welcome to my annual Google I/O Keynote snarkfest.

In years past, I’ve used Ars Technica’s live blog as my info source, but this year it appears they’re not at Google I/O. So all the snark that’s fit to print comes to you courtesy of Gizmodo’s reporting.

My apologies, by the way, for the later-than-usual post. Blame it on Rufus. No, not really. Blame it on Google for scheduling the I/O keynote speech at 10:00. But I did have to duck out to take Rufus to the vet for a checkup. He’s fine. The keynote is over. I’m caught up. Enjoy your post.

First up, Google is bringing augmented reality to search on phones. The demo involves getting 3D models in your search results. You can rotate them to see all sides and you can place them in the real world with an assist from your phone’s camera. Why do I suspect the porn industry is going to be all over this technology?

Seriously, though, it’s part of an expansion of the Google Lens technology we’ve been seeing for the past few years and integrating it into search. Other enhancements to Lens include the ability to highlight popular items on a recipe and displaying videos of recipes being made when you point the camera at a printed recipe.

Does anyone really want these features? If I’m at a restaurant, I’m going to pick the dish that sounds the tastiest, not the one the most people have ordered. My tastes aren’t necessarily yours, after all, and sometimes it’s the odd little dishes tucked away in the corner of the menu that are the most interesting. As for the cooking videos, I try to keep my phone in the case in the kitchen. I’d rather not wind up preparing pixel ‘n’ cheese or nexus stew. Silly of me, I know.

Anyway.

Remember last year’s big feature? Duplex, in case your memory is as short as mine. That’s the feature that let your phone make reservations on your behalf. Did anyone use it? Maybe a few people will try this year’s iteration which can make car reservations and buy movie tickets. I can’t say I’m thrilled at the possibilities this opens up.

Assistant, the voice behind “Hey, Google,” gets an update this year, as well. It’ll be able to figure out what you mean by personal references. Want directions to your mother’s house? Just ask. Because it’s good to know that, when you can’t remember where your relatives live, Google can.

Slightly more useful is a new driving mode, intended to reduce distractions. Speaking as someone who nearly got rear-ended yesterday by someone looking at the phone in her lap, I think the only legitimate “driving mode” would be one that turns the damn phone off as soon as you start the engine. Not that anyone is going to implement that.

Moving on.

Google is very, very sorry for whatever biases their machine learning technology has revealed. They’re working very, very hard to reduce bias.

Let’s be honest here. The problem isn’t the machine learning tools. It’s the humans who select the data that the machines learn from. Fix the developers’ biases and the machines fix themselves.

Onward.

More privacy features. Which seem to boil down to giving people more ability to delete whatever Google knows about them, but precious little to prevent them from learning it in the first place.

Oh, wait, one exception: there’s going to be an incognito mode for Maps, so you can get directions to the doctor’s office without Google being easily able to tie the request to your earlier searches. They’ll still know someone searched for the office and there are a number of ways they could tie it to you, but at least they’ll have to work for the data.

I’m a big fan of incognito mode in the browser, and I hope they roll it out everywhere sooner rather than later–and that’s no snark.

Furthermore.

Generating captions for videos on the fly seems like an interesting, if somewhat niche application. Applying the same technology to phone calls, though… If Google can pull that one off, it’d be a big win for anyone who’s ever tried to take a call in a noisy environment or even just sworn at the lousy speaker in their phone. Yes, and for those whose hearing isn’t the aural equivalent of 20/20 vision.

Looks like there’s a related effort to teach their voice recognition software to understand people with conditions that affect their speech. The basic idea there is good–but Google needs to beware of inappropriate extensions of the technology.

Correctly interpreting the speech of someone who’s had, say, a stroke, is a good thing. Suggesting that someone see a doctor because there are stroke-like elements in their speech is moving into dangerous waters, ethically speaking.

On to Android Q.

Support for folding devices, of course. That was inevitable. Moving apps from one screen to another, either literally or figuratively (when the device is folded and the screen dimensions change, for example).

Improved on-device machine learning, which will let phones do voice recognition themselves without help from Google’s servers. That’s a win for privacy and data usage.

Dark mode. Personally, I dislike dark mode; I find white text on a black background hard to read. But I know others feel differently. So enjoy, those of you who like that kind of thing.

