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.

OK Really, Google?

Sometimes one just has to make tough decisions. Tuesday was one of those times for me. I hope you all agree I made the correct choice in talking about the MLB playoffs, rather than Google’s latest hardware announcements.

However, I recognize that some of you may disagree with my call. You may have different priorities. And that’s OK. You are, of course, entitled to hold to your own beliefs.

If you are one of those people who holds to a different belief system than I, here’s the post you would have rather seen on Tuesday. Feel free to pretend it’s Tuesday today.

Yes, Google did announce a number of upcoming hardware releases. Before we get into the details, I’d like to address the hardware announcement they didn’t make: there was no tablet announcement. No replacement for the aging Nexus 9 and, worse still from my point of view, no next generation Nexus 7. As I said a little while ago, I’m in no hurry to pick up a new tablet, but I strongly feel that seven inches is exactly the right size for a light entertainment device–something that fits into the space between a phone you can hold to your ear and a TV you watch from across the room. I’m deeply disappointed to learn that Google apparently doesn’t see that as a viable niche.

Moving on.

Mobile is so last week. The new hotness is, Google says, “AI first”.

In practical terms, that means their new target with Android is to out-Siri Siri. Voice control, learning about the user to become more useful over time, interfacing with the real world, and, of course, omnipresent.

To make that possible, they’re changing focus to give hardware equal priority with software. And to mark the change, they’re doing away with the name “Nexus”. Google hardware will now be “Pixel”. They’ve been using that name for their high-end hardware for a little while. Clearly the rebranding is intended to convey that all hardware bearing the Google name is high end. And the prices certainly bear that out. The Pixel starts at $649 and goes up from there.

Interestingly, even though the Pixel won’t start shipping until November, the Nexus 5X and 6P have already been removed from the Google Store. If you want the current generation of Google phones, you’ll need to get ’em through Project Fi, which is still selling them.

Even though mobile is passe, they still began the reveals with new phones. They’ll come with Android 7.1, which adds a number of UI improvements (or, for those of us who are naturally cynical, “UI changes-for-the-sake-of-change”) intended to streamline workflow. They’ve got new cameras with image stabilization and the fastest capture times ever. Unlimited Google Photos storage for photos and video. Improved battery life. The screens, by the way, are five and five and a half inches. Apparently Samsung is the only company that still believes in the phablet form factor. Hallelujah!

Part of the hardware boost the Pixel phones have over the last generation of Nexus phones is to support Google’s Virtual Reality push. The phones will work with a new VR headset.

I presume that Google has rolled what they learned from the ill-fated Glass initiative into the new Daydream View. If so, what they’ve learned is that the mention of VR makes people want to put a bag over their heads. Or at least, strap one over their faces. Makes sense to me.

Google says it’s “soft and cozy.” I don’t know that I like the sound of that. To me, soft and cozy sounds more like sleepwear than something I’d expect to be able to use for work. Or play, for that matter: the spotlight release title is a game based on J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Note that there’s no word on whether the game removes the absolutely tone-deaf misappropriation and misrepresentation of Native American cultures.

Moving on.

All the AI in your phone and VR streaming is going to require a solid Wi-Fi connection, so Google is introducing “Google Wifi,” a modular router/access point. Need wider coverage? Add another module. I find this amusing: the device will ship in December, with preorders opening in November–but you can get on a waiting list now. Right. A waiting list to preorder. ‘Scuse me while I go bang my head against a wall.

Moving on again.

Since you’re beefing up your Wi-Fi, you might as well soup up your Chromecast as well. To be fair, the first- and second-generation Chromecasts were starting to show their age a little. They’ve never supported 5GHz Wi-Fi, and they max out at 1080p. Enter the new Chromecast Ultra. Up to 4K video, “major Wi-Fi improvements,” and–in case even your new Google Wifi doesn’t give you enough bandwidth–there’s an ethernet port, so you can connect it to your wired network. You do have a network switch behind your TV, right?

