“Made by Google” hardware event overview

Get comfortable.

Today more than ever, it seems impossible to host any major hardware event without the entire product lineup being leaked beforehand. This was made evident with the “Made by Google” event that was held today. None of the devices announced during the event came as a surprise. Google actually embraced this by opening up the presentation with a short clip highlighting what many influential content creators had to say about all of the leaks.

The first device Google unveiled was the Home Hub, a smart display designed to take on the Echo Show. Ironically, the Home Hub also dramatically undercuts the other smart displays running on google’s own platform released earlier this year.

Screen Shot 2018-10-09 at 9.28.24 PM
Source: Google

At just 7 inches, the Hub is smaller than other smart displays on the market. This allows it easily fit in spaces around the home such as nightstands or tight kitchens. This Hub looks a lot like a 2016 Samsung tablet mounted onto a fabric base. This look works surprisingly well and the Hub looks at home in any space. It comes in a variety of colors, making it easy to find one that matches your own style.

Google chose not to include a camera on the Hub. It claims that this is to make the device more comfortable in a private area such as a bedroom (The display automatically turns off at night so you can sleep). This also means that it can’t make video calls, which is a big selling point for most other smart displays. Facebook’s Portal, for example, was designed specifically for video calling. I’m inclined to think that this decision was actually a cost saving measure rather than a security one. Google could have easily included a camera with a physical cover, like the Lenovo Smart Display.

Google is emphasizing the Hub’s smart home control. There is a new Home View that provides an overview of the current state of your connected devices with a swipe down from the top of the display. You can expand the options to quickly perform commands like adjust the thermostat, view your security footage, and lock your door from a single place. Google is also bringing these features to the Google Home App as part of a major redesign. The much needed update promises to turn the app into a place you’ll actually want to go to control your connected devices.

Of course, the Home Hub can show you visual representations of nearly everything you would normally ask your Home speakers. This includes calendar events, traffic information, web searches, weather, etc. Google is also touting the Hub as an educational device since it pulls from YouTube’s nearly infinite selection of How-To videos.

While the Home Hub isn’t in use, it can act as a photo frame. It cycles through photos from your Google Photos library, including shared albums. Theoretically, you can take a photo at your child’s baseball game and it will automatically show up on grandma’s Home Hub across the country. To ensure that it always looks its best, the Hub will even disregard blurry photos and that picture of a serial number you’re saving for later.

The next device Google announced was the Pixel Slate, a tablet designed to take on the iPad Pro and Surface Pro. Google is pushing it as both a media consumption and productivity tool. Unlike the rest of the lineup, Google isn’t giving you an array of colors to choose from for the Slate. It only comes in a midnight blue color, which is subtle enough not to scare anyone away.

Google is making a big deal out of the Slate’s hardware. It has a 12.3 inch LCD panel at 293 pixels per inch. Text should be plenty sharp for reading web pages and watching high resolution content. It has stereo forward-facing speakers too, making it ideal for Music and Movies. Both of the cameras are 8 megapixels and feature the same AI enhancements as the Pixel phones, including portrait mode (Not that you would want to take a portrait mode photo on a tablet). To assist in video calling, the front camera of the slate has a wide-angle lens as well.

For those who want to be more productive, Google is releasing a keyboard case for the Slate that attaches magnetically with pins to supply power and data. The case features a full-size backlit keyboard with circular keys, which Google is claiming reduces mistakes while typing. There is also a large touchpad in case you don’t like poking a display across the keyboard. The case attaches magnetically anywhere on the back of the tablet to allow you to prop it up at any angle. It’s difficult to say if this solution will be lappable like the Surface pro manages to be. There is also support for the Pixelbook Pen, allowing you to draw and take notes directly from the lockscreen with all of the same features as the Pixelbook. I’m a bit surprised that the pen wasn’t renamed the “Pixel Pen” since it’s not only compatible with the Pixelbook.

The Slate runs a touch-optimized version of Chrome OS, allowing it to run a limited selection of “desktop grade” applications as well as apps from the Play Store. Just like with the Pixelbook, Google is emphasizing the deep Google Assistant integration. This includes using the AI to recommend apps that it thinks you’ll want to use next in order to save you some taps.

Finally, we get to the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. These were probably the most leaked of the products announced today. Because of this, there was wasn’t too much excitement surrounding their announcement. Everything we learned from those leaks was confirmed, including the XL’s deep notch. The new Pixels come in three fittingly named  colors, Just Black, Clearly White, and Not Pink. That last color is more of a subtle sand color.

Both phones share nearly the same features. The most obvious exception to this is the display. The Pixel 3 has a 5.5 inch display and a prominent chin and forehead, while the Pixel 3 XL has a 6.3 inch display that keeps the chin but extends to the top of the phone. The problem with this is that the front cameras on the XL (there are two of them) didn’t move closer to the top with the display, leaving a far deeper notch than should ever be on a smartphone. Reports do say that notch is far less offensive in pictures, however. Both displays are OLED and plenty high resolution. Time will tell  if there are any burn-in and saturation complains like there were on the Pixel 2 XL.

These big chins and notches are there for a reason. Both Pixel 3s have improved speaker systems over the 2s. The new phones are 40% louder than last year. Google is encouraging you to use them by bundling in 6 months of YouTube Music for free with the purchase of either Pixel 3 model.

Both phones charge via USB-C. They also feature wireless charging, something last year’s model lacked. There is no 3.5mm headphone jack to be found here, although plenty of adaptors are included to make up for this. Google even throws in a pair of Pixel Buds-inspired earbuds that connect directly via that USB-C port.

Screen Shot 2018-10-09 at 9.38.47 PM
Source: Google

Since the first Pixel, Google has made a big deal about their cameras. The Pixel 2’s camera is still considered better than the competition, despite being released last year. The Pixel 3 is no exception, improving on the 2’s cameras. Most of the improvements seem to be on the software side though. That being said, it’s the software that makes the Pixel camera stand out. It’s not to be taken lightly.

Before we get to those new software features, we need to talk about the few hardware changes that were outlines during the keynote. The rear camera has been bumped up to 12.2 megapixels. This is a modest upgrade, but megapixel count doesn’t matter much in 2018. There are now two sensors on the front. Similar to the LG V40, One has a regular lens while the other is wide-angle to allow for better selfies. Both front cameras are 8 megapixels.

Things get more interesting on the software side. Google announced a barrage of new AI-driven software features for the Pixel 3’s camera. The most notable features are “Top Shot”, “Super Res Zoom”, and “Night Sight”. Despite their lame names, these features could be huge if they work as promised.

Top Shot will save a burst of images before and after you press the shutter button. It then selects which one it thinks is the best, based on whether or not the subjects eyes are open or if there’s anything interesting in the composition. You can then go back and select that better image to replace the one actual one you took. The idea is to be able to capture those fast moments, even if you didn’t hit the shutter in time.

Super Res Zoom will will take a series of rapid photos when you are using the digital zoom. These images will be slightly different due to the natural shaking of your hand. It will then use AI to combine those images, filling in data that would normally be lost because of the digital zoom. The end result is a sharper image to compensate for that zoom. I would be curious to see if images don’t come out as sharp if you’re using a tripod, since there won’t be as much shaking when taking the photo. It’s interesting to think that the photo may be sharper because your hand is shaking.

Night Sight will use AI to determine what a photo would look like with more lighting in low-light images, and adjust the image accordingly. Google showed off some images taken at night that looked more like daytime shots. It’s my understanding that this is only an adjustment on top of the original image, not better low-light performance. This means that images will be brighter, but just as grainy since there isn’t any more light hitting the sensor. I could be wrong about this, however.

Many other software camera features were announced, but these were features we’ve already seen on other smartphones. These include adjusting the intensity of the portrait mode affect and automatically taking a photo when the subject is smiling. These additions simply help to catch the pixel up with what we will expect from all phones next year.

Google is also finally baking in their Lens AR features to the Pixel’s primary viewfinder. All you will have to do is open the camera and point it as a street sight to translate it or a pair of glasses to see where to buy them. That last feature is new as of today.

At I/O, Google’s developer conference, they revealed Google Duplex. Duplex is Google Assistant’s ability to answer and make calls your behalf. With the Pixel 3, we’re starting to see this come to fruition. Your Pixel 3 will be able to answer a phone call for your and ask the caller why they’re calling. At the same time, the conversation will be transcribed live for you to read. From there, you will be able to decide if you want to answer the call yourself or hang up. If the feature works as advertised, it will be a game changer for those of us who are constantly bombarded with fake calls.

As mentioned earlier, the Pixel 3 finally supports wireless charging. Google is selling its own wireless charging stand for their new phones. In addition to juicing them up, it also turns them into a miniature Google Home. You’ll be able to get visual responses to questions, show an alarm clock, and display your photos similar to the Home Hub. The phone will also show its responses in larger text so you will be able to read it easily from across the room. Personally, I would be more interested in seeing a similar accessory for the Pixel Slate, providing a bigger display and even louder speakers to better mimic a smart speaker.

The Home Hub, Pixel 3, and Pixel 3 XL are available for pre-order now. The Hub will be available for a reasonable $149 starting October 22nd. You can get the Pixel 3s on October 18th through Verizon or unlocked through Google’s Store starting at %799 for the smaller of the two and $100 more to upgrade to the XL. The wireless charger will go for $79 alongside the new phones. The Pixel Slate will be available closer to the end of the year starting at $599 for the tablet and an absurd $199 for its keyboard cover.

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