More privacy features, including new controls over which apps have access to location data and when they have it.

OS security updates without a reboot? Would that Windows could do that. It’s a small time-saver, but worthwhile.

Focus Mode–which will also be retrofitted to Android Pie–maybe somewhat less useful: you can select apps to be turned off in bulk when you turn on Focus Mode. If the goal is to get you off your phone, this seems like a fairly useless diversion, because who’s going to put their important apps on the list? It does tie in with expanded parental controls, though, so there’s that.

Moving on.

Like your Nest thermostat? That’s cool. (sorry) Now all of Google’s smart home gear will be sold under the Nest name. I guess they figured with the demise of “Nexus,” there was an opportunity for an “N” name to distinguish itself.

So, no more “Google Home Hub”. Now it’s “Nest Hub”. Expect similar rebranding elsewhere. It looks, for instance, like Chromecast (remember Chromecast?) will be moving to Nest. NestCast? Or something stupid like “Google Chromecast from Nest”?

And, speaking of Pixel–we were, a few paragraphs back–we’re getting cheaper Pixel phones, as expected.

The 3a and 3a XL, starting at a mere $399, and coming in three colors. (Yes, we see what you did there, Google.) The usual black and white, naturally, but also something Google is calling purple. Looking at the photos, I’d say it’s faintly lavender, but maybe it’s the lighting.

Judging by the specs, it sounds like you’ll get roughly Pixel 2 levels of performance, except for the camera, which should be the same as the high end Pixel 3 models.

And, unlike Apple, who preannounce their phones*, the Pixel 3a devices are available online and in stores now.

* Remember signing up to get on the list to pre-order an iPhone?Fun times.

Moving on.

Bottom line: once again, we’re not seeing anything wildly new and different here. Granted, some of the incremental advances over the past year are large, but they’re all still evolutionary, not revolutionary.

And no, there weren’t any hints about what the Q in Android Q stands for.

Google Hardware 2018

Some days I wonder why I write fiction, when real life so easily out-weirds–or at least out-coincidences–me.

Like today, for instance. Google’s hardware announcement event kicked off with a bit of hype for their artificial intelligence technology and a touch of horn-blowing over their elite security skills. This came, of course, one day after the announcement that they’re closing the highly unpopular Google+ social network in the wake of a massive security breach.

Imagine how much longer that introduction would have run if the two events had been reversed.

But anyway, new hardware.

In another, unrelated security breach, Google’s done a lousy job of keeping their new toys under wraps. We know about the Pixel 3 phones, the Chrome OS tablet, new Chromecast and Google Home, and probably a few other things I’ve already forgotten about.

But at least now it’s all out officially. Let’s take a look at what’s coming–as usual, thanks to Ars Technica for their live streaming report on the unveiling–and see if there are any surprises left.

First up is the Google Home Hub. It does all the usual digital assistant stuff, but it’s the first Google-branded model with a screen. Interestingly, it does not have a camera, unlike all the other screened digital assistant devices. They’re quite blunt in saying it’s to make users more comfortable putting it in the bedroom and other private spaces. That’s a brilliant PR move, even if its microphone means your privacy can still be painfully broken.

The “Hub” part of the name refers to its ability to control “smart home” devices. Lights, thermostats, and all the other goodies that work so much better than a simple wall switch… Anyway, Nest will be assimilated more tightly into the Google collective, and their hardware will work seamlessly with the Home Hub.

Next was the Google Pixel Slate. It’s something new, and not, Google emphasizes, a laptop trying to be a tablet. Okay, so what is it then? As best I can tell, it’s a tablet. The “new” is that it’s running Chrome OS instead of Android.

Which means, since Chrome now runs Android apps and Linux programs, it’s also an Android tablet and the long-awaited* Linux tablet.

* By the small minority of people who actually use Linux on a daily basis.

Much is being made of the round keys on the matching keyboard accessory. I dunno. It looks like the Logitech K380 bluetooth keyboard I’ve had for a couple of years. It works. It’s not my favorite keyboard, but it’s far from the worst I’ve ever used.

