Google and Microsoft Hardware

So I could get all schadenfreudian, but what would be the point? You all know what I’d say, he isn’t going to care, and besides, there’s no telling what new nonsense he’ll perpetrate between Tuesday night (when I’m writing this) and Wednesday morning (when I post it).

Instead, let’s talk hardware. After all, I gave Apple some airtime. It’s only fair that I do the same for Google and Microsoft, right? Right.

Google announced new hardware last week. Two phones, the “Pixel 4a with 5G” and the Pixel 5. A new take on the now-venerable Chromecast, the “Google Chromecast with Google TV”. And the “Google Nest Audio”, yet another smart speaker.

The phones are, well, whelming. Certainly not overwhelming, but not especially underwhelming. They’re there, they’re an improvement over the previous generation, but not by a huge amount. They’re arguably overpriced and underperforming–especially the 5–if you compare them with other flagship phones, but the value looks better when aligned against other phones with similar performance.

Frankly, I think a large part of the bad press they’re getting is due to unhappy reviewers who were hoping for another big step forward in camera technology. Which was, IMNSHO, a misplaced hope: Google has made it clear that they’re focused (sorry) on improving their phones’ cameras through the software, rather than the hardware.

Bottom line, I don’t think anyone’s going to be selling their current phone just to get a P5 or P4w5G. But if they’re in the market for a new phone anyway, the new Pixels are well worth considering.

The speaker is a smart speaker. Louder and with better sound quality than Google’s previous generation, but overall, it’s a forgettable entry in a forgettable category.

Then there’s the new Chromecast. The highlights here are that you no longer need to use your phone to control the playback and if you set up multiple media sources (Netflix, YouTube TV, and so on), you can see an overview of what’s available across all of them without digging into the individual apps.

That latter is a slick idea, but it’s a convenience, not a gamechanger. And if Google had come out with this device a couple of years ago, it would have been a fabulous advance over the original Chromecast family. But today it has a distinctly “me too” feel: “Hey we’ve got to keep up with the Rokus, Fire TVs, and Apple TVs.”

Moving on.

Microsoft also rolled out new toys last week.

A few accessories–keyboard, mice , wireless number pad, and a gadget to mirror your computer screen wirelessly to a TV or other HDMI-equipped display.

That last could be handy, as long as your computer supports the Miracast standard. If your phone does–and some Android phones do–that could make it very handy for both business and pleasure.

There’s an updated version of the Surface Pro X–Microsoft’s ARM-based laptop. Which has not, I suspect, sold in the kind of numbers Microsoft was hoping for. Not too surprising, since it’s not hugely cheaper than the Intel and AMD laptops it’s competing with.

The interesting device out of Redmond is the new Surface Laptop Go. As the name implies, it’s a smallish device–about halfway between the Surface Go and a cheap Chromebook–with a CPU suited to a standard laptop.

With a price similar to the Surface Go (and to a high-midrange Chromebook), it’s an easy choice if you need a highly portable machine that can also function as your main machine with a USB-C docking station.

Yes, granted, I’m still using my Surface Go as my daily machine. Beside the point. I’m talking about suitability for people who don’t have my patience for a slower computer.

I’ll be very interested to see how the Surface Laptop Go fares once people get their hands on them. If the keyboard is good and the screen doesn’t wobble unpleasantly, Microsoft might just have a winner.

SAST 17

You Know Who has never been subtle, but even by his standards, the paired assault on the Post Office and on mail-in ballots is crude and obvious.

Fortunately, the counter move is just as obvious. To misquote Pogo, vote early and vote widely.

Fill your ballot out as soon as you get it*–you know who you’re voting for–and get it in the mail immediately. Better yet, if your state offers a way to drop off ballots in person in the days or weeks preceding Election Day (California does; I’m sure others do as well), use one. They generally have a shorter wait than actually voting, and they often keep longer hours than polling places. Best of all, they avoid the Post Office completely.

* And if it hasn’t shown up within a couple of days of the mail-out date, use whatever process your state has for dealing with lost ballots. Don’t wait around, hoping it’ll show up.

And vote in every contest on the ballot. And vote Democrat. This is not the time for a protest vote, much less a no-vote protest. It’s not the time for voting for a third party candidate. Anyone who runs as a Republican is automatically complicit with You Know Who. Defeat ’em all.

Moving on.

Watching baseball on TV doesn’t feel quite real.

It’s not the fake crowd noise–or fake crowds–though those don’t help. Nor is it the omnipresent threat of a sudden end to the season. It’s not even the universal DH or the fake baserunners in extra innings.

