Add another yearly tech event to their calendar! For the second straight year, Google held a fall hardware event yesterday in San Francisco where they laid out their new products for the holiday season. While the star of the show was the new Pixel 2, Google had plenty more products for the home and on the go that you’ll want to check out. They still don’t quite have the kind of hardware/software synergy that Apple does, but from the looks of it, they’re sure trying to head in that direction!
Pixel 2 and Pixel XL 2
The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are incremental updates to last year’s Pixel and Pixel XL, but there are a few big upgrades worth mentioning. Like last year, the 5″ Pixel 2 will have a 1080p AMOLED display, but the 6″ Pixel 2 XL will get a P-OLED display with the wider 18:9 aspect ratio we’ve seen on the Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG G6. The difference between P-OLED and AMOLED is one of degrees, and probably reflects that the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL were assembled by HTC and LG, respectively (LG manufactures P-OLED displays). Unlike the Nexus days, Google handles the design of their phones now, so both phones have the same design language — specifically, the metal build and two-tone back we saw introduced last year (the top part of the back being glass). We imagine LG’s involvement will probably end with the Pixel 2 XL now that Google has acquired the part of HTC that was working on the Pixel.
Last year, HTC was a silent partner. It’s mostly the same this year, but the company does make its presence felt in one way — Google has included the squeeze feature we saw on the HTC U11. By giving the phone a squeeze, you can launch Google Assistant or snap selfies — it’s sort of gimmicky, but it can be useful in the right situation. More importantly, Google has been able to cut down on accidental squeezes using machine learning — over time, the phone will learn the difference between an intentional and accidental squeeze, so you won’t need to worry about Google Assistant springing to life while the phone is in your purse or pocket.
When Myriam reviewed the Pixel XL last year, she found the phone’s camera to be awfully good, even if it wasn’t quite the best on the market. Google is seeking to improve on that with the Pixel 2, and surprisingly enough, they’re doing it without moving to a dual camera array. On the back, they’ve got a 12 MP sensor with 1.4-micron pixels and an f/1.8 lens — it’s not the most technically advanced on the market, but Google’s advantage in machine learning might make for the best photos and videos in the end.
For each photo you take, the Pixel 2 will actually snap loads of frames. Google’s machine learning algorithms will sift through those frames, going pixel by pixel to create the single composite image you’ll see in the end. That should result in photos where you don’t get a blown out sky or foreground that’s too dark. The Pixel 2 can even manage depth of field effects, since the single sensor will be taking in two pictures, with the pixels on one shifted ever so slightly to the side. The difference between the two is apparently all Google’s algorithms need to create a depth map that can capably pull subjects into focus while blurring the background. We’re very interested to see how well this actually works in the real world.
The really interesting part about Google leaning so heavily on software is that they can apply the same tricks to the front camera, too. The front camera can take selfies with depth of field effects in the same way, although as usual, that front camera isn’t quite as sophisticated as the rear — (8 MP, f/2.4, 1.4-micron pixels).
One big difference between the two is OIS. Optical image stabilization is on the rear camera (not the front), but in an uncommon move, Google has also used electronic image stabilization (EIS). Once again using machine learning algorithms, the Pixel 2 uses both to create some very stable video — their sample video taken on a motorcycle looked incredibly smooth.
Machine learning was the primary beat Google stayed on during the presentation. Google Lens was a big part of that — it’s the machine learning-powered image recognition program that Google has been talking up for the better part of a year. Google Lens can recognize objects within pictures, then call up Google Assistant to do something with them. Most will probably use this for email addresses and phone numbers — Lens will let you take a picture of a flyer taped to a light post, then simply tap on the phone number or email address to use it.
It’s a really minor time saver, but Google has bigger plans for Lens. Far down the road, Lens should wind up being the foundation of Google’s far-reaching augmented reality efforts — in theory, Lens would eventually be able to identify individual places of business, then call up the corresponding restaurant card. It could also let you snap a picture of any product, then get more info from a Google search. But, Google was very clear during the presentation that no one should expect miracles this year — Lens is on the Pixel 2 as a preview, and won’t always prove to be accurate.
They had plenty to say about augmented reality specifically, even if what we’re seeing now is still a little hokey. They mostly talked up animated AR stickers that can interact with each other (they’ll have packs from Stranger Things, SNL, YouTube, the NBA, and Star Wars at the outset). Looks fun, but this isn’t quite the transformative leap that AR promises. Like Lens, Google’s ARCore just isn’t at that level yet.
Google will ship the Pixel 2 with the latest version of Android, Oreo. Oreo is bringing security features and picture-in-picture to Android phones, but Google is also adding an always-on display to the Pixel 2. Like most others, this always-on display will use a black background (because the phone has an OLED display, this will use even less energy than usual) with small text that tells time, weather, battery life and the like. It’ll also tell you what song is playing — even if the song isn’t coming from your phone! Instead of pulling that info from music apps, Google has yet again used machine learning, this time to recognize song lyrics and detect the song title and artist. Sorry Shazam, you had a good run.
Forward-firing stereo speakers were a nice surprise this year. This is something we see rarely — the ZTE Axon 7 and Nextbit Robin spring to mind — but it makes a big difference if you like to use your phone to play music or movies aloud. But, there’s bad news on the audio front, too — there’s no 3.5 mm headphone port, so if you have a favored pair of wired headphones, you’ll need a USB Type-C adapter to use them (or you’ll need to get Type-C headphones or wireless headphones). There are a few interesting USB Type-C headphones out there, but if you want a smartphone that will pair well with wired headphones, you’re going to want to look into the LG V30.
The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL retain the basic design language of last year’s models. The aluminum chassis is paired with a glass top around the camera, giving it that distinctive two-tone look. The fingerprint sensor is still on the back, too, and Google has confirmed that the phone is IP67 water-resistant (it’ll survive being fully submerged in water).
The color options this year are black, white, and a light blue called Kinda Blue (a reference to last year’s darker Really Blue, which was really a bit much). While the contrast between metal and glass still provides the two-tone look, the hues used on both are much more similar than what Google used last year. The Pixel 2 XL only comes in all black and a black/white option, the latter of which has a red power button for a little dash of color.
Hardware is no surprise — both models have the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC and 4 GB of RAM, with a 2,700 mAh battery on the Pixel 2 and a 3,520 mAh battery on the Pixel 2 XL. Both also have eSIMs, which means you won’t need to pop in physical SIM cards. That’s not necessarily the best thing if you want to travel with it frequently, although the phone does work with Google Fi, which has rapidly expanded its list of international carrier partners.
The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL start at $650 and $850, respectively, for the 64 GB models (128 GB models are also available). Verizon will carry the Pixel 2, but you can also buy it directly from Google through the Google Store or Project Fi. Preorders are open now (although stock is already running low) and the phone will start shipping on October 19. If you get one in the early days, you can even get a Google Home Mini for free! What’s a Google Home Mini? Well…
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