The flexibility is enticing, but with prices starting at $600, not including the keyboard ($200) or stylus ($100), I’m a bit dubious about the price to performance ratio. And with a complete lack of announced specs–including size–and release date, I’d file it under “intriguing but so what?” Wait and see if it even makes it out the door.

Moving on to the Pixel 3. What can I say? It’s a phone. This year’s models (the 3 and the 3 XL, what a surprise) are bigger than last years, but “feel smaller”. Okay. Better cameras with better low light and zoom. No surprise there.

Hey, there’s a new Google Assistant feature: the phone will answer itself when someone calls, and the Assistant will interrogate the caller to find out if you want to talk to them. That’ll apparently roll out to older phones next month, too.

I’m up for that one, actually. If it cuts down on spam, I’m all in.

There’s a stand accessory coming, as well. Wireless charging and turns the phone into an “ambient display”. Which sounds like it’ll work as a something of a low-end Google Home device.

Not a word, apparently, about the new Chromecast. Oh, well.

Interesting toys, but nothing that sets my heart aflutter. Other than that phone-answering feature. Too bad you can’t choose the voice it’ll use–“Ve haf vays of makink you tell us who iz callink”.

Maybe next year.

An Extra Large Oreo

I’ve been using my Pixel 2 XL for a couple of weeks now, so it’s probably time to throw out a few thoughts.

First, now that I’ve seen the specs on the thoroughly-leaked Pixel 3, I’m less bothered about not being able to consider it as my upgrade option. That might change if there really is a low-end version in the works, but for now, I’m happy.

Also, all of these comments are based on the phone running Android Oreo. Pie is downloading as I type these words, so I’ll save my thoughts on the upgraded experience for another day.

My immediate reaction after unboxing the phone was “Holy cow, this thing is huge!” But it doesn’t feel nearly as big in my hand. It’s not that much heavier than the 5X, and it’s very well balanced. I’ve yet to feel like it’s trying to slip out of my hand. It is a bit of a stretch to hold it at the balance point and still get a finger on the fingerprint reader, but not a painful one.

There’s no reasonable way to operate it one-handed. I have fairly long fingers, but even so, my thumb can only reach about half the screen. I’ve always been a “hold it in one hand, operate it with the other” user, so I haven’t had to make any changes in my habits there. But if you’re a “do everything with one hand” sort, you’re going to need to change your habits.

And that’s just as well. One-handed operation encourages multitasking, and I’d really rather you weren’t using your phone while driving, waiting in lines, or anything else that requires you to pay attention to what’s going on around you.

The fingerprint reader doesn’t have the same problem the 5X did with false triggering when the phone is in the pouch. That was half the reason why I wound up putting the 5X in a hard-shell case. The other half was that the car holder I use hits the 5X “Volume Down” button; that’s also not a problem with the 2XL. So I may not bother with a case this time around.

Setting up the phone initially had a couple of hiccups. Recent Android versions assume you’re moving from an older device, and they really want to transfer your data and settings. Since I couldn’t do that, the 2XL sulked a little, primarily around the first Wi-Fi connection.

To be totally fair, though, since it made the first connection, it’s been rock solid on multiple Wi-Fi access points, much more so than the 5X ever was–and much faster on the same ones. Transferring large files to and from the phone run as much as two times faster.

That said, the transfer from Wi-Fi to cellular data seems to be a little slower. If I’m streaming audio (say, listening to a baseball game in the car) I get a break of as much as ten seconds before it gives up on the Wi-Fi signal. But, to be fair, the switch from cellular to Wi-Fi is nearly instantaneous.

Fast is definitely a recurring theme. Apps launch instantly, data refreshes in a snap. Some of that is because I had to make a clean start and I haven’t reinstalled many of the apps I almost never used. Fewer apps and not having two years of photos on the device* means I have about four times as much free storage space as before, which translates into a speed boost. Though, naturally, most of the increase is just down to the more powerful hardware.

* Of course, all the pictures and videos are still available through Google’s Photos app. If you don’t have your phone set to automatically back up all your pictures to the cloud, give it some serious thought. Aside from its everyday benefits, it makes the transition to a new phone easier.

The photos are much better. You can see the improvement in last Friday’s post, where Kaja and Kokoro are clearly visible, even though they were backlit. And the difference is even more striking in low light conditions. There’s much less blockiness and the colors are clearer, probably because the automatic white balance seems to work much better.

Focusing is faster, too, which means I can get the shot I’m after before the subject wanders off or tries to sniff the phone.

It’s not perfect. It’s very reluctant to use the flash when it’s set to automatic. But the HDR is improved enough that it almost doesn’t matter. Almost.

The battery life is fine. I’m reliably getting by charging the phone every other night. Granted, I probably use the phone less than Google’s target audience. If I was watching videos for a couple of hours a day, I might feel otherwise. That said, videos look great, and the audio is noticeably better than on the 5X.

Other complaints.

The Home screen has a lot of wasted space, especially vertically. There’s nearly a whole icon’s worth of unused space above and below the “At a Glance” display (currently showing only the date and weather). And I could fit in a whole additional row of icons without affecting usability if I could put them closer together. (To be fair, I’ve gotten spoiled by the default launcher/home screen on LineageOS, which I’m running on my Nexus 9. That lets the user change the icon size and spacing.)

I’m also not a fan of the much-ballyhooed “Active Edge” feature. That’s the one that makes the sides of the phone pressure-sensitive, so you can launch the Google Assistant by squeezing the phone. I lasted two days before I turned that off. I hold the phone by the edges. Every time I picked up the phone, the Assistant triggered. Decreasing the sensitivity didn’t help; if there’s a sweet spot between “too sensitive” and “doesn’t register at all,” I couldn’t find it.

No great loss. Holding the “Home” button or using the voice activation is plenty good enough for this neo-Luddite skeptic.

A minor annoyance: Much as I love the “always on” display when the phone is locked–and I do–I wish I could add more data to the display. The current battery percentage would be nice; I shouldn’t have to wake up the phone to check that. Baseball scores. Some people might like to have a stock ticker. You get the idea. I hear Android Pie adds the battery percentage. Maybe Quisp will include some kind of widget-like functionality that third-parties can tap.

Bottom line: If you need a new phone, you could do far, far worse than the Pixel 2 XL. But there’s nothing here so compelling that you should immediately abandon whatever you’re using now.

And now, I’m going to hit the “Reboot” button and see how I like Pie.

Pie

Google startled the tech world yesterday by releasing Android P. Many techies were unprepared for the news, not expecting the release to happen until the twentieth.

Naturally, the surprise didn’t stop anybody from playing the name game. Now that we know Android P, aka Android 9, is officially named “Pie,” the just-released OS is ancient history, and everyone is speculating about the name of next year’s release.

Let’s face it, there just aren’t a whole lot of foods beginning with “Q”–and most of those aren’t sweets by any stretch of the imagination. Quesadilla? Quiche? Quinoa? Goddess preserve us. Pun intended, because the most likely choice I’ve been able to come up with is Quince, which is frequently found (to the extent you can call it “frequent”) in jams, jellies, and preserves.

But you know, there is a dark horse candidate.

Quisp Cereal
(Image copyright Quaker Oats.)

It’s a sweet. No more so than any other sugared cereal, I suppose, but yeah, there’s a lot of sugar in those boxes. It wouldn’t be the first time Google has done a corporate tie-in for an Android release. And really, wouldn’t Android’s robot mascot look great with a propeller mounted on its head?

Android Robot
(Android Robot owned by Google, naturally.)

Come on, Google, make it happen.

If you think I’m pulling that idea out of my rear end, you’re partly right. But there is a possibility that Google is prepping us for a bit of MTV-generation nostalgia.

Consider: Why did they choose yesterday, August 6, to make the Android Pie release? 8/6 is hardly a date of significance to pie. But it starts to make more sense when you consider that news reports citing Google’s announcement started appearing around 9:00 (US PDT).

I can’t find the actual press announcement from Google, but… Allow reporters a bit of time to pull up their stories and add last-minute details. That would imply the release came out around 8:00. Might it have been 7:53:09? Just saying.
Counter-arguments that yesterday was three months after Google I/O will be cheerfully ignored. Secret conspiracies are much more fun. And besides, why do you think they chose the date they did for I/O?

