Google launches new phones, speakers in hardware push

Google's Senior Vice President Hardware, Rick Osterloh, speaks about several products during a launch event in San Francisco, California, U.S. October 4, 2017.
PHOTO: Reuters

SAN FRANCISCO - Alphabet Inc's Google on Wednesday unveiled the second generation of its Pixel smartphone along with new voice-enabled home speakers, redoubling its commitment to the hardware business as it competes with a surge of devices from Apple Inc and Amazon.com Inc.

Google's new products, including a Pixelbook laptop, wireless earbuds and a small GoPro-like camera, showcase Google-developed operating systems and services, notably the voice assistant. That means usage of those devices should stoke the company's core ad sales business as buyers of the hardware use Google services like search and maps.

Speaking at the launch in San Francisco, Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh said the new products "perfectly demonstrate our strategy of re-imagining hardware from the inside out."

Google announced a bunch of new hardware products on Wednesday

  • Google hosted an event in California on Wednesday where it's unveiled a bunch of new products. Here's a rundown of everything it announced, ranging from new smartphones to a laptop, a VR headset and even a brand new camera.
  • Google's senior vice president of hardware Rick Osterloh kicked off the show with a quick note that the company is introducing its second generation of Google-made hardware. Last year, Google unveiled the Google Pixel, Pixel XL, the Daydream View VR headset and the Google Home.
  • Google showed the new Google Pixel 2 smartphones. The new devices come with 6-inch and 5.5-inch displays. The Pixel 2 will launch in "kinda blue," "just black" and "clearly white."
  • Google uses a single camera lens instead of two, like Apple does. Portrait selfies are supported by the front camera, too. Both phones promise water resistance and all-day battery life.
  • The Pixel 2 will also support Portrait mode, which Apple introduced on the iPhone 7 Plus last year and updated on the iPhone 8 Plus this year. Portrait mode applies blurring to the background to offer a more professional-look to pictures.
  • Also, you can take a selfie by squeezing the phone. The squeeze motion can also be set to perform other tasks. The phones run "pure Android Oreo," Google said.
  • The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL feature an always-on display that shows notifications and the time even when the device is locked. The phones can also always detect any music playing in the background and will show the phone song right on your lock screen. Neither phone offers a headphone jack.
  • Google said developers are already taking advantage of its ARCore augmented reality tools to provide augmented reality apps on Android. Like the new iPhone 8, Google said the cameras on the Pixel 2 smartphones are specially tuned for augmented reality.
  • Google surprised the audience with a new camera called Google Clips. It automatically takes photos as you go throughout your day. An artificial intelligence engine inside looks for smiles, people you care about, dogs chasing their tails, and automatically captures the moment. Google says it will get smarter over time. It has a shutter button but is also hands-free and can be attached to almost anything, Google said.
  • Google also unveiled new Google Pixel Buds, its first set of wireless Bluetooth headphones. They can provide notifications, read messages outloud, and can provide quick one-touch access to the Google Assistant. Even cooler, they can translate languages in real-time. They'll ship with a case that provides charging for up to 24 hours of use.
  • Google also unveiled a new high-end Chromebook called the Google Pixelbook. It offers a 4-1 design that allows you to use it as a laptop, in a stand-mode for watching videos, in a tablet mode with the keyboard folded behind it, or in a tent mode to share the 12.3-inch touchscreen display.
  • It's the first laptop that will feature the Google Assistant, too, complete with a dedicated Google Assistant button on the keyboard. A Pixelbook Pen stylus will also be sold with the notebook. Three configurations will be available, starting at $999 (S$1360) with the optional $99 Pixelbook Pen.
  • Google unveiled the Google Home Mini which, as its name suggests, is a smaller version of the Google Home. It's more affordable and will compete more closely with the Echo Dot, Amazon's most affordable Echo. It's controlled by touch - a simple tap on the top activates it - and Google says the sound quality is "amazing." It will launch in three colors including coral, chalk and charcoal. It'll cost $49 in the US.
  • Google also announced a new Google Daydream View VR headset. IMAX movies will launch in Google Play Movies available for free to Google Pixel 2 owners, too. It'll cost $99 (S$140).
  • Google also unveiled a high-end Google Home Max speaker that will take on more premium speakers like Sonos speakers. It includes a "Smart Sound" function powered by artificial intelligence to tweak sound for your environment to make sure audio always sounds as good as possible.