What it really is, is the contrast with everything going on outside the stadiums. Defined beginnings and endings. Rules known to everyone and largely accepted, however grudgingly. Even, Goddess help us, leaders–team captains, coaches, managers–who lead.

Still, I don’t let the fantastic aspects stop me from watching. Heck, I write fantasy; I can deal with a universe totally unlike the real world.

Aspirational? Sure. Achievable? Probably not–but we can dream.

And moving on again.

In a move that surprised absolutely nobody, Google announced their latest phone, going head to head with Apple’s announcement of a few new models of computers.

I’ve been trying to get excited about any of the forthcoming gadgets, but it’s touch. None of them, Apple or Google, is radically new. They’ve all got minor advancements over the previous generation, but nothing to make anyone want to rush out and buy one.

Which seems weirdly appropriate for today’s universe.

Apple is nominally targeting the Back-to-School audience, but with so many schools being virtual, there’s not much scope for the usual implied message of “be the envy of your peers”.

Google, on the other hand, seems to have announced the Pixel 4a solely because it was already developed and in production. Might as well push it out there, collect a few news stories, and prepare the way for the Pixel 5, possibly as soon as a couple of months from now.

Maybe if Microsoft ever gets around to releasing their dual-screen Android phone, we’ll have something to get excited about. Right now, though? Gadgets: boring.

Time Out

Google I/O has been canceled for this year, for health reasons. Well, the in-person version has been canceled, anyway. Google plans to have some form of streaming conference instead. Interesting notion. Shouldn’t be a problem for presentations–I’ve always thought the keynote address worked better as a live stream than a butts-in-seats show–but people are going to miss the opportunity to get their hands actual devices.

And now Apple is under pressure to do the same for WWDC. Last I heard–Tuesday mid-morning–it was still on, but with Santa Clara County banning large gatherings, Apple may not be able to go ahead even if they want to.

Does anyone else find it amusing that we’re being asked to tune in via computers and smartphones to find out how the big names are going to make our computers and smartphones obsolete?

Given the current difficulties in getting hardware from Asia, I’d like to see Apple and Google (and even Microsoft* and Amazon) take a step back. Don’t release new hardware this year**. Concentrate on improving what’s already out there.

* Much as I’m intrigued by the Surface Duo and Surface Neo, and despite my difficulties with delayed gratification, I have to admit that my life won’t be measurably worse if I don’t get to play with them this year.

** It’s too late to make the same plea to Samsung. The S20 is out.

Hold off the Pixel 4a devices. And we don’t really need huge bunches of new Chromebooks. Ditto for Apple. Using part shortages as an excuse to jack up the price of an iPhone 12 would be tacky. And, while I’d love to see a new MacMini–preferably at a lower price point–I haven’t been holding my breath for it.

Give us Android 11 if you must. Ditto for iOS and iPadOS 14, as well as MacOS Catalina+1. And the next iteration of Windows 10.

Take some of the people off the hardware side, let it sit for a while, and put those people to work on usability. Hook them up (online, naturally) with people who have not been using your products every day for the last five years. Find out where the pain points are in getting started with [insert your OS here]. Do a deep dive into your update process (I’m looking at you, Microsoft). Amazon, take a good look at your pricing model and honestly answer (if only to yourself) whether it’s sustainable: is it bringing in enough to pay writers, actors, and other content producers enough that they can continue to write, act, and lay salable eggs?

Then bring out new hardware next year.

It’ll never happen, of course. The industry is too tied into “new hardware every year is the only way to keep people interested” and “as long as we make a profit while I’m alive, who cares what happens when I’m not?”

But dreaming about it keeps my mind occupied while I build a disease-proof plastic bubble around the house.

Overlooked

I feel a rant coming on. Bear with me: it’s not political, nor does it have anything to do with television.

Recently, I was talking to an acquaintance about gadgets. He’s, well, let’s say, behind the times, technologically speaking. He’s got a computer, a five-year-old laptop, that he uses two or three times a month, mostly to do banking-related things. He does have a cell phone: it’s a flip-open model with a four line LCD display.

He told me the phone was on its last legs, and he was thinking about getting a smartphone to replace it. “Which would be better for someone like me, an Apple or a Samsung?”

And I realized the only possible answer was “Neither”.

Remember when the first iPhone came out? The idea of a touchscreen in a phone wasn’t exactly new, but the focus on ease of use and a consistent interface was. Learn to use one app–which took about five minutes–and you could use all of them. Granted, it was a limited selection, but that’s beside the point. They were simple and consistent.

Today, not so much. Want to delete something? Do you select it with a tap-and-hold or by tapping a selection indicator? Or do you first have to tap an Edit button, swipe to the left, or swipe right?

Let’s not even consider the number of times Apple has changed the way we get to the Control Center. Or the fact that there are two mutually-conflicting ways to change the font size on an iPhone.

Android is no better, whether you’re talking about “pure” Android or Samsung’s customized version. Has anybody ever figured out exactly how the Back button works?

And Google’s hands-off approach to the apps going into their store means every designer gets to come up with their own interface. Want to turn off the sound effects in that new game? Maybe there’s something in “Settings”. Or “Controls”. Maybe there’s a dedicated “Sound” menu–if you can find it.

There’s no way a rookie can jump in to a modern device and expect to use it without spending hours learning to do the most basic tasks. Be honest here and take a look at your phone. If you were seeing it for the first time, could you figure out how to call someone, hang up at the end of the call, and save the phone number so you could call them again?

I finally told my acquaintance to check into the phones marketed to seniors. They come with a strictly-curated list of apps designed to work together and work consistently. They’re simple and they work. They’re cheap, too.

And the stigma of using one is so great that nobody younger than seventy-five considers them as their first phone.

Now Listening

Yes, I know I’m a couple of years late on this one, but I’ve got an excuse.

I’m talking about the “Now Playing” feature on Pixel phones.

For those of you who don’t have Pixels, “Now Playing” runs in the background and identifies music playing nearby. When the phone is locked, it will display titles and performers on the lock screen.

Sure, it’s a minor feature, but it’s got its uses–which is part of the problem. Not all of those uses are necessarily for the good of the phone’s owner. But I’ll get back to that.

“But, wait,” someone out there is undoubtedly saying, “hasn’t Casey had a Pixel for over a year? Why’s he only now getting around to ‘Now Playing’?”

Simple: Until a few weeks ago, I kept the phone in a belt pouch. It couldn’t hear a thing unless I took it out. However, I’ve now switched to a phone holster-and-case combination for convenience and protection. Now “Now Playing” can hear much better.

And I’m starting to wonder about the ethics of feature.

A quick digression: According to Google, they don’t see any. The phone periodically downloads a database of songs, all recognition is done on the device, and the history is only stored locally.

The database comes from Google Play Music–it’s based primarily on what tracks are being played there. This naturally means that “Now Playing” can only recognize popular music (for some values of “popular”). (According to one source, the database is also tuned to accommodate regional preferences, based on where the phone was purchased.)

The history on my phone suggests that to be an accurate description. Many of the songs I hear on the radio in the car show up on the list, as does much of the music that other people are playing at work.

A few anime opening and closing credit songs show up. But only for very popular shows; nothing from the current season. Snippets of background music from TV shows turn up in the history.

My tastes in radio tend toward oldies channels. Not much swing shows up in my “Now Playing” history. Most of the music from the 70s and 80s does show up–but primarily the tracks that charted at some point. Fringe material, not so much. Case in point: the Dark Wave show on SiriusXM features “goth, post-punk, and industrial”. Not a single track from last week’s episode made it onto my phone. (Correction on deeper inspection: a few show up in misidentified form.)

I’m inclined to think the failures are a good thing. To some extent, some inaccuracy improves the security of the system.

Let’s face it: how willing are you to believe Google doesn’t have access to your history? Because any sort of halfway competent Big Data miner could match up that history with radio station playlists, Muzak tracklists, and other data to create a profile of your musical tastes and physical movement, especially when paired with data from Maps. Whether that would give an accurate impression of your other tastes is a matter of opinion, but how many advertisers would be willing to buy that information? Quite a few, I’d bet.

Nor does Google make it easy to clean up the history. Once you find it–buried in Settings, not in an app–you can delete individual tracks or wipe the entire history. But there’s no way to search and remove those embarrassing low points. Want to get rid of last month’s early Madonna binge? You’ll have to do it one song at a time or nuke the whole historical record.

No provision for a timed delete (“On the first of the month, delete everything older than two months.”) Not even “Wipe the entire history once a month.”

And don’t forget: it’s always listening. Well, okay, popping in once a minute or so. I imagine certain political figures would love to get their hands on a list of people whose phones are hearing a lot of Latin pop. There are all sorts of interesting, non-advertising ways to use that kind of data.

Come to think of it, Google must know at least which phones are pulling down track databases from, let’s call them “countries of interest”. Would that be data that DHS could requisition, either legally or covertly? They’d certainly find uses for it.

Sure, I’m a bit paranoid. These days that’s a survival trait.

Not paranoid enough to turn off “Now Playing”. Not yet, anyway.

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.