Of course, all this technology needs to be tied together. To save you the agony of pushing buttons or the horror of taking your phone out of your pocket, you’ll want a “Google Home.” Yup, that’s Google’s answer to Amazon’s Alexa.

As best I can tell, it’s powered by the same AI engine Google is touting for Android 7.1–and answers to the same “OK Google”* alert that phones have been using for several years now.

* Google really needs to make the trigger customizable. I don’t know about anyone else, but it ticks me off when I ask my tablet a question and a moment later a muffled voice from my phone says, in essence, “Speak up, Stupid. I can’t hear a damn thing from inside your pocket.” Yeah? If you can’t hear me, why did you trigger on the alert phrase? It’s only going to get worse when there’s a Google Home on the bookcase–or several of them scattered around the house. They say “Only the device that hears you best will respond.” I’m dubious. I’d really rather say “OK Alton” for the kitchen device, “OK Dewey” for the one in the library, and “OK Peter” in the bedroom.

Google Home will handle all of the usual questions you ask your phone now. It’s optimized for music. It’ll communicate with various home automation devices*. And the underlying AI will be exposed to third-party developers so they can integrate their apps into the ecosystem.

* Great. I can just see a tech-savvy smash-and-grab artist driving down the street with his car stereo blaring “OK Google, unlock the front door” over and over, while his confederate follows, testing the doors to see which ones are open.

Welcome to the next stage of Our Connected World As Seen By Google.


Equal time again. Since I covered Amazon’s new cheap tablet and Apple’s latest releases, it’s only fair that I do the same for the new toys Google announced this morning.

The new phones are the Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X. (Disclosure: My current phone is a Nexus 5.)

The 6P has, unsurprisingly, an approximately 6 inch screen; the screen is a hair larger than an iPhone 6’s screen, even though the phone itself is a tad smaller. It’s got the “best camera ever,” fingerprint recognition for authentication, and front-facing stereo speakers.

The 5X is, as best I can tell, the 6P, but with a smaller screen and slightly less powerful processor.

Incremental improvements. Am I going to trade in my Nexus 5? Nah. If I was looking to upgrade my phone, I’d give the 5X a close look, but I don’t see enough of an improvement to make me retire the 5–although, given my ongoing complaints about the quality of the photos I post on Fridays, that “best camera ever” sounds attractive. I’ll be keeping an eye on the hands-on reviews once the phones get into consumer’s hands. That’ll be in October.

Moving on to Marshmallow, we heard about most of the new features back in May, so there weren’t a whole lot of surprises. Simplified, more granular permissions should good, as does 30% longer battery life thanks to the “Doze” mode. One surprise was the extension of voice recognition to third-party apps. We’ve been able to launch apps by voice for a while, but now the apps will be able to implement internal voice controls. Given the interpretation time, I wouldn’t expect more than a few controlled choices (“Do you want to resume the video where you left off or start over?”) but it could help with hands-free operation; don’t forget that Google is pushing Android into the automotive space. Marshmallow will start rolling out next week–to the Nexus 5, 2013 Nexus 7, and Nexus 9. It won’t be released for the original 2012 Nexus 7.

On the software side, we’ve got family plans for Google Music, enhanced sharing and album management for Google Photos, and new services coming to Chromecast, including Showtime, Sling TV, and Spotify.

And, to take advantage of the new services, there are two new Chromecasts. One is an enhanced version of the original, with faster Wi-Fi support (including the 5GHz band), a built-in HDMI cable, and bright, shiny colors. The other is an audio-only model, intended for connecting your streaming music–including Google Music, naturally–to your existing audio system. There’s no HDMI output, just digital optical and headphone outputs. Both are available today at the same $35 price the original Chromecast sold for.

The audio Chromecast seems like an interesting idea–a convenient way to get your music onto better speakers than a typical monophonic Bluetooth one without having to route the sound through a TV. If the Wi-Fi is really solid, this could give you a significant fraction of the Sonos feature set for a small piece of the price. Don’t forget to add in the cost of a digital audio cable when you do your price-to-performance calculation, though!

And then there’s the Pixel C. Windows laptop/tablet combination devices are popular at the moment. Blame Microsoft Surface for starting the trend. Apple is onboard: the iPad Pro is the iOS equivalent. And now Google is going there.

Ten inch screen, 2560×1800 touchscreen, running Android (not stated, but presumably Marshmallow). Cool feature: there’s no physical connection between the tablet and the keyboard. They’re held together with magnets in open, closed, and stand-up positions–and the keyboard charges inductively when they’re touching.

You can buy the tablet without the keyboard. So think of this as the new Nexus 10. $499-$599 depending on memory, plus $149 for the keyboard. So that’s $200-$300 cheaper than the iPad Pro (although without the stylusApple Pencil). Still significantly more expensive than a standard Windows 10 convertible device, but you always pay a premium for “cool,” right? No firm date for availability, but Google promises it’ll be out in time for Christmas. Give one to all your loved ones!

By the way, from the photos, it looks like the keyboard uses the same layout as Chromebooks. Personally, I find the omission of “Home” and “End” keys extremely annoying on my Chromebook. But then, I write novels. Maybe they’re not necessary for the e-mails that Google talks about.

I worry a little about that inductive charging. That’s not hugely efficient. I’m concerned about how hard the tablet’s runtime will be affected. Again, we’ll have to wait for the reviews.

Bottom line: Google’s got some incremental improvements coming our way, but nothing really earth-shattering. The Chromecast Audio is, I think, the most intriguing thing in the pipeline.

Fire at Jeff

I’ll bet you all thought I was going to use today’s post to talk about Amazon’s amazing, astounding, [insert your own superlative starting with “a”] Fire TV.


I am going to talk about Fire TV, but–not to give away the surprise ending of the post–I don’t see anything there that warrants those “a” words.

For those of you who don’t obsessively follow the tech news,* Fire TV is Amazon’s entry into the “set-top box” space. Pause for question: why do we still call them “set-top”? I don’t have a single box small enough to fit on top of my TV. Even the Raspberry Pi is too big–and my TVs are far from the latest, skinniest models. End of digression.

* Frankly, I hope that’s most of you. Better yet, all of you. There are plenty of more worthy objects for your obsession. Off the top of my head, how about baseball, cats, and food?

Fire TV is mainly intended as a media streamer, competing against Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, and their ilk. Naturally, the focus is on Amazon’s own video offerings, though other sources are supported. Since other streamers also allow you to play your Amazon videos, the Medium A* needs to give you a reason to pick up their box. They’ve got three: UI, instant streaming, and games. Let’s take a quick look at those in reverse order.

* The Big A is, of course, Apple. How much of Amazon’s aggressive moves into spaces Apple controls is simply a desire to swap nicknames?

  • Games – Yep, it’s got ’em. In theory, since the Fire TV is running Android under the glitzy UI, it should be easy for developers to port their existing games over. In practice, Amazon heavily customizes Android on its tablets; there’s every reason to assume that they’ve done the same here. That could plant some significant landmines under developers’ feet. On the other hand, Amazon has a slick-looking game controller available for a mere 40% of the cost of the box. If they sell enough controllers, the size of the audience demanding games optimized for the controller would be a powerful incentive for developers to dance in that minefield.
  • Instant Streaming – This may prove to be the big winner for Amazon. The Fire TV caches heavily. That should cut down on streaming failures and “Buffering…” delays. More immediately visible to users, however, is the device’s predictive caching. It predicts which videos you are likely to want to watch next and starts downloading them before you even make the selection. The result is that when you do hit “Play”, the video starts instantly. As long as they don’t pre-cache so heavily that they blow through users’ bandwidth downloading video they never watch or interfere with their other network activities, instant streaming seems likely to grab a lot of eyes.
  • UI – Amazon is proud of the interface they developed for their Fire line of tablets. It’s graphic-heavy, puts their own library of titles front and center, and pisses the hell out of Google. What’s not to like? They’ve brought the same visual interface over to the Fire TV (suitably modified to allow for the fact that few TVs are touch-ready) and added voice searching. Speak into the microphone built into the remote. Your voice is uploaded to Amazon, stored, voice-recognized, and (in theory at least) appropriate search results are displayed*. The problem is that the market isn’t as excited about the interface as Amazon is. Despite Amazon’s mighty marketing muscle behind the Kindle Fire, they haven’t grabbed a major share of the tablet market. Even with a significantly lower price than the iPad, people are not flocking to Amazon’s offering. Even if one ignores Apple, Amazon isn’t dominating the rest of the market: Samsung and Google are at least holding their own.* I’m sure the NSA is salivating at the thought of a microphone in every bedroom and living room in the country. I’m sure they’re equally happy about the microphones in Xboxes and PS4s, but the key difference here is that Amazon will store recordings without anonymizing them. That’s so they can personalize the voice-recognition and improve its accuracy over time. Amazon’s customer data is already a huge target for criminals (and probably the NSA too, though that hasn’t been proven). Adding more data only makes it more desirable and harder to secure.

Bottom line: It doesn’t offer the ability to mirror your phone to your TV as Apple TV does. It doesn’t currently have nearly the same range of video sources that Roku does. It’s three times the price of Chromecast. But it may have found a sweet spot in the middle of that cluster. If you’re in the market for a media streamer, the Fire TV is certainly worth considering. Just don’t go applying all of those superlatives. It’s not at that level, and may never be.

Bits and Pieces

I’m going to continue Friday’s “short notes” theme with some updates on continuing issues.

Leading off: BART workers are not on strike. No, there isn’t a settlement. Management’s lead negotiator left the table about 8:15 Sunday night, and everyone else knocked off about 15 minutes later. Management asked Governor Brown to impose a 60 day “cooling off period” to block a strike. Instead, he blocked a strike for a week and appointed a three-person panel to “investigate” the talks. During the week-long investigation, both sides will have to present their offers and reasons for supporting or opposing the cooling off period to the board. More details in a story at SFGate. So I was right that there would not be a deal by today, but wrong that there would actually be a strike. I also predicted that a deal would be reached late Wednesday with service resuming on Friday. The governor has charged negotiators to continue meeting while the board investigation continues, so it’s still possible that a settlement could be reached Wednesday. Stay tuned.

Regardless of one’s feelings about labor actions, government intervention, and who’s in the right in this case, it was clearly a good thing the governor stepped in: a truck fire on the freeway Monday morning closed two lanes for hours. Traffic backed up across the bridge and for miles up the freeway. If there had been a BART strike, and all those additional drivers were on the road, the traffic jam probably wouldn’t have cleared up until Labor Day.

Batting second: I was a bit off the mark in my prediction that we would start seeing third-party apps supporting Chromecast last week. A quick check of Google Play shows exactly one app touting Chromecast support. That’s “RemoteCast and it’s in beta. As best I can tell, it’s also not an actual media player, it’s a remote control for whatever content you’re already streaming to your Chromecast. So technically I was right, but from a practical standpoint I was a bit optimistic.

Why was I wrong? The interest is definitely there: I’ve seen several apps listing Chromecast support as “coming soon” and several others whose developers are promising support if they can get their hands on a device. However, Google is deliberately slowing things down. They’re describing the current SDK as a “preview”; apps built with it will, they say, only work with Chromecast devices that have been registered with Google for development and testing. Until they release the final SDK, don’t expect a whole lot of apps available for download.

In the third spot: The leftover sauerkraut has been used up. The “Lemon Chicken Baked on a Bed of Sauerkraut” recipe actually called for the entire remainder of our bottle. It turned out reasonably well, but needs some tinkering. The sauerkraut didn’t add much flavor to the chicken, though the chicken added a fair amount to the sauerkraut. That could probably be fixed by layering the chicken between two layers of ‘kraut instead of setting it on top of a single layer. More spice is a must. If we try it again, we’ll probably up the lemon juice a bit, definitely use more rosemary, and crank up the pepper significantly. Probably worth adding some thyme as well. Still, we enjoyed it enough that we would consider trying it again.

We usually use leftover cooking liquid as the basis for soups and stews, but decided against it this time, largely because it seemed like most of its flavor was coming from the dissolved chicken fat. So we put it out for the four-legged neighbors, who apparently enjoyed it immensely, as the bowl was darn near polished. We suspect it went mostly to the raccoons, which is fine: that means more of the cat food went to the cats.

Batting cleanup: It’s been very quiet on the Bay Bridge front lately. The only information I’ve seen is a note from Matier and Ross about the “shim” proposal and the swiftly decreasing likelihood of the bridge opening Labor Day weekend. They point out that because Caltrans is asking both their seismic review panel and the Federal Highway Administration for their opinions of the proposal, the soonest they could get the go-ahead would be mid-August. Caltrans would then need to give a couple of weeks’ notice that the bridge would be closed for four days to switch the lanes from the old bridge to the new. That would be cutting it close. Adding to the pressure against a Labor Day weekend opening is the fact that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission–the master overseer of the bridge project–is on summer vacation until after Labor Day. So all-in-all the prospects for a quick-fix-assisted opening seem dim.

Random thought: does it seem suspicious to you all that the BART fiasco has completely driven the Bolt Botch out of the news? Granted that BART contract negotiations are always messy, but this time around it seems like both sides have gone out of their way to foul things up. Anyone think Caltrans might have been “encouraging” negotiators’ missteps to draw the public’s attention elsewhere while they try to figure out where to pin the donkey’s tail of blame? Not saying they have, but it does have a bit of a “tin foil beanie” feel about it.


As promised: Chromecast.

First, let’s do the obligatory summary of what it does and doesn’t do and the comparison to Apple TV/AirPlay. Grossly oversimplified: with AirPlay, all content is played on your device and displayed on the TV. In other words, your iPhone connects to (for example) YouTube, downloads the video, decodes it, and ships the decoded stream via wifi to the Apple TV box, which then displays it on the TV. For the most part, Chromecast works differently. Your phone goes to YouTube and displays the page locally except for the video. It sends the URL of the video via wifi to the Chromecast, which then establishes its own connection to YouTube, downloads, decodes, and displays the video on the TV. This is why you can start the video playing and then close YouTube or search for another video on the phone. This is also why apps need to be updated to use Chromecast: they need to be modified to send the video URL to the device; in the AirPlay world, the functionality to send the audio and video to the Apple TV instead of the screen is handled by the OS, so the app doesn’t need to be modified to use it.

With that out of the way, let’s move on.

As I said on Friday, the Chromecast is the mysterious “Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy” device. Douglas Adams’ guide had the words “Don’t Panic” on the cover; Chromecast does not, but Google’s intent is clearly to take all of the panic out of the thought of getting your phone or tablet content onto your TV. The hardest part of the process is opening the box; if you can do that, you’re pretty much set. Take out the gadget, which looks a lot like a fat USB thumb drive. Plug it into your TV’s HDMI port. Plug in the USB cable for power. Turn on the TV. At this point you have a choice: you can use your computer to go to a URL displayed on the TV or you can launch a Chromecast app on your phone or tablet. Accept the Terms and Conditions (more on this later), choose your wifi network, and confirm that you want to activate the device, and you’re done.

I didn’t have an opportunity to see how gracefully the setup process handles a failure to activate the device (for example if your wifi cuts out at the wrong moment), but there are so few steps involved that it should be simple enough to handle it cleanly. (Usual disclaimers about “should be” in the computer world apply, naturally.)

Once you’re set up, Chromecast works as advertised. I played a few tracks from Google Play Music, which sounded as good as my not-too-spectacular speaker system could make them. I also watched an episode of “Wonders of the Solar System” (a freebie from Google Play Movies & TV). It streamed in excellent 1080p high definition and looked great. There were no dropouts, skips, or pauses throughout the 58 minute show, which is a minor miracle given some of my recent cable internet hiccups.

I also tried out a couple of YouTube videos, which also worked quite nicely. Resolution is, of course, constrained by the source material. An old, low resolution capture of a 70s TV show isn’t going to look good on your TV no matter what, but the Chromecast does a surprisingly decent job of upscaling to 1080p.

There is one area where Chromecast works differently: If you use the Chrome browser on your desktop, you can use Chromecast to display whatever is in your browser on the TV. In this mode, it works like Apple TV: the video is created on the computer and sent to the Chromecast for display. This functionality works very nicely although it’s currently limited to 720p, rather than 1080p. But there is a big red box in the browser interface that says “Beta”, so higher resolution may come later. (A side note: there is also a second mode for the Chrome stream to Chromecast which will send the computer’s entire screen, not just the current Chrome tab. That’s marked as “experimental”, though. I was not surprised that I couldn’t get it to work. If you want to try it yourself, install the “Google Cast” browser extension. Despite the rough edges of the extension itself, installation is as easy as clicking the link and accepting the Terms and Conditions.

Which brings us to the Terms and Conditions. Remember I said earlier I would have more to say about them later? Now is later.

The T&Cs for the Chromecast hardware are pretty much what you would expect. In essence, they give Google the right to keep track of what you’re casting so they can make suggestions and try to sell you more media. Basically the same as what they do with your web searches: track what you do so they can more precisely target their advertising. However, note that the T&Cs for the “stream your browser” and “stream your desktop” Chrome extension give them similar visibility into that stream. I strongly doubt that they’re recording the entirety of your stream–if nothing else, the limited upload bandwidth of most connections would make that problematical, but they could potentially send an occasional screenshot and apply the same image recognition and OCR capabilities that they use elsewhere in an attempt to recognize what you’re streaming. Could they be required to turn that information over if you’re sued by a media company who believes you’re downloading pirated material? Possibly. Could it be copied by the NSA in their quest to ensure that you’re not contemplating terrorism? Almost certainly. Realistically, you’re not any more exposed using Chromecast than you were last week, but it is another avenue of approach. And it does suggest that until we know more about what information Google gets when you do browser streaming, you should probably hold off on using Chromecast to share proprietary corporate information in your meetings.

Which brings me to the final point I wanted to make: Security is somewhere between minimal and non-existent. Once a Chromecast device is on your network it’s visible to every phone, tablet, and computer on your network. There are no controls to limit which devices can send content to each Chromecast and nothing to prevent one user from jumping to the head of the queue. This is the latest version of fighting over the TV remote. And then there are the issues around having multiple Chromecasts on the network. It wouldn’t be difficult at all to accidentally select the wrong device and send your age-inappropriate shows to the kids’ TV. Or for someone to slip an extra Chromecast onto the corporate network and see what gets accidentally routed to it.

Sure, I’m exaggerating the risks a bit, but they do exist. I figure it’s a safer approach than ignoring them.

OK, this is getting long. Let me sum up:

Chromecast is far and away Google’s best effort to date at getting into your living room, miles ahead of Google TV and light years ahead of the never-released Nexus Q. It’s of limited utility until third-party media providers other than Netflix update their apps to support it (Slingbox and MLB.TV, I’m looking at you), but Google picked the right price point: $35 puts it into the “impulse buy” category. I expect that most of the big providers are working on updates now. I’m keeping mine hooked up in the expectation that it will move from “Hey, that’s cool” to “Pretty damn useful” within the next couple of months.

Breaking News!

For one thrilling moment, I thought I had a scoop.

Turns out, Engadget beat me to publication. *sigh* I blame shipping times for spoiling my thrill.

Anyway, the news here is that the Chromecast is the mysterious H2G2-42 device I spoke about in my Douglas Adams/Towel Day post back in May.

I’m disappointed that the box doesn’t have the words “Don’t Panic” in large, friendly red letters on the cover, but glad to have the mystery solved.

More on the Chromecast Monday, as promised.

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.