Joking aside, there aren’t a whole lot of surprises in the release. Google revealed most of their plans at I/O back in May. And, of course, developers and the incurably brave have been using the public betas for the past three months.

Perhaps the biggest surprises are those of omission. Two big pieces of planned functionality–“Slices,” which will allow apps to export content to other apps and the “Digital Wellbeing” initiative, a set of features designed to make you put down your phone and interact with humans–aren’t included. Google says they’ll both be released “later” this year.

That’s a little disappointing. I was looking forward to seeing Digital Wellbeing in action; some of the announced bits of it sounded useful.

I guess I can spend the intervening time getting the hang of the new navigation. The changes to the Back button should be simple enough–either it’s there or it isn’t–but when it is, it should work more or less as it has in the past.

Doing away with the “Recent Apps” button will be tougher. I use that one a lot. Sure, I’ll eventually retrain my muscle memory to swipe up from the “Home” button and to swipe left/right through the apps instead of up/down. But the whole thing smacks of change for the sake of change.

Unless, of course, Android Quisp is going to introduce some startling new functionality behind a button located where “Recent Apps” used to be. In that case, getting the button out of the way now, in order to give sluggards like me a whole year to reprogram their brains, is an excellent idea.

I’ll undoubtedly have further thoughts on Android Pie once I get my hands on it. I’m still waiting for it to show up on my shiny new Pixel 2 XL. You’d think Google was being cautious with the rollout. It’s not like Android ever has unexpected bugs, right?

The Inevitable

My humblest apologies for the lateness of this post. Sadly, my beloved smartphone passed away last night, and I’m in the throes of grief. Ah, Nexus 5X, we hardly knew you.

Well, okay, considering that I’d had the phone since April of 2016, I’d say I knew it pretty darn well. So did you all, for that matter, since 99% of the photos I post are taken with my phone. And I wasn’t spending (much) time weeping and wailing; I was trying to revive it.

The fatal disease in this case is the so-called “boot loop,” in which the device gets partway through booting, then starts over or shuts down–mine fell into the latter group. It’s a known hardware problem with the 5X. Apparently some component unsolders itself from its circuit board. And in retrospect, I probably should have seen this coming. The phone has been having increasing difficulty connecting to Wi-Fi for the past few months–which some websites suggest is a related issue–and the constant attempts to reconnect raise the phone’s temperature, which hastens the major component failure.

I have to give kudos to both Google and LG (the actual makers of the phone) for their handling of the situation. The Project Fi customer service representative had me do one simple test to confirm the problem, then told me that LG had extended warranty coverage to all devices that fail this way, so there would be no cost for a repair, not even shipping.

He then conferenced in an LG customer service representative and introduced us before dropping off the call. She was equally polite and efficient, confirming that the repair would be done under warranty and would take about two weeks. It took her longer to get my address into the computer than everything else combined*.

* To be fair, the address problem was not the rep’s fault, nor, really, was it LG’s. Blame the US Post Service. My zip code is shared between two cities. Companies that auto-populate the city based on the zip code using the official USPS database always get it wrong, and usually have to fight to override the default.

I’m currently waiting for LG to email me the FedEx shipping label; that should come today, I was told, but may take a little longer than usual because of the address override. Fine. What’s a day or so in a two-week process?

Because, really, two weeks without a phone? Inconceivable!

The Google rep suggested that if I have an old phone, I could temporarily activate it with Fi, but I’m not sure that’s feasible, since my previous phone was with Sprint, which didn’t use SIMs at the time. But I’ll try, because why not?

But I’m not counting on it working, so I’ve ordered a new phone. Yeah, I know. Bad timing: Google is widely expected to introduce the Pixel 3 series in October. But let’s face it, about 95% of my phone time is either listening to baseball games, sending email, or taking pictures of cats. And the Pixel 2 camera are still widely regarded as among the best phone cameras available. It’ll be a major upgrade over the 5X camera, certainly. And spreading the payments across two years makes it more or less affordable.

In the worst case scenario, if the Pixel 3 series renders the 2 series totally obsolete, well, I’ve got a phone that’s a major step up for what I do. By the time it’s paid off, I can trade it in for a Pixel 5 (which obsoleted the Pixel 4 that made the Pixel 3 look like trash).

