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New Google Gear Once Again Takes Aim At Apple Products

For roughly a year now, Google has been unleashing a flurry of hardware products – and related software and services – that compete directly with Apple products.

Two recent press events followed this unmistakable pattern (see “Google Aims to Attract Apple Users with Google I/O Announcements,” 22 May 2017, and “Google Event Unveils Smartphones, Wi-Fi, VR, and Streaming Devices,” 11 October 2016).

On 4 October 2017, Google did it again. Its third major press event within one calendar year boasted the company’s most extensive line of new hardware to date – often with features that will seem familiar to Apple users.

These products include:

  • A home speaker with a voice-controlled intelligent assistant
  • A super-thin laptop with USB-C and phone tethering
  • A fresh line of smartphones bereft of headphone jacks
  • A phone camera that can take portrait-style photos with blurred backgrounds along with still photos that are also mini-videos
  • Wireless earbuds with voice control that come with a charging case

Google is also clearly thinking about other competitors, such as Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo devices and Microsoft’s Surface machines that blend notebook and tablet attributes.

These announcements were Google’s most aggressive indications so far that it intends to be a contender in consumer hardware, ranging from mobile computers and home-security devices to home entertainment and the brave new world of augmented (and virtual) reality. Google also touted the growing intelligence of its gadgets, powered by the Siri-like Google Assistant that is finding its way into more and more of the company’s products.

Pixel 2 Smartphones — Hard on the heels of Apple’s recent iPhone 8 and X reveals (see “Apple Introduces iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X,” 12 September 2017), Google trotted out second-generation Pixel smartphones.

Aesthetically, the 5-inch Pixel 2 and 6-inch Pixel 2 XL look much like their precursors — that is, they more resemble the iPhone 8 than the iPhone X.

The lure here is less about looks and more about features that make the new Pixels worthy iPhone competitors. Notable Pixel 2 features include:

  • OLED displays, which the iPhone X offers but the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus do not.

  • Active Edge, a way to get at Google Assistant by squeezing the left and right edges of the phones. This supposedly works even when the Pixel devices are in cases.

  • A Shazam-like Now Playing feature that can identify songs playing around the user via a music database already installed on the device.

  • Ambient Services, a software feature that adjusts the handset settings based on changes in the environment. Notably, this includes the Google equivalent of iOS 11’s new Do Not Disturb While Driving capability.

The Pixel 2’s rear-facing camera (it’s the same for both models) is perhaps the most significant upgrade, one that has earned it a near-perfect 98 score from independent camera site DxOMark (the iPhone 8 Plus scored 94 immediately prior to that).

Notable camera features include:

  • The Google equivalent of Apple’s Portrait Mode, with the difference being that it’s achieved with one camera, instead of a dual-camera setup like those on larger iPhones (see “Behind the iPhone 7 Plus’s Portrait Mode,” 24 September 2016). As a result, users of either Pixel 2 phone can play with bokeh — unlike users of the smaller, single-camera iPhones. The front-facing camera does portrait mode, as well, which no iPhone can do. But Google doesn’t have anything like Portrait Lighting that the iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X offer.
  • The equivalent of Live Photos, which Google calls “motion photos.” The execution is similar: when taking a picture, the Pixel 2 will also “capture a few seconds of video around the shot so you can relive the moment around the picture.”

  • Google Lens, a camera feature that can identify landmarks, book covers, film posters, works of art and more, responding with relevant and useful information about what it identifies. It can also identify URLs, the contact info on business cards, and so on. That’s more impressive than the QR code scanning Apple finally brought to iOS 11. Apple users shouldn’t expect to see Google Lens as part of the Google Assistant app for iPhone; it’s exclusive to Pixel 2 phones for now.

  • Augmented Reality Stickers, which will be familiar to iPhone users who have played with apps incorporating Apple’s new ARKit (see “ARKit: Augmented Reality for More Than Gaming,” 28 July 2017). Emojis and other virtual characters can be plopped into Pixel photos and videos, thereby seeming to become part of the physical world, and these creatures can interact. Google said the stickers are coming soon.

The Pixel 2 phones also have some notable omissions. Google hasn’t added facial recognition for user authentication, instead sticking with its rear-mounted fingerprint sensor. Nor do the Pixels have wireless charging, as do the latest iPhones (and many Android phones).

In the final omission, Google has emulated Apple in dropping the standard 3.5mm headphone jack. Users have to buy a $9 adapter for the phone’s USB-C port (Google is not providing wired earphones, as Apple does), or go wireless.

Google Pixel Buds — That missing headphone jack leads us to another of the company’s product announcements: a set of wireless earbuds called the Google Pixel Buds.

As with Apple’s AirPods (see “Apple’s Wireless AirPods Were Worth the Wait,” 20 December 2016), the Pixel Buds are intended to soften the blow of losing the headphone jack, while amping up the cool factor and providing some advanced features.

In physical design, the Pixel Buds more closely resemble the Beats X wireless earbuds made by Apple-owned Beats. In both cases, the earpieces have a connecting audio cord that drapes behind the head. Portions of the cord loop at either end to fit in either ear, along with the earpieces, to ensure that the accessory won’t easily be dislodged. Audio controls are built into a touchpad on the right earpiece — forward and backward swipes control the volume, and tapping plays and pauses.

Also like AirPods, the Pixel Buds come with a battery-equipped case for recharging the earbuds when they are not in use. The case provides up to 24 hours of listening time. It even emulates the AirPod case by offering to pair with a Pixel (or other Android phone) when its lid flips open.

