Google’s smart home sell looks cluttered and incoherent

If any aliens or technology ingenues were trying to understand what on earth a ‘smart home’ is yesterday, via Google’s latest own-brand hardware launch event, they’d have come away with a pretty confused and incoherent picture. The company’s presenters attempted to sketch a vision of gadget-enabled domestic bliss but the effect was rather closer to […]

If any aliens or technology ingenues were trying to understand what on earth a ‘smart home’ is yesterday, via Google’s latest own-brand hardware launch event, they’d have come away with a pretty confused and incoherent picture.

The company’s presenters attempted to sketch a vision of gadget-enabled domestic bliss but the effect was rather closer to described clutter-bordering-on-chaos, with existing connected devices being blamed (by Google) for causing homeowners’ device usability and control headaches — which thus necessitated another new type of ‘hub’ device which was now being unveiled, slated and priced to fix problems of the smart home’s own making.

Meet the ‘Made by Google’ Home Hub.

Buy into the smart home, the smart consumer might think, and you’re going to be stuck shelling out again and again — just to keep on top of managing an ever-expanding gaggle of high maintenance devices.

Which does sound quite a lot like throwing good money after bad. Unless you’re a true believer in the concept of gadget-enabled push-button convenience — and the perpetually dangled claim that smart home nirvana really is just around the corner. One additional device at a time. Er, and thanks to AI!

Yesterday, at Google’s event, there didn’t seem to be any danger of nirvana though.

Not unless paying $150 for a small screen lodged inside a speaker is your idea of heaven. (i.e. after you’ve shelled out for all the other connected devices that will form the spokes chained to this control screen.)

A small tablet that, let us be clear, is defined by its limitations: No standard web browser, no camera… No, it’s not supposed to be an entertainment device in its own right.

It’s literally just supposed to sit there and be a visual control panel — with the usual also-accessible-on-any-connected-device type of content like traffic, weather and recipes. So $150 for a remote control doesn’t sound quite so cheap now does it?

The hub doubling as a digital photo frame when not in active use — which Google made much of — isn’t some kind of ‘magic pixie’ sales dust either. Call it screensaver 2.0.

A fridge also does much the same with a few magnets and bits of paper. Just add your own imagination.

During the presentation, Google made a point of stressing that the ‘evolving’ smart home it was showing wasn’t just about iterating on the hardware front — claiming its Google’s AI software is hard at work in the background, hand-in-glove with all these devices, to really ‘drive the vision forward’.

But if the best example it can find to talk up is AI auto-picking which photos to display on a digital photo frame — at the same time as asking consumers to shell out $150 for a discrete control hub to manually manage all this IoT — that seems, well, underwhelming to say the least. If not downright contradictory.

Google also made a point of referencing concerns it said it’s heard from a large majority of users that they’re feeling overwhelmed by too much technology, saying: “We want to make sure you’re in control of your digital well-being.”

Yet it said this at an event where it literally unboxed yet another clutch of connected, demanding, function-duplicating devices — that are also still, let’s be clear, just as hungry for your data — including the aforementioned tablet-faced speaker (which Google somehow tried to claim would help people “disconnect” from all their smart home tech — so, basically, ‘buy this device so you can use devices less’… ); a ChromeOS tablet that transforms into a laptop via a snap-on keyboard; and 2x versions of its new high end smartphone, the Pixel 3.

There was even a wireless charging Pixel Stand that props the phone up in a hub-style control position. (Oh and Google didn’t even have time to mention it during the cluttered presentation but there’s this Disney co-branded Mickey Mouse-eared speaker for kids, presumably).

What’s the average consumer supposed to make of all this incestuously overlapping, wallet-badgering hardware?!

Smartphones at least have clarity of purpose — by being efficiently multi-purposed.

Increasingly powerful all-in-ones that let you do more with less and don’t even require you to buy a new one every year vs the smart home’s increasingly high maintenance and expensive (in money and attention terms) sprawl, duplication and clutter. And that’s without even considering the security risks and privacy nightmare.

The two technology concepts really couldn’t be further apart.

If you value both your time and your money the smartphone is the one — the only one — to buy into.

Whereas the smart home clearly needs A LOT of finessing — if it’s to ever live up to the hyped claims of ‘seamless convenience’.

Or, well, a total rebranding.