If you believe Google’s estimate, the new phone could arrive as soon as tomorrow or as late as Monday. Four days is a hell of a lot easier to face than two weeks. With a bit of luck, next Friday’s cat post will feature photos taken with the new phone.

So why am I getting the phone repaired if I’m buying a new one? That Google rep again. He pointed out that the trade-in value of a working 5X is almost double that of a dead one and that I’ve got thirty days–four weeks, twice as long as the repair should require–to send in the old phone. Logical and helpful. Thank you, Google Support Guy!

Or, heck, I may keep it around as an emergency backup. Maggie has a 5X, after all. It probably won’t drop dead–it seems to be from a newer production run which may not have the same unsoldering issue–but keeping the old phone would provide a little peace of mind.

Rest in peace, Nexus 5X, secure in the knowledge that your resurrection is pending.

Google I/O 2018

As promised, here’s my usual cynical rundown of all the exciting things Google announced in the I/O keynote. As usual, thanks to Ars for the live stream.

Looks like a great year ahead, doesn’t it? See you Thursday.


Okay, okay. I just had to get that out of my system.

First up, Sundar admitted to Google’s well-publicized failures with the cheeseburger and beer emojis. It’s great that they’ve been fixed and that Google has apologized publicly. But when are they going to apologize for their role in inflicting emojis on us in the first place?

Anyway.

Google has been testing their AI’s ability to diagnose and predict diabetic retinopathy and other health conditions. I’m hoping this is not being done via smartphone. Or, if it is, it’s fully disclosed and opt-in. I’m quite happy with my medical professional, thanks, and I really don’t want my phone to suddenly pop up a notification, “Hey, I think you should see an ophthalmologist ASAP. Want me to book you an appointment?”

I do like the keyboard that accepts morse code input. That’s a nice accessibility win that doesn’t have any glaring detrimental impact on people who don’t need it.

That said, I’m less enthusiastic about “Smart Compose”. I’m not going to turn over writing duties to any AI. Not even in email.

But I do have to wonder: would it improve the grammar and vocabulary of the typical Internet troll, or will it learn to predict the users’ preferences and over time start composing death threats with misspellings, incoherent grammar, and repetitive profanity? Remember what happened with Microsoft’s conversational AI.

And I’ve got mixed feelings about the AI-based features coming to Google Photos. I pointed out the privacy concerns about offering to share photos with the people in them when Google mentioned it last year. Now they’re going to offering the ability to colorize black and white photos. Didn’t Ted Turner get into trouble for doing something of the sort?

More to the point, how many smartphones have black and white cameras? Taking a B&W photo is a conscious decision these days. Why would you want Google to colorize it for you?

Fixing the brightness of a dark photo, though, I could totally get behind.

Moving on.

Google Assistant is getting six new voices, including John Legend’s. Anyone remember when adding new voices to your GPS was the Hot Thing?

More usefully, it’ll remain active for a few seconds after you ask a question so you don’t have to say “Hey, Google,” again. Which is great, as long as it doesn’t keep listening too long.

That said, it’ll help with continuing conversations, where you ask a series of questions or give a sequence of commands; for example, looking up flights, narrowing down the list, and booking tickets.

And, of course, they’re rolling out the obligatory “teach little kids manners by forcing them to say please” module. If it starts responding to “Thank you,” with “No problem,” I will make it my life mission to destroy Google and all its works.

Moving on.

Smart displays–basically, Google Home with a screen–will start coming out in July. I can see the utility in some areas, but I’m not going to be getting one. On the other hand, I haven’t gotten a screenless GH, nor have I enabled Google Assistant on my phone. I just don’t want anything with a network connection listening to me all the time. But if you’re okay with that, you probably ought to look into the smart displays. It will significantly add to the functionality of the home assistant technology.

Good grief! You thought I was joking about your phone offering to make a medical appointment for you? Google isn’t. They’re going to be rolling out experimental tech to do exactly that: your phone will call the doctor’s office and talk to the receptionist on your behalf.

Not just no. Not just hell no. Fuck no! No piece of AI is going to understand my personal constraints about acceptable days and times, the need to coordinate with Maggie’s schedule, and not blocking my best writing times.

