InIn a distinctly low-key launch event at New York’s Hudson Yards on Tuesday, Google executives calmly unveiled an array of products we mostly already knew about. But if the announcements felt a bit anticlimactic, on the surface, they also clarified a vision of computing’s future that is more radical than any single gadget or feature.
This event, called Made by Google, was officially the company’s annual hardware showcase. But Google is so software-focused that its services are often the most interesting part of the hardware, and that was the case with many of its announcements today. Even so, Google seems to be getting marginally more serious about producing appealing devices for a mainstream audience, as opposed to a cadre of savvy techies and Googlers with money to burn.
I’ve ranked the announcements according to my entirely subjective criteria for interestingness, which I define largely as their potential to alter, in some meaningful way, the technology industry or our relationship to it.
1. A router that’s also a smart speaker
The new Pixel 4 phones will make the most headlines, but the gadget with the most interesting implications is the new Nest Wi-Fi system. It’s the replacement for Google Wi-Fi, the popular mesh router system that the company introduced in 2016, and which Google claimed is the bestselling router in the United States and Canada. (It may have helped Google achieve this status that the company sold only one model, whereas rivals such as Netgear and TP-Link sell a variety of routers.)
Nest Wi-Fi’s technology is no longer revolutionary, and in fact it doesn’t seem all that different from the previous system, except that the default package now comes in two pieces — one router and one “point” — instead of three. (You can customize it however you want, though.) Google opted not to use the new networking standard, Wi-Fi 6, which would raise the connection speed for compatible devices, but also the router’s price. And while Nest Wi-Fi is pleasant-looking, especially compared to traditional routers, Google didn’t come up with a particularly clever design, like Amazon’s new Eero beacons that look like wall plugs.
What Google did, however, is find a way to fit a smart speaker into a router: Each point in the Nest Wi-Fi system is essentially also a Nest Mini, with the same microphone and speaker built in. That means you can talk to it, tell it to play music, set calendar alerts — the works. Each point you add to the system will do the same. For Google, that means getting all its Wi-Fi customers into its smart speaker ecosystem, which connects to the Google Assistant and reinforces all its other services.
More broadly, it’s perhaps the most striking example of the vision Google has laid out for the future of computing, which it calls “ambient computing.” In this future, the Google Assistant is practically everywhere you go, inhabiting the ether, surrounding you with a cloud of, well, the cloud. Scary? Amazing? Inevitable? Maybe all of those — especially since Amazon’s vision is quite similar.
Nest Wi-Fi costs $270 for a two-pack.
2. An app that automatically transcribes voice recordings
This is the feature of the new Pixel 4 that’s most likely to inspire jealousy from iPhone users, admiration from other tech companies, and pleas for Google to bring it to other operating systems ASAP. An app called Recorder, which will be available on the Pixel 4 first, puts Google’s vaunted A.I. systems to work transcribing voice recordings in real time. In an onstage demo, the app transcribed with near-perfect accuracy what the host was saying about it. Whether it will work that well in messy, everyday settings, with crosstalk and background noise, may determine just how useful it is. Google already offered voice typing on Google Docs, but the promise of on-the-go transcription in real-world settings is much greater.
The app is interesting because it bridges two forms of data (audio and text) instantly and seamlessly. That’s bad news for the many transcription services that both charge money and take time to do this sort of thing. It’s good news for note-takers, minutes-keepers, and journalists, among many others — and for Google’s ultimate project of organizing the world’s information.
3. AirPod knockoffs that just might be better than AirPods
Google’s original Pixel Buds are probably best forgotten. On Tuesday, the company offered a “sneak peek” at a successor that looks far more viable (and a bit like Mentos).
The new Pixel Buds might even have some advantages over AirPods, if they work as promised. For one thing, the version Google showed Tuesday didn’t have a plastic stick dangling down from your ear, which has always been AirPods’ most awkward design feature. Google says they’ll also have a long-range Bluetooth connection, which would allow them to work up to three rooms away from your phone indoors, or across a football field outdoors.
Perhaps most significantly, Pixel Buds will work with Google Assistant, which is smarter and more capable than Apple’s Siri. If any company is ever going to build the human-like A.I. from the movie Her, it’s Google. Add the Google Assistant in your ear to the ones in each room of your house, and Google’s idea of “ambient computing” starts to seem surprisingly close at hand.
The reason Pixel Buds aren’t higher on this list is that they appear to still be in development and aren’t coming until spring 2020. Beating the AirPods, Apple’s most successful new product line since the iPhone, is easier “sneak peek”-ed than done.
Google says Pixel Buds will cost $180.
4. New Pixel phones that aren’t tethered to Verizon
Google spent a lot of time talking up the features of the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4XL, but those phones are largely as the leaks had led us to believe. They’ll sport two cameras (one fewer than Apple packed into the iPhone Pro 11), a telephoto lens, a “face unlock” system similar to Apple’s FaceID, and no unsightly notch at the top. The camera advances here are largely software-based, but Google just might be right that using A.I. to improve smartphone pictures is lower-hanging fruit than bolting on extra lenses. The Pixel 4 won’t do ultrawide shots, but if its telephoto and NightSight capabilities work as promised, it has a chance to be the most versatile camera phone out there.
The new phones’ most notable hardware gimmick is the inclusion of a radar sensor that underpins a gesture-control system that Google calls “Motion Sense.” Say goodbye to the hassle of having to tap your phone when you want to execute a simple task such as changing the music or dismissing a call. With the magic of the Pixel 4, you can now simply *checks notes* wave frantically at it until it does what you want. Progress! To be fair, there’s a chance that someone will eventually find a worthwhile use for radar in smartphones, in which case we might look back on the Pixel 4 as a pathbreaker.
The more obvious advance here is that the Pixel 4 will be sold by all the major U.S. wireless carriers, rather than being exclusive to Verizon, as was the case with Google’s prior flagship phones. (The recent, more budget-friendly Pixel 3a also worked with a number of carriers.) That should put it in the hands of far more customers, and allow it to compete on more equal footing with top Android handsets from Samsung and others.
The Pixel 4 and 4XL will start at $800 and $900, respectively.
- A new Nest Mini smart speaker, which for the same price as the previous model ($150) will offer improved sound. (Google promises “twice as strong bass.”) You can now mount it to the wall, bringing new meaning to the idea of walls that talk.
- The Pixelbook Go, a straightforward Chromebook that starts at $650, making it more competitive with third-party Chromebooks. It might even have a keyboard that actually works, which is a rare luxury in laptops these days.