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.