Moving on.

Google is rolling out a “digital wellbeing initiative” to encourage users to get off the phone and spend time with human beings.

Just not, apparently, receptionists and customer service representatives.

It’s a worthy cause, but let’s face it: the people who would benefit most won’t use it, either because they don’t recognize the problem, or because being connected 24/7 is a condition of employment. I’m sure I’m not the first to point out that Google employees are likely to be among the most in need of the technology and the least likely to use it.

Moving on.

The new Google News app will use your evolving profile to show you news stories it predicts will interest you. No word on whether it’ll include any attempts to present multiple viewpoints on hot-button topics, or if it’ll just do its best to keep users in their familiar silos. Yes, they do say it’ll give coverage “from multiple sources” but how much is that worth if all the sources have the same political biases bases on your history of searches? Let’s not forget that Google’s current apps with similar functionality allow you to turn off any news source.

Moving on.

Android P (and, as usual, we won’t find out what the P dessert is until the OS is released) will learn your usage patterns so it can be more aggressive about shutting down apps you don’t use.

It’ll offer “App Actions” so you can go straight from the home screen to the function you want instead of launching the app and navigating through it.

Developers can export some of their content to appear in other apps, including your Google searches.

The AI and machine learning functionality will be accessible to developers. Aren’t you thrilled to know that Uber will be able to learn your preferences and proactively offer you a ride to the theater?

And, of course, the much-ballyhooed navigation designed for a single thumb. The “recent apps” button will go away and the “Back” button will only appear when Android thinks it’s needed. And some functionality will be accessible via swipes starting at the “Home” button. Because the “Back” button wasn’t confusing enough already.

I do like the sound of a “shush” mode that triggers when you put the phone face down. I’m using a third-party app to do that with my phone now. Very handy when you want to be able to check in periodically, but don’t want to be interrupted. Sure, you can set the phone to silent, but putting it face down is faster and you don’t have to remember to turn notifications back on.

On to Google Maps.

It’s going to start letting you know about hot and trending places near you and rate them according to how good a fit they are for you. I’ve got serious questions about how well that’s going to work, given the number of times Google’s guessed wrong about which business I’m visiting. If they start telling me about popular Chinese restaurants because there’s a Panda Express next door to the library, I’m gonna be really peeved.

Oh, and businesses will be able to promote themselves in your personalized recommendations. How delightful. Thanks, Google!

Okay, the new walking navigation sounds useful. Hopefully it will learn how quickly you walk so it can give reasonably accurate travel time estimates. Hopefully there’s also a way to get it to make accommodations for handicaps.

Of course, if you don’t want to walk, Google–well, Waymo–will be happy to drive you. Their self-driving program will launch in Phoenix sometime this year. Which seems like a good choice, since they’re unlikely to have to deal with snow this winter.

I guess people in Phoenix will be getting a real preview of Google’s future. Not only will their phones preemptively book their medical appointments, but they’ll also schedule a self-driving car to get them there. Will they also send someone along to help you put on the stylish white jacket with extra-long sleeves and ensure you get into the nice car?

Neglect

Google Photos can be scary.

Not their facial recognition, although that can be startling.

Certainly not the automatic grouping of photos by date and location; that’s downright useful.

No, I’m talking about the Assistant function. I think The Algorithm gets bored sometimes.

It’ll find similar pictures and stitch them together into an animated GIF, or apply some crazy color scheme and call it a “stylized photo”. Most of them are useless, and I just delete them.

But every so often, it’ll decide one of the cats isn’t getting enough attentions, and it’ll go to a very weird place.

A couple of days ago, it decided Yuki was feeling neglected, and as a result, it created this.

Google Photos. Don’t neglect your cats.

Google’s Turn

Well, the Twins started well, but it went downhill rather quickly. I think I’ll avoid picking a new team to root for–why jinx somebody?–and just enjoy the spectacle for the rest of the month.

But enough about baseball for now. For now.

In addition to being in Playoff Season, we’re also in New Hardware Season. Apple announced theirs a few weeks ago, and it’s Google’s turn this week.

Spoiler alert: Google didn’t announce a new tablet. They also didn’t announce a “Google Watch”. I find one of these failures disappointing.

