Here’s a roundup of some of the smaller announcements Google made today, including the Pixelbook Chromebook, PixelBuds wireless earbuds, and an intriguing AI-powered camera called Google Clips. The Pixelbook is true to the original Pixel Chromebook from Google, which was equally bizarrely positioned as a premium device in a category which is mostly appealing for its low cost. It’s added some hot recent trends like convertibility and a $99 pen, ChromeOS has added Android app support, and Google is debuting its Google Assistant on a laptop here as well. None of that is likely to overcome the inherent funky positioning of a $999-plus Chromebook, and it’ll continue to be a marginal device. That Google should continue to compete here rather than entering the smartwatch market directly feels funny given how much more the Android Wear ecosystem needs first party hardware from Google than ChromeOS does.
The PixelBuds earbuds are in the “neckbud” category rather than the truly cordless earbud category Apple’s AirPods dominate today, and I think that’s fine – I’m wearing BeatsX on a plane as I write this, and continue to like these better than AirPods, and I think this category has a lot of value. The earbuds are priced the same as AirPods, and as with those buds, come with a voice assistant built in, though Google’s big differentiator is real-time language translation, which was successfully demoed on stage. Of course, most of us only rarely (if ever) need such a function, so this is more of a gimmick than a useful feature for now, but it’s a great gimmick.
Lastly, Google’s big surprise at today’s event was one of the last things it unveiled, which is a small standalone camera which is designed to unobtrusively capture pictures and video in the home, powered by AI which will determine when and how to take them. That’s a brand new concept, though it obviously competes to some extent with both Samsung’s Gear 360 line and cameras from the likes of GoPro, whose stock took a big hit today. In reality, of course, this product likely won’t sell in any big numbers because the category doesn’t exist, because it’s priced at $250, and because Google doesn’t have the presence or history in hardware to launch a new category, and it’s best seen – like the real-time translation feature in the PixelBuds – as evidence of Google’s AI chops, and as something which might therefore come to other Google products in time and thereby reach a broader audience.
Droid Life appears to have obtained images and pricing for three of the hardware products Google is expected to unveil at its October 4th hardware event. It has four separate posts on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, a Chromebook called the Pixelbook, and the Google Home Mini, which is exactly what it sounds like. The Pixel 2 models seem to lean heavily on the design of the first versions from a hardware design perspective, with some minor changes and some new color options, with the smaller one being made again by HTC and the larger one by LG, as reported earlier. It looks like Google will embrace this year’s super premium pricing for larger flagships, too, with an $849 starting price on the XL, although it’ll offer monthly financing (whether directly or through a partner is not clear) as well. The Pixelbook is the predicted successor to the original Pixel, a high-end Chromebook, though this time with a screen that folds over the keyboard to become a clunky tablet, and an optional pen, while it retains the premium pricing. So that’s more or less in the Surface ballpark and a more expensive and laptop-like alternative to Apple’s iPad Pro line. Lastly, the Google Home Mini is exactly what you’d expect, borrowing from the Google Home’s slightly softer design relative to Amazon’s fairly industrial looking speakers in a smaller and cheaper form factor.
We’ll have to wait for the event itself to see all the software and feature details – these leaks are pretty much exclusively about external features and pricing – but I half wonder whether Google has allowed some of these details to leak out ahead of Friday’s iPhone 8 launch to give at least some potential buyers pause before jumping into a new iPhone. Given the breadth of the leaks, though, I suspect it’s more likely a rogue employee looking for some attention and/or notoriety. As with the iPhone leaks, I think this kind of thing benefits all of us very little while trampling on the hard work of many who’ve been prepping these devices for launch.
In the second somewhat controversial decision by Consumer Reports in the past year, it has withdrawn its recommendations from several of the Microsoft Surface hardware products for reasons of projected reliability. Though it rated those products highly in its reviews and recommended both a couple of Surface Laptop and a couple of Surface Book models, a recent survey among owners of older Surface products suggested a 25% hardware fault rate within two years of purchase and that’s what led to the yanked recommendations. Last year, Consumer Reports somewhat controversially failed to recommend Apple’s new MacBook Pros over battery life issues that turned out to be caused by somewhat unusual testing conditions combined with a rogue script, something that it eventually reversed itself on, but there’s little prospect of a similar reversal here.
Though Consumer Reports has long used reliability of past car models in projecting the same for newer models on the basis that they often share platforms and components, that approach feels flimsy when applied to consumer electronics, and especially different models from the same company, given the frequent changes in components. If past reliability took a hit from a single component and that component isn’t present in the new devices, it would be completely irrelevant, but the lack of transparency here from Consumer Reports makes it impossible to know what’s really going on. Given the small share of the total PC market Surface captures, I also wonder just how much data CR has and how representative it really is. Overall, this feels rather like Consumