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.

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.