The ‘creatively chaotic & experimental gadget lovers’ home would be a more honest and realistic sell for now — and the foreseeable future.

Instead Google made a pitch for what it dubbed the “thoughtful home”. Even as it pushed a button to pull up a motorised pedestal on which stood clustered another bunch of charge-requiring electronics that no one really needs — in the hopes that consumers will nonetheless spend their time and money assimilating redundant devices into busy domestic routines. Or else find storage space in already overflowing drawers.

The various iterations of ‘smart’ in-home devices in the market illustrate exactly how experimental the entire  concept remains.

Just this week, Facebook waded in with a swivelling tablet stuck on a smart speaker topped with a camera which, frankly speaking, looks like something you’d find in a prison warden’s office.

Google, meanwhile, has housed speakers in all sorts of physical forms, quite a few of which resemble restroom scent dispensers — what could it be trying to distract people from noticing?

And Amazon now has so many Echo devices it’s almost impossible to keep up. It’s as if the ecommerce giant is just dropping stones down a well to see if it can make a splash.

During the smart home bits of Google’s own-brand hardware pitch, the company’s parade of presenters often sounded like they were going through robotic motions, failing to muster anything more than baseline enthusiasm.

And failing to dispel a strengthening sense that the smart home is almost pure marketing, and that sticking update-requiring, wired in and/or wireless devices with variously overlapping purposes all over the domestic place is the very last way to help technology-saturated consumers achieve anything close to ‘disconnected well-being’.

Incremental convenience might be possible, perhaps — depending on which and how few smart home devices you buy; for what specific purpose/s; and then likely only sporadically, until the next problematic update topples the careful interplay of kit and utility. But the idea that the smart home equals thoughtful domestic bliss for families seems farcical.

All this updatable hardware inevitably injects new responsibilities and complexities into home life, with the conjoined power to shift family dynamics and relationships — based on things like who has access to and control over devices (and any content generated); whose jobs it is to fix things and any problems caused when stuff inevitably goes wrong (e.g. a device breakdown OR an AI-generated snafu like the ‘wrong’ photo being auto-displayed in a communal area); and who will step up to own and resolve any disputes that arise as a result of all the Internet connected bits being increasingly intertwined in people’s lives, willingly or otherwise.

Hey Google, is there an AI to manage all that yet?

Google Pixel’s product directors on single cameras and notches

Google hardware launches are never spec-fests. The search giant would rather just sit on the sideline while companies like Apple and Samsung battle it out on that front. In fact, numbers like screen resolution, processor speed and battery capacity were conspicuously absent from today’s presentation. Instead, the company seems more content to have hardware serve […]

Google hardware launches are never spec-fests. The search giant would rather just sit on the sideline while companies like Apple and Samsung battle it out on that front. In fact, numbers like screen resolution, processor speed and battery capacity were conspicuously absent from today’s presentation.

Instead, the company seems more content to have hardware serve the product’s software — it’s a strategy that certainly makes sense given the company’s background. That often means that products like the Pixel don’t offer major spec upgrades year over year, instead relying on breakthroughs in AI, ML and the like to take them to the next level.

As such, the company regularly tosses out words like “pragmatic” and “practical” when discussing the decisions made in service of producing the Pixel 3. One such move was the continued reliance on a single rear-facing camera, when the competition is adding two or three to get the job done.

“We look at all of the different configurations we can get,” VP of Product Management Brian Rakowski tells TechCrunch. “If we would have added another lens, it would have given us no benefit over what we get with one really good lens.”

The simple answer is that the company was able to accomplish most of what it set out to do with a combination of “one really good camera” and software tricks like digital zoom, ultra low-light shooting and depth perception. That last bit is doubly important both for creating the bokeh effect in portrait mode and helping deliver augmented reality experiences through ARCore.

Senior Director of Product Management Sabrina Ellis says the company did consider a wide-angle lens for the rear of the device, but ultimately, “it wasn’t as much of a pain point.” It was, however, enough of an issue to warrant its addition to the front of the device.

That decision is what lead to the mismatched notches on the Google Pixel 3 (no notch) and Pixel 3 XL (giant notch). While the company has happily embraced hashtag notch life in Android Pie, the smaller Pixel’s slim profile wouldn’t have benefited from the addition of a notch.

