Google has finally unveiled their new hardware items at their 2016 Google Hardware Event #madebyGoogle, and there were some pretty interesting (if predictable) things to talk about.
Without further ado, let’s get into it!
The presentation opened with a discussion of Google Assistant – which Google advertises as a more personal version of Google – it keeps tabs on your schedule, email, pictures, etc., in order to provide you with very personalized requests. Google Assistant also features an evolution and combination in AI, machine learning, translation, and text-to-speech natural language processing to learn what information you need, when you need it, and how to deliver it.
The Google Assistant will also be an open ecosystem allowing links into partner sites and applications. Developers can get into the act with different “Direct Actions” (one-way conversations like turn on the lights, start a playlist, etc.) and “Conversation Actions” (two-way communications like booking an Uber (where do you want to go, UberX or Black, here’s your driver’s name, etc.). There will also be a Google Assistant SDK for using the Google Assistant backend for things like a RaspberryPi or a mass-market hardware item.
Google Assistant is similar to (but an evolution of) Google Now, and looks like a great evolution of the concept. Right now the best way to get your hands on it is through Google’s new messaging app Allo, but it will soon be available on some of the hardware mentioned below!
New Google Phones: The Pixel and Pixel XL
The Pixel and Pixel XL weren’t exactly great surprises today, but they are exciting nonetheless.
More Google-controlled than even the Nexus line of phones, Pixel products are designed only by Google (Nexus phones, on the other hand, use the OEM manufacturer’s design), and these mark Google’s first attempt to create an Android flagship-level phone with “plain vanilla” Android instead of an OEM skin. Nexus phones, in addition to being derivative of the OEM’s own brand of phones, also generally didn’t represent the top-of-the-line Android product as much as it represented a great value. Until recently Nexus phones were notorious for things like middle-of-the-road cameras, memory, and screens.
As flagships, these phones both have top-of-the-line hardware, with Snapdragon 821 processors and 4 GB of RAM, an impressive-looking 12-megapixel camera, 32 or 128 GB of storage, a 3.5mm headphone jack (ZING!) and a high-resolution screen. The Pixel features a 1080P 5-inch display, while the Pixel XL will have a 5.5-inch 2K display.
Both Pixels will have Assistant built-in (accessible by voice or touch), unlimited Google photo storage (for full-resolution photos and videos (even 4K!)), and both are VR-ready. Also, the Pixel’s will feature a new auto-update feature – Android updates download and install in the background and take effect on the next restart as well as fast updates direct from Google.
Going along with the premium specs is a premium price – the Pixel starts at $649 and will be available unlocked and through Verizon initially. It is also Google Fi capable! This is pretty close to Samsung and LG flagship money, and if they live up to Google’s marketing, should be well worth it for those that like the most recent (and most secure) version of Android and high-quality devices.
Google Daydream VR
While Google’s VR platform (Daydream VR) is built into Android 7 (at least for the devices that can support it), now Google has released its own VR hardware.
Daydream View is Google’s first Daydream headset – made of fabric and microfiber, it certainly looks more comfortable than most other plastic VR headsets. The View uses your phone as the screen, and it looks like there is no cable to connect or any other setup necessary – simply inserting the phone and closing the latch causes the two to connect wirelessly automatically. The View also has a controller with a touchpad, two buttons, and is motion-sensitive.
Right now Google’s two new Pixel phones are the only Daydream-ready Android phones, but that number should be increasing in the future. The View is designed to work with all Daydream-ready phones – even those from other manufacturers. The Daydream View (plus controller) will be $79.
If you’ve got a large house (or lead-painted walls), then WiFi coverage is likely an issue. There are lots of ways to extend your network (some more successful than others) but now Google wants to get in on the router action.
Google’s WiFi router is an attempt to make mesh WiFi networks easy and straightforward for all users. The Google WiFi will work together (if you have more than one) to extend your network throughout your house (or office) easily – with little to no input needed by the user. The routers will auto-switch devices from router to router as the signal strength and network conditions necessitate. It also comes with a companion app, that allows you pause individual connections to specific devices.
The Google WiFi will be $129 for a single pack or a three-pack for $299.
Upgrading the Chromecast: Chromecast Ultra
An upgraded version of Google’s popular Chromecast, this version maintains the love-it-or-hate-it Chromecast approach of using your phone as the remote, and as such this device can be quite small (and cheap).
While it’s not necessarily as full-featured as things like the Roku, Apple TV and Android TV (which is somehow still a thing), it is a great way to make any HDMI-equipped TV “smart”. Plus, while using your phone as the remote can be annoying to some, it really reduces the learning curve for lots of users.
This newer version includes support for 4K content with HDR and Dolby Vision support and improves performance and WiFi improvements. It also has an Ethernet port (finally!) if you don’t want to deal with WiFi connection problems. This newer version ups the price to a still-reasonable $69.
Google’s Alexa: Google Home
It seems like it was only a few weeks ago that Amazon’s Echo was released, but it has done a great job of filling the role of interconnected-voice-assistant-for-the-home. Being able to talk to all sorts of apps and devices has made the Echo and it’s two siblings (the Tap and the Dot) a great command center for all sorts of home automation.
Google Home is Google’s Echo competitor, with Google’s Assistant taking the place of Amazon’s Alexa. Google Home will do everything that Echo does (in theory, at least). Things like listening to music (through Google Play Music and the usual suspects), answering questions (which uses Google’s Knowledge Graph and Featured Snippets functionality), managing your day-to-day tasks and schedule, and home automation (IFTTT, Nest, SmartThings, Hue).
There are some nice touches in the Home, though. The diagonal top of the Home is capacitive, so you can adjust music playback, volume, and query the Assistant with touch, as well as voice. It also has a mic mute button to stop the Home from listening, swappable bases (in different colors), and a quality speaker array. You can control Casting to TVs via the Home (voice control for the TV!), control playback, and look at Google Photos with just your voice. Additionally, Google Home supports multi-room synced audio through Home itself of Cast-enabled devices.
Like the Google WiFi, Home costs $129 and it comes with a 6-month trial of Youtube Red. It looks so much like an air freshener, though – I wonder if it will come in different scents for the different base colors.
There’s a lot of (potentially) great stuff here, but as usual with Google, the true test will be in the execution.
I hope the Pixel phones live up to their marketing since now would be a great time for Google to capture some phone market share with the great-Samsung-Fire(s)-of-2016. Plus, an Android phone with both premium hardware and consistent, fast updates is – to me at least – an instant recommendation (provided good execution, of course).
The demo of Google Home makes me want to try out Allo (which, aside from Assistant, seems like a mid-range messaging app at best), and while I don’t need it, the Chromecast Ultra and Daydream VR both seem like inexpensive ways to get into their respective ecosystems.
The Google WiFi is a bit odd, since it seems like its inconspicuous design would lend itself well to having the Google Home functionality built in (plus, if you need two WiFi routers to cover your home, you could probably also use two Home’s to ensure more voice coverage, but by itself seems like kind of a dud.
It will be interesting to find out how these products do once they hit the market!