As usual, I’m taking my cues from Ars Technica’s coverage of the unveiling and filtering it through my own prejudices.

Google is still talking up their Artificial Intelligence plans. In essence, they aim to make AI omnipresent and indispensable. ‘Nuff said; we’re here for the hardware they’re going to put that AI on.

First up is the Home Mini. Shrink last year’s Google Home down into something that looks like a fabric-wrapped hockey puck. Functionally, it seems to be pretty much the same; presumably, the new voice commands they talked about will be rolled out to all of the gadgets.

Google Home products will be able to interface with Nest’s home security gadgets. The example they gave was asking Google Home to show you who’s at the door, and it’ll not only put the feed from the camera on your TV, but it’ll also use facial recognition to tell you who it is. No thanks. I’m going to say right now that I’m not going to visit anybody who sets this system up. Bad enough Google knows where my phone is, but I don’t want them tracking my face when I go to friends’ houses.

At the opposite extreme from the Home Mini is–surprise!–Home Max. Same brains, but a big speaker for better sound quality. Pardon me. They talked about it’s ability to get loud, but didn’t actually say anything about how good it will sound. Interesting omission, isn’t it?

Then there’s the new Pixelbook. A thin, light laptop running Chrome OS, with support for Android apps. It’s actually a two-in-one: there’s a 360 degree hinge so you can fold the screen back against the keyboard and use it as a tablet. A fourteen inch tablet. Sorry, guys. I see the convenience factor, but fourteen inches and over two pounds is too damn big and heavy for actual tablet usage.

Nor do I find the “Pixel Pen” particularly compelling. It does all the usual stylus things with one unique feature: anything you draw a circle around will be searched on Google. Sounds like a nice convenience–though I hope that’s disabled in your art programs–but not worth the extra hundred bucks they’re going to charge on top of the thousand or more for the computer.

Moving on.

Two new Pixel phones, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. All the usual enhancements for the modern era: better screens, faster CPUs, improved cameras, no headphone jacks. Other than size, supposedly the two are identical.

The Pixel 2s will come with a new version of the Home screen. Google Search will move to the bottom of the screen, making room at the top for your next appointment, traffic, flights, and similar “what’s coming” information. No word on whether that’ll make its way onto older phones eventually.

Also no word on whether “Google Lens” will be a Pixel 2 exclusive forever. Lens is an upgrade to Google Goggles, the visual search tool. Point the camera at something to search on it. Or recognize it, apparently. They said it will identify emails, phone numbers, and addresses. Hopefully it’ll actually do something with them once they’re recognized. I don’t need my phone to tell me “Hey, that’s an email address!” I need it to add the address to my contact list without doing a manual copy/paste.

Moving on again.

An upgrade to the Daydream View. That’s the “use your smartphone as a VR headset” thing. New lenses, new fabric, new higher price.

Nothing to see here. Move along.

And, since there’s no headphone jack on the Pixel 2, you’ll need wireless headphones. So of course there are the Pixel Buds. They’re not totally wireless: there’s a cord connecting the two earpieces. Which actually makes sense to me. I imagine it’ll be a lot harder to lose than the separate Apple buds. One cool feature: live audio translation among forty languages. If it works well in less-than-acoustically-clean settings, that could be very handy. Especially if one of those forty is “Boss”.

Nor is Google neglecting video. Want to let your camera decide when to take a picture? Of course you do! Sign up now for your Google Clips. You just set it down somewhere and it takes a picture or short video clip when it spots something it thinks is photo-worthy.

What’s photo-worthy? Pictures of people you know, apparently. Great if you’re heavily into selfies, I guess, but how is it for landscapes, museums, tourist attractions, and all of the things you don’t see every day?

On the brighter side, it sounds like it’ll make a great stalker cam. Just attach it to your belt and go about your day. Check the photos when you get home.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I hope Google Clips goes straight to the same rubbish bin as the late, not-particularly-lamented Nexus Q.

Bottom line: some interesting goodies and some real trash. If I were in the market for a new phone, I’d give the Pixel 2 serious consideration, for all the usual reasons, but I didn’t see anything so compelling as to make me rush to upgrade my Nexus 5X.

And I shall remain resolutely free of household automation.