“With the small one,” Rakowski explains, “it turns out the space is just too small when you put the wide-angle lens in. It’s a narrower phone, so you have room for an icon or two, whereas on the bigger phone everything you need for the status icons is up there, and it’s a very good use of the space.”

When I suggested the company was “notch agnostic,” both execs laughed in agreement. The hardware, Rakowski explained, is secondary to the overall experience. “We’re not obsessed with the specs,” he says. “We’re obsessed with the features and experiences.”

more Google Event 2018 coverage

Pixel 2 vs Pixel 3: Should you upgrade?

If you’re considering making the jump to Google’s newly announced Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, you’re in the right place. Whether you’re a Pixel 2 owner eyeing greener pastures or a bargain type hunting for a last-gen smartphone that’s still top of the line, comparing new and old is often useful. On specs alone, […]

If you’re considering making the jump to Google’s newly announced Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, you’re in the right place. Whether you’re a Pixel 2 owner eyeing greener pastures or a bargain type hunting for a last-gen smartphone that’s still top of the line, comparing new and old is often useful.

On specs alone, the Pixel 3 shares most of its DNA with the Pixel 2, but there are a handful of meaningful differences and they’re not all obvious. What is obvious: The Pixel 3’s AMOLED screen is now 5.5 inches compared to the Pixel 2’s 5 inch display. The Pixel 3 XL now offers a 6.3 inch display, up .3 inches from the Pixel 2 XL.

The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL upgrade the Pixel 2’s processor slightly and add an additional front-facing camera for some of the device’s newest tricks. The primary camera also gets an under-the-hood upgrade to its visual co-processing chip, called Visual Core. The Visual Core chip update is what powers some of the new camera features that we’ll get into in just a bit.

Pixel 3 XL

Beyond that, the hardware looks very similar for the most part, though the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL do offer some changes in screen size, like we mentioned. Most noticeably, the Pixel 3 XL has an iPhone-like notch this time around while the notchless Pixel 3 offers a reduced bezel but no edge-to-edge screen.

Pixel 2 XL

The Pixel 3 starts at $799 (64GB of storage) while the base model Pixel 2 is currently priced at $649, though more price drops could be in store. The Pixel 3 XL starts at $899 for 64GB of storage and offers 128GB for $999. The Pixel 2 XL is more deeply discounted than its smaller sibling at the moment with a 64GB base option on sale for $699. If it sounds complicated, it’s not really. Each Pixel comes in two sizes: 64GB or 128GB and more storage costs $100 bucks extra.

The black and white Pixel 2 XL

With the Pixel 3, Google has unified the color scheme across both sizes of device, offering “Just Black,” “Clearly White” with an eye-catching seafoam colored button and a very Apple-like “Not Pink” that comes with a coral colored button.

Google’s Pixel 2 also came in black and white but also a muted greyish blue color, which was cool. The Pixel 2 XL came in all black or black and white with a brightly colored power button, so we’re a little sad to see that colorway go. Google also noted in its launch event that the new phones feel more comfortable to hold, though we’d have to try that out with the Pixel 3 XL to see if that really holds true.

Like we said, if you’re not vehemently anti-notch the hardware isn’t that different. The dual front-facing camera is the most substantial change. But since we’re talking about Google phones what we’re really talking about is software and when it comes to software Google has held some substantial perks exclusive to the Pixel 3.

We spoke to Google to clarify what features won’t be coming to the Pixel 2, at least not yet:

  • Photobooth: The hands-free selfie mode that snaps photos when you smile
  • Top Shot: Burst photo mode that picks your best shots.
  • Super Res Zoom: A new machine learning-powered camera mode that merges many burst images to fill in additional details.
  • Wide angle selfies: That extra front-facing camera wasn’t for nothing. Mark my words, this is the Pixel 3’s real killer feature, even if it takes a while to catch on.
  • Motion Auto focus: A camera mode that allows you to tap a subject once and track it while it moves.
  • Lens Suggestions: A new mode for Google Lens.
  • Titan M: A new security chip with a cool name that Google touts for providing enterprise-level security.
  • Wireless charging: Either a big deal to you or it’s not.

Thrift-minded shoppers and fairly content Pixel 2 owners fear not. There are plenty of new features that don’t rely on hardware improvements and will be coming to vintage Pixels. Those include Call Screen, Night Sight, Playground (the AR sticker thing) and Digital Wellbeing, already available in beta.

So, do you need to upgrade? Well, as always, that’s a very personal and often very nitpickily detail-oriented question. Are you dying for a slight but not unsubstantial bump in screen real estate? Does Google’s very solid lineup of cool new camera modes entice you? Is wireless charging an absolute dealmaker?

As for me, I’m perfectly happy with the Pixel 2 for now, but as someone who regularly takes front-facing photos with more than one human in them, that extra-wide group selfie mode does beckon. If I were still using a first generation Pixel I’d be all over the Pixel 3, but my device has a ton of life left in it.

A Google spokesperson emphasized that as always with its flagship smartphone line, the company will “try to bring as many features as possible to existing phones so they keep getting better over time.”

The Pixel 2 is still one of the best smartphones ever made and it’s more affordable now than before. Even with last-gen hardware — often the best deal for smartphone shoppers — you can rest easy knowing that Google won’t abandon the Pixel 2.

Hands-on with Google’s Pixel Slate

Google unveiled a new lineup of devices today, including the Pixel Slate, a tablet that the company described as the next evolution of Chrome OS — but could also be seen as the company’s answer to both Apple’s iPad and Microsoft’s Surface. After the presentation, I had a chance to try the Pixel Slate for […]

Google unveiled a new lineup of devices today, including the Pixel Slate, a tablet that the company described as the next evolution of Chrome OS — but could also be seen as the company’s answer to both Apple’s iPad and Microsoft’s Surface.

After the presentation, I had a chance to try the Pixel Slate for myself. There wasn’t time to test out everything (a packed room full of journalists isn’t the best place to try out the speakers, and there didn’t seem to be much new with the accompanying Google Pen), but it was enough to get a taste of the main selling points.

The first thing I noticed was the screen. Google is pitching this as a device that can be used for both work and entertainment, with a particular emphasis on content creators. The display seems to be up to the task — it’s 12.3 inches in size, with a resolution of 203ppi. The result is that everything from YouTube videos to email composition screens looked sharp and vivid.

There’s also an emphasis on thinness and lightness. The Pixel Slate has an official weight of 1.6 pounds, and it did feel easy to carry, and to adjust the angle to my liking using the case/stand. (The real test, of course, will be seeing how my arms and fingers felt after several hours of Netflix.)

There’s also an optional keyboard. It includes nice touches like rounded keys, but I was most intrigued by the quietness touted by Google’s presenters. Loyal TechCrunch readers will know that I’m a notoriously loud typer, so I couldn’t resist trying to bash away at it.

Turns out it was as quiet as promised. To be honest, I would’ve appreciated a little more noise, but I’m sure everyone in my immediate vicinity felt otherwise. And even with the relative absence of sound, the experience was still satisfyingly tactile — I didn’t hear the keys, but I felt them clacking under my fingers.

The Slate also appeared to move seamlessly back-and-forth between desktop and tablet modes. As the name suggests, desktop mode looks like a more mouse- and keyboard-oriented interface (with capabilities like snapping two applications side-by-side as a splitscreen), while tablet mode is a more standard, touch-friendly interface, along with an on-screen keyboard.

The Slate automatically snaps back-and-forth between the modes — in my demo, you just had to pull it away from the aforementioned keyboard to trigger the switch, though apparently it’s the presence of a trackpad or mouse that really makes the difference.

Other features include front- and rear-facing cameras, Google Assistant and a fingerprint reader. Pricing starts at $599, with an additional $199 for the keyboard and $99 for the Pen.

more Google Event 2018 coverage

Turn your Google Home Mini into Google Home Mickey

Behold the Google Home Mickey. It’s an official collaboration with Google and Disney that OtterBox is selling for $20. The base props up Google’s best-selling smart speaker and gives it iconic mouse ears and red suspenders in the process. It also helps the Mini project by propping it up at an angle. Oh, and the […]

Behold the Google Home Mickey. It’s an official collaboration with Google and Disney that OtterBox is selling for $20. The base props up Google’s best-selling smart speaker and gives it iconic mouse ears and red suspenders in the process. It also helps the Mini project by propping it up at an angle.

Oh, and the power cord happens to double as a tail.

The clunkily named Den Series for Google Home Mini featuring Disney Mickey Mouse will be available through the case maker’s site. No specific availability just yet, and yes, Home Mini is sold separately.

Apparently the product wasn’t able to sneak its way into today’s overly crowded Google hardware keynote. But then, the company didn’t spend much time on the Home line, outside of the new Hub.

No word yet on Donald, Goofy, or, most appropriately of all, a Google Home Minnie.

more Google Event 2018 coverage

Google’s latest hardware innovation: Price

With its latest consumer hardware products, Google’s prices are undercutting Apple, Samsung, and Amazon. The search giant just unveiled its latest flagship smartphone, tablet, and smart home device and all available at prices well below their direct competitors. Where Apple and Samsung are pushing prices of its latest products even higher, Google is seemingly happy […]

With its latest consumer hardware products, Google’s prices are undercutting Apple, Samsung, and Amazon. The search giant just unveiled its latest flagship smartphone, tablet, and smart home device and all available at prices well below their direct competitors. Where Apple and Samsung are pushing prices of its latest products even higher, Google is seemingly happy to keep prices low and this is creating a distinct advantage for the company’s products.

Google, like Amazon and nearly Apple, is a services company that happens to sell hardware. It needs to acquire users through multiple verticals including hardware. Somewhere, deep in the Googleplex, a team of number crunchers decided it made more sense to make its hardware prices dramatically lower than competitors. If Google is taking a loss on the hardware, it is likely making it back through services.

Amazon does this with Kindle devices. Microsoft and Sony do it with game consoles. This is a proven strategy to increase market share where the revenue generated on the backend recovers the revenue lost on selling hardware with slim or negative margins.

Look at the Pixel 3. The base 64GB model is available for $799 while the base 64GB iPhone XS is $999. Want a bigger screen? The 64GB Pixel 3 XL is $899, and the 64GB iPhone XS Max is $1099. Regarding the specs, both phones offer OLED displays and amazing cameras. There are likely pros and cons regarding the speed of the SoC, amount of RAM and wireless capabilities. Will consumers care since the screen and camera are so similar? Probably not.

Google also announced the Home Hub today. Like the Echo Show, it’s designed to be the central part of a smart home. It puts Google Assistant on a fixed screen where users can ask it questions and control a smart home. It’s $149. That’s $80 less than the Echo Show thou the Google version lacks video conferencing and a dedicated smart home hub — the Google Home Hub requires extra hardware for some smart home objects. Still, even with fewer features, the Home Hub is compelling because of its drastically lower price. For just a few dollars more than an Echo Show, a buyer could get a Home Hub and two Home Mini’s.

The Google Pixel Slate is Google’s answer to the iPad Pro. From everything we’ve seen, it appears to lack a lot of the processing power found in Apple’s top tablet. It doesn’t seem as refined or capable of specific tasks. But for view media, creating content and playing games, it feels just fine. It even has a Pixelbook Pen and a great keyboard that shows Google is positioning this against the iPad Pro. And the 12.3-inch Pixel Slate is available for $599 where the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is $799.

The upfront price is just part of the equation. When considering the resale value of these devices, a different conclusion can be reached. Apple products consistently resale for more money than Google products. On Gazelle.com, a company that buys used smartphones, a used iPhone X is worth $425 where a used Pixel 2 is $195. A used iPhone 8, a phone that sold for a price closer to the Pixel 2, is worth $240.

In the end, Google likely doesn’t expect to make money off the hardware it sells. It needs users to buy into its services. The best way to do that is to make the ecosystem competitive though perhaps not investing the capital to make it the best. It needs to be just good enough, and that’s how I would describe these devices. Good enough to be competitive on a spec-to-spec basis while available for much less.

more Google Event 2018 coverage

Google Home Hub up close and hands on

While the rumors and leaks didn’t leave much to the imagination ahead of today’s event, I will admit to being a bit surprised by the shape Google’s Home Hub actually took. The renders didn’t do justice to the actual product. For starters, the seven inch screen splits the difference between the Echo Show and Spot […]

While the rumors and leaks didn’t leave much to the imagination ahead of today’s event, I will admit to being a bit surprised by the shape Google’s Home Hub actually took. The renders didn’t do justice to the actual product.

For starters, the seven inch screen splits the difference between the Echo Show and Spot in an interesting way. It’s not a compact device, per say, but it’s a lot smaller than I’d initially expected, and as such, it should fit in a lot more spots at home than the larger Show.

From a design standpoint, the product is best described as a seven-inch tablet resting atop a speaker at ~ a 25 to 30 degree angle. The idea is to give you a screen you can view from the other side of the room. After all, this is a voice first product. While it does have touch functionality enabled, that’s primarily secondary. As such there are certain things you can’t do here like, say, pinch to zoom.

That’s largely a moot point here, given the fact that the product doesn’t have, say, a standard web browser, unlike the new Show. Of course, part of the reason Amazon offers a browser on its own devices is so you can access YouTube. That’s obviously not a problem on a product that very much has native YouTube support.

The other thing the peculiar design affords the product is multi-directional sound. Like the Show, the bulk of the fabric-covered speaker faces back, toward the wall. There is, however, an exposed sliver on the bottom, which sends some of that sound toward you.

The sound is decent for a product of this size, but again, I wouldn’t rely on it as any sort of home entertainment system. If you’ve got multiple Home devices at home, however, you can tell Assistant, “extend to my Home Mini,” etc, and the music will follow you into the other room.

Google also notes that this isn’t really an entertainment consuming machine. The Home Hub isn’t designed for watching movies or even TV shows. Rather, if anything, it’s kind of a YouTube delivery device, in much the same way that the Portal is a real world manifestation of Facebook’s video chat. Of course, right out of the gate, this product is going to offer a much fuller experience than Portal — Facebook, after all, is still kind of testing the water to see what users want our of their devices.

That said, Google tells me that the company is still assessing whether users are interested in smart home hub functionality via something like Z Wave. It’s a bit of a glaring omission here, based on both the added focus on connected home features and the fact that the damn thing has hub in its name. That said, Google seems to prefer building that kind of syncing in via bluetooth, much like it did with those newly announced GE lights.

The Hub does fall under Google’s “Smart Display” category, meaning it’s a direct competitor with products from Lenovo, JBL and LG. The company tells me that there was a gap in announcements simply because it took the company longer to build the product from the ground up. The Hub wasn’t built via hardware partner, but rather from the ground up.

One of the upsides there is pricing. $149 certainly makes this a competitive offering versus the Show and Portal.

more Google Event 2018 coverage

The Pixel 3’s best new features

Google unveiled a number of new products Tuesday at its big hardware event, including the Google Home Hub and Google Pixel Slate. But the Pixel 3, the company’s new smartphone was the real star. The Pixel 3, which is available in two sizes and starts at $799, comes in three colors and has a rear […]

Google unveiled a number of new products Tuesday at its big hardware event, including the Google Home Hub and Google Pixel Slate. But the Pixel 3, the company’s new smartphone was the real star.

The Pixel 3, which is available in two sizes and starts at $799, comes in three colors and has a rear 12.2 megapixel camera as well as a dual front camera. What’s inside the phone is a host of new apps and features. The device is available for preorder today and will start shipping October 18.

Here’s a breakdown of some of best new and updated features in the Pixel 3.

Call screen

The call screen option enables Google Assistant to answer an incoming call for you. The user just taps the call screen button and the phone will answer the call and ask who is calling and why.

The conversation is then transcribed in real time on the screen letting you decide whether to answer or send a text in response.

Call screen launched Tuesday with the Pixel 3 and will roll out to other Pixel devices in November.

Google call screen

Security

The Pixel 3 comes with a new security chip that Google calls Titan M. The custom-built chip helps secure passwords and the operating system of the phone.

Speakers

Front-forward speakers at 40% louder and richer than in the previous Pixel smartphone.

YouTube Music

The new Pixel 3 ships with the YouTube Music streaming app and a free six-month subscription.

Google Lens

Google Lens is essentially an AI-enabled camera. The smartphone camera captures an image and the AI algorithm identifies it for you. The “style search” in Lens identifies the product in an image helps you find that product online.

Google Lens also identifies landmarks, plants and animals, and will add events to your calendar. Point the camera on a takeout menu and it will highlight the number to call.

Google Lens

Group selfie cam

Pixel 3 comes with dual front cameras for selfies that require a wider view. Users just double tap power button to open the camera and flick their wrist twice to activate selfie mode. From here, users zoom out to get to the group selfie.

Top shot

This photo feature captures alternate shots in HDR plus and then recommends the best one. For instance, a user might try to take a photo of their child blowing out candles on a birthday cake. In the past, a missed shot was a missed shot. Top shot captures the moments before or after you hit the shutter to take a photo and then automatically recommends the best one.

And if you want that other shot, you can pick that one too.

Google Pixel 3 Top Shot

Playground

The playground feature adds reactive characters (like a dog or a dancing stereo) and adds captions and animated stickers to your photos and videos. Users can make their photos “come to life” with Playmoji, the characters that react to each other and to you.

Some of the options are characters like Iron Man from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Google is working on a collaboration with Donald Glover to bring Childish Gambino to playground later this year as well.

Google Playground Childish Gambino

Photo booth mode

Yup, another camera feature. This feature will automatically take photos when you make a funny face or smile.

 

Google ups the Pixel 3’s camera game with Top Shot, group selfies and more

Google’s Pixel 2 introduced one of the best smartphone cameras ever made and the Pixel 3 brings even more more bells and whistles sure to please mobile photographers. On paper, the Pixel 3’s camera doesn’t look much different than its recent forebear, but because it’s Google, software is where the device will really shine. We’ll go […]

Google’s Pixel 2 introduced one of the best smartphone cameras ever made and the Pixel 3 brings even more more bells and whistles sure to please mobile photographers. On paper, the Pixel 3’s camera doesn’t look much different than its recent forebear, but because it’s Google, software is where the device will really shine. We’ll go over everything that’s new.

Starting with specs, both the Pixel 3 and the Pixel 3 XL will sport a 12.2MP rear camera with an f/1.8 aperture and an 8MP dual front camera capable of both normal field of view and ultra-wide angle shots. The rear video camera captures 1080p video at 30, 60 or 120 fps, while the front-facing video camera is capable of capturing 1080p video at 30fps. Google did not add a second rear-facing camera, deeming it “unnecessary” given what the company can do with machine learning alone. Knowing how good the Pixel 2’s camera is, we can’t really argue here.

Top Shot

With the Pixel 3, Google introduced Top Shot. With Top Shot, the Pixel 3 compares a burst set of images taken in rapid succession and automatically detects the best shot using machine learning. The idea is that the camera can screen out any photos in which a subject might have their eyes closed or be making a weird face unintentionally, choosing “smiles instead of sneezes” and offering the user the best of the batch. Stuff like this is usually gimmicky, but given Google’s image processing prowess it’s honestly probably going to be pretty good. Or as TechCrunch’s Matt Burns puts it, “Top Shots is Live Photo but useful” which seems like a fair assessment.

Super Res Zoom

Google’s next Pixel 3 camera trick is called Super Res Zoom, which is what it sounds like. Super Res Zoom enables the camera to take a burst of photos and then leverages the fact that each image is very slightly different due to minute hand movements, combining those images together to recreate detail “without grain” — or so Google claims. Because smartphone cameras are limited due to their lack of optical zoom, Super Res Zoom employs burst shooting and a merging algorithm to compensate for detail at a distance, merging slightly different photos into one higher resolution photo. Because digital zoom is notoriously universally bad, we’re looking forward to putting this new method to the test. After all, if it worked for imaging the surface of Mars, it’s bound to work for concert photos.

Night Sight

A machine learning camera hack designed to inspire people to retire flash once and for all (please), Night Sight can visualize a photo taken in “extreme low light.” The idea is that machine learning can make educated guesses about the content in the frame, filling in detail and color correcting so it isn’t just one big noisy mess. If it works remains to be seen but given the Pixel 2’s already stunning low light performance we’d bet this is probably pretty cool.

Group Selfie Cam

Google knows what the people really want. One of the biggest hardware changes to the Pixel 3 line is the introduction of dual front-facing cameras that enable super-wide front-facing shots capable of capturing group photos. The wide angle front-facing shots feature a 97 degree field of view compared to the normal already fairly wide 75 degree field of view. Yes, Google is trying to make “Groupies” a thing — yes, that’s a selfie where you all cram in and hand the phone to the friend with the longest arms. Honestly, it might succeed.

