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.

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.