The Pixel 2 smartphone comes in two sizes, with comparable features, including aluminium bodies and no traditional jacks for headphones. Prices for the base model start at $649, while the high-end version starts at $849. The phones will be available Oct. 19.

The Pixel phones lack the brand lustre and market share of similarly priced smartphones such as the Apple iPhone or Samsung Electronics Co's Galaxy S and Galaxy Note smartphones.

Still, the original Pixel's camera and software drew acclaim from reviewers, many of whom expect the line to become a robust competitor at the high end of the Android smartphone market.

Pixelbook, priced at $999, is the first laptop powered by Google Assistant and will support Snap Inc's Snapchat, the company said. The keyboard folds behind the screen to turn the 12.3-inch touchscreen into a tablet. It will be available in stores from Oct. 31.

Google Home Mini, one of the new speakers, is priced at $49 in the United States and would rival Amazon.com Inc's popular Echo Dot. It will be available Oct. 19. The Home Max, with dual woofers for more powerful sound, is priced at $399 and with availability by the end of the year.

The Pixel Buds, which are priced at $149, arrive in November. Clips, which is pocket-sized camera with object detection and automatic recording capabilities, "soon" goes on sale for $249, Google said. Videos last only a few seconds and do not contain audio.

The Pixel smartphone debuted a year ago, with analysts estimating sales of more than 2 million, pushing Google to record amounts of non-advertising revenue.

Google's "other" revenue category, which includes both hardware and sales of online storage services, accounted for about 12 per cent of overall sales in its most recent quarter.

Last month, Google expanded its hardware development capabilities by picking up a 2,000-person smartphone engineering team at HTC for $1.1 billion.

"It's pretty clear Google is serious about hardware," said Avi Greengart, research director at consumer data firm GlobalData. "Given that there is a Pixel 2, and given the financial investment, there must be a longer-term strategic intent."

HARDWARE CHIEF HAS SECOND GO

Google moved into smartphones five years ago with the $12.5-billion purchase of Motorola Mobility. But Motorola's hardware team, under Osterloh, and Google's Android mobile operating system division remained independent.

Google wanted to avoid giving it a special advantage and protect its relationships with Samsung, LG and other distributors of Android. The company later sold the Motorola smartphone business.

Osterloh, now working inside Google, moved to bring in-house the HTC team Google contracted to design the Pixel. He enjoys a strong relationship with Hiroshi Lockheimer, the Android division head. The pair have been friends since working together for several years at Good Technology in the early 2000s.

Protecting relationships with others in the Android ecosystem has become less of a concern. Samsung ratched down the rivalary with Google after the firms agreed to a major patent licensing deal in early 2014. Other vendors have seen their market share dip.

Google's eye is now on Apple, whose iPhone has become the smartphone to beat.

The first Pixel debuted a year ago with a significant marketing push: during the last three months of the year, Google spent an estimated $110 million to air 12 Pixel-related commercials, according to data from advertising measurement firm iSpot.tv.

Apple spent $147 million during the same span, iSpot.tv said. Apple has sustained its TV time throughout the last year, while Google's efforts have tapered off.

In the speakers market, Google's personal-assistant lags Amazon's Echo devices in market share, according to investment bank Cowen & Co. Last week, Amazon released several new models of the Echo, including one with a display as it tried to find a place in every niche.

Rishi Chandra, vice president of product management for Google's Home hardware unit, said in an interview that Google was being "a little bit more thoughtful" than the online shopping company.

"Amazon is taking a broad approach," Chandra said. "We're going to iterate until we have a good product story to tell."

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