Google has a few more handy tricks up its sleeve. In Photobooth mode, the Pixel 3 can snap the selfie shutter when you smile, no hands needed. With a new kind of motion tracking auto-focus option you can tap once to track the subject of a photo without needing to tap to refocus, a feature sure to be handy for the kind of people that fill up their storage with hundreds of out of focus pet shots.

Google Lens is also back, of course, but honestly its utility is usually left forgotten in the camera settings. And Google’s AR stickers are now called Playground and respond to actions and facial expressions. Google is also launching a Childish Gambino AR experience on Playground (probably as good as this whole AR sticker thing gets, tbh) which will launch with the Pixel 3 and come to the Pixel 1 and Pixel 2 a bit later on.

With the Pixel 3, Google will also improve upon the Pixel 2’s already excellent Portrait Mode, offering the ability to change the depth of field and the subject. And of course the company will still offer free unlimited full resolution photo storage in the wonderfully useful Google Photos, which remains superior to every aspect of photo processing and storage on the iPhone.

Happily, because much of what Google accomplishes in mobile photography is achieved on the software processing side, the last generation Pixel 2 isn’t getting left in the dust, either. Because they don’t rely on new hardware, most of the features that Google announced today for the Pixel 3 will likely be hitting the Pixel 2 as well, though we’ll sort that out and update this post to specify when that is not the case. So far, we know Group Selfies relies on the dual front camera, so that’s Pixel 3 only.

With its Pixel line, now three generations deep, Google has leaned heavily on software-powered tricks and machine learning to make a smartphone camera far better than it should be. Given Google’s image processing chops, that’s a great thing and most of its experimental software workarounds generally works very well. We’re looking forward to taking its latest set of photography tricks for a spin, so keep an eye out for our upcoming Pixel 3 hands-on posts and reviews.

Google’s Chromecast gets a refresh with support for faster Wi-Fi

Google’s next-generation Chromecast device launched today – something that came as no surprise, given that Best Buy accidentally sold one to an in-store customer last month. The new streaming dongle doesn’t represent a significant update from the prior version. It’s still a round puck attached to a cable and costs $35, but now it supports […]

Google’s next-generation Chromecast device launched today – something that came as no surprise, given that Best Buy accidentally sold one to an in-store customer last month. The new streaming dongle doesn’t represent a significant update from the prior version. It’s still a round puck attached to a cable and costs $35, but now it supports faster, 5 GHz 802.11ac Wi-Fi, as had been expected. It also introduces support for streaming to speaker groups.

The company chose not to focus on the Chromecast at its hardware event this morning, instead simply launching the updated device on the Google Store and publishing a blog post.

The new device now sports a Google logo on the center of the puck, instead of the Chrome logo found on the 2015 model, which first introduced the round form factor. That change was meant to help better accommodate Chromecast’s new internals and make it easier to plug into TVs, Google had said.

The third-generation Chromecast also features support for up to 1080p resolution up to 60fps, and plugs into TVs via the HDMI port, as before. It continues to have a micro-USB power connector. And it still doesn’t work with a remote – you use your phone for that through.

Chromecast’s companion app, Google Home, lets users set up and control their Chromecast, Google Home devices, and Google Assistant speakers. This was also given a redesign today with more of a focus on controlling the smart home.

The Chromecast still comes in two versions – this new, 3rd generation device and the 4K-ready Chromecast Ultra, which is $69.

But for just a little more than the $35 basic Chromecast, you can now buy a $40 4K-ready Roku Premiere or a $50 Fire TV Stick 4K. Perhaps Google is waiting for a more notable refresh to its Chromecast product line that makes its devices more competitive, before making any big announcement here.

The third-gen Chromecast comes in Chalk and Charcoal, and is 51.8mm long and 13.8mm wide. That’s about the same as the second-gen, at 51.9 x 51.9 x 13.49 mm.

Google also claims a 15% improvement in hardware speed.

While not available at launch, Google says the new Chromecast will be able to be added to speaker groups sometime “later this year.”

The Chromecast, like much of what Google announced today, wasn’t kept under wraps very well ahead of this event. In addition to the Best Buy sale last month (which another person reported, too), a U.K. retailer also sold the new Chromecast this morning for £29.99, according to reports.

The new Chromecast is available from the Google Store starting today in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Great Britain, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, and the U.S., with more countries to follow in 2019.