The AirPods and Beats X buds provide access to Siri — a relevant point since the Pixel Buds have comparable Google Assistant support. Here is where things get really interesting. Google Assistant support in the Pixel Buds includes on-the-fly translations — somewhat along the lines of a Star Trek universal translator, or the Babel fish in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” When turned on, it enables conversation with a person who speaks another language — the earbud user
hears translations via the earpieces, and the other person hears his or her translations via the Pixel’s speakers, with Google Assistant as an active intermediary.

Google Pixelbook — Google has produced several notebook computers intended to compete with those from Apple and Microsoft — but with its own spin on such products.

A few years ago, it released the Chromebook Pixel, a fancy notebook (or “Chromebook”) that ran its browser-like Chrome OS, but was pricey ($999 and up). This laptop has been discontinued. More recently, Google put out the Pixel C, an Android tablet with a detachable keyboard and a more palatable price tag (around $600, not including the keyboard). It resulted in an imperfect experience because the phone-centric Android operating system doesn’t adapt as well to a bigger screen as Apple’s iOS does.

Now Google is taking another tack with its 12.3-inch Google Pixelbook, a “convertible” computer running Chrome OS that can be used in different configurations — laptop, tablet, freestanding video terminal — thanks to a display that can rotate 360 degrees to place the machine in a variety of positions.

In this sense, it’s like many Windows-based convertible computers — and somewhat like Microsoft’s Surface machines, which are tablets with add-on keyboards for laptop-like use.

It’s different from Apple’s MacBook line, which takes a traditional notebook approach, but more similar to the iPad Pro, a tablet that can be used like a notebook with a Smart Keyboard cover. Google even offers the Pixelbook Pen, a stylus to rival the iPad Pro’s Apple Pencil stylus (and Microsoft’s Surface Pen), for use with the Pixelbook’s touch-sensitive display.

The Pixelbook’s specs are robust: Intel Core i5 and i7 processors, up to 512 GB of on-board storage, 10 hours of battery life, and more. Like the latest MacBooks, the Pixelbook uses USB-C for charging and peripheral connectivity.

It’s the first such machine with the Google Assistant built in. It also offers easy tethering with Pixel phones for cellular access to the Internet, much like macOS makes it straightforward to use an iPhone or a cellular-equipped iPad as an online hotspot.

At $999 and up, however, the Pixelbook revives a thorny question: how many people will pay a laptop-like price for a Chrome OS machine that is basically just a window onto the Web? Most so-called Chromebooks are much less expensive, which is one reason why they’re so popular in schools, but the Pixelbook occupies an entirely different price point.

Meet Max and Mini — When Amazon’s Echo speaker with its built-in Alexa assistant took the tech world by storm a few years ago, Google responded with the Google Home speaker with Google Assistant built-in.

With Amazon just announcing a bunch of new Echo devices (see “Amazon Unveils New Fire TV and Echo Smart Speakers,” 28 September 2017), and Apple unveiling of its HomePod in a few months (see “Apple Will Enter Smart Speaker Market in December with HomePod,” 5 June 2017), Google is expanding its Home line.

Of particular interest to the Apple universe is the Google Home Max, a compact but powerful home speaker that, like the original Home, incorporates Google Assistant. The $399 Home Max is clearly gunning for the HomePod. Both have robust specifications along with the intelligence to tailor their audio to their physical surroundings.

The Home Max’s design is a bit more versatile, being a rectangle that can be positioned on a flat surface vertically or horizontally, unlike the cylindrical HomePod that has just one upright position.

The Home Max could have an advantage over the HomePod in its support of multiple music services like iHeartRadio, Pandora, Spotify, and TuneIn, along with its own Google Play Music and YouTube Music. The HomePod reportedly will support only Apple Music to start.

With a much smaller gizmo called the Home Mini, Google is aiming at Amazon’s Echo Dot, the miniature variation of the Echo. The Home Mini’s rounded, pebble-like, fabric-covered design is a bit more appealing than the utilitarian-looking Echo Dot. The Google device is said to sound a bit better, too.

Other Google News — Google threw in a few other announcements at its press event, including:

  • Google Clips, a compact, standalone photo- and video-capture camera that is said to have enough intelligence to activate itself at the right moments — when particular family members come into view, for instance — and get better at this over time. Google will provide a companion iOS app along with an Android app for wireless syncing with either kind of device.

  • An upgraded version of its Daydream goggles, which are intended to be paired with a Google phone for augmented-reality and virtual-reality use. Daydream goggles work with software known as ARCore, Google’s equivalent of ARKit, and are a good way to experience the aforementioned Augmented Reality Stickers.

  • Google Assistant, the company’s Siri counterpart, which merits another mention since it was woven into nearly every part of the Google press event. Google is aggressively pushing Google Assistant as a secret sauce of a sort, a way for the company to stand out from its rivals given how dramatically its expertise in machine learning and artificial intelligence has evolved in recent years. This argument might resonate with Apple users who have trouble getting Siri to cooperate.

Google vs. Apple — At first, Google was just an Internet search company. Later, it expanded into other Internet services like Gmail and Google Maps, and still later, it got serious about software, including the Chrome Web browser and Android operating system.

But now Google is very much also a hardware company. From smartphones and wireless earbuds to notebook-tablet crossovers and smart speakers, the latest Google products clearly aim to be Apple alternatives.

As good as they are, these products probably won’t lure many people out of Apple’s extended ecosystem, but they may prevent more people from switching from Android to iOS.

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