announced a new generation of mobile and smart-home products on Wednesday including two 5G-capable Pixel smartphones, the rebranded flagship smart speaker Nest Audio and the first Chromecast streaming-media player to come with a remote control. The player will be the first to feature a redesigned on-screen interface branded Google TV.
As with most Google-developed devices, these new, relatively affordable products put software—particularly artificial-intelligence features—over hardware. Google’s gadget update comes on the heels of similar hardware events from
all prerecorded without a live audience in the year of Covid-19.
While Google develops the most popular operating system in the world, Android, its share of the hardware market is relatively small compared with its competitors. Its own phones rank globally well behind the likes of Huawei,
Xiaomi, Oppo and Apple. The smart speaker space is dominated by Amazon’s Echo, with 69.7% market share, compared with Google’s 31.7%, as measured by eMarketer.
And Chromecast makes up just 3% of the streaming device market, while Android TV, Google’s smart TV operating system, powers 4% of TVs and set-top boxes, says Strategy Analytics.
Still, Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., called its hardware efforts a “multi-billion dollar business” in a February 2020 earnings call. The company groups its gadget business in the “Other” category of its financial sheet, which also includes subscription services like YouTube Premium and in-app Google Play purchases. In 2019, that category brought Google $17 billion in revenue.
The event’s focus was affordability. “The world doesn’t need another $1,000 phone,” Google hardware chief, Rick Osterloh, said in a call with reporters. He said the company aimed to offer value, rather than cutting-edge technology. The pandemic-prompted economic downturn “exaggerated our point of view,” he added.
While we plan to test the new devices in coming weeks, here’s a first glance:
Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G
Google is upgrading its latest Pixel phone line with 5G connectivity, which can provide blazing fast speeds—if you’re in exactly the right spot, as my colleague Joanna Stern reported.
At $699, Google’s flagship smartphone, the Pixel 5, is priced lower than competitors from Samsung and Apple, which is due to refresh its iPhone line this fall. The Pixel 5 is thinner than last year’s model, but has a bigger battery, faster wireless charging and reverse wireless charging, so you can top up other Qi-enabled devices, like Google’s Pixel Buds.
Great battery life wasn’t always a Pixel hallmark. Hopefully that changes this time around. Google also added an “extreme battery saver” feature, which it says can prolong a charge to up to 48 hours. You choose the essential apps you want to keep on, while everything else is paused. The Pixel 5 is also faster, with 8 gigabytes of RAM, up from the Pixel 4’s 6 gigabytes.
The fifth-gen phone adds an ultrawide camera, replacing the optical telephoto camera in last year’s Pixel 4. We tend to prefer telephoto, for zooming in, so this isn’t necessarily a good thing. What does sound promising: The phone’s lowlight capture feature, Night Sight, is now available in Portrait mode. You can edit photos with a new feature called Portrait Light, which uses AI to change the front lighting angle of portrait pictures, even ones you took on older phones. The Pixel 5 also comes with software-powered video stabilization.
One of the features I’m most excited about is Hold for Me, powered by Google Assistant. When you’re stuck on hold and have a long wait, it’s supposed to sit on the line for you, then notify you when a real human picks up. Pixel phones already have other AI features like this, including call screening, car crash detection and live audio transcription.
Not all of the Pixel 5’s key features are upgrades. The Pixel 4 had facial-recognition unlock; the Pixel 5 reverts to a fingerprint sensor. And the phone’s processor, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G, is rated slower than the chipset in last year’s model.
The Pixel 4a, Google’s midrange budget phone, now comes in a 5G version priced at $499. It has the same two-camera system as the Pixel 5, but not the water resistance and other premium features.
Pixel 4a 5G will be available on Oct. 15, and Pixel 5 will be available on Oct. 29.
Google is replacing its original Google Home smart speaker with the $99 Nest Audio, available Oct. 15. The HomePod-esque fabric-covered tower has 50% more bass and 75% more volume than the original Google Home smart speaker first released in 2016.
Nest Audio joins Google’s puck-sized $50 Nest Mini in the company’s lineup of speakers powered by Google Assistant. It’s shaping up to be a year for new smart-speaker designs: Amazon just refreshed its $99 Echo with a spherical look. No word yet on whether Apple will soon update its aging HomePod.
With other midrange 5G phones available from other phone makers, and the latest iPhones due soon, IDC devices analyst Francisco Jeronimo expects the Pixel to become a harder sell for Google, even at the lower price. However, he expects the new Nest Audio speaker to become a top seller this holiday season. “We have seen very strong growth in the smart speaker space and Google has been catching up to Amazon,” he said.
Chromecast with Google TV
At its debut, the Chromecast was heralded as a great budget way to stream video from your phone to a TV. But streaming sticks from Roku and Amazon all but knocked it out of the running. Their advantage? Remote controls. This year, the Chromecast finally comes with a remote, which includes a dedicated button for Google Assistant voice search, as well as shortcuts to YouTube and
The new Chromecast, still a pebble-shaped gadget that plugs into your TV’s HDMI port, can display video in up to 4K HDR at 60 frames per second. The new Chromecast costs $50 and is now available in the U.S. (and for preorder in other countries).
On screen, it gets a whole new Google TV interface, not to be confused with Android TV…or the Google TV that came before Android TV.
This updated design includes a personalized “For you” experience that pulls content from across your subscriptions and watch list items from Google Search. If you have a YouTube TV subscription, it also has a Live TV tab showing what’s currently playing. Integration with other TV providers is coming soon.
Google TV is now replacing the Google Play Movies & TV app on Android mobile devices and will be available on
and other Android TV OS hardware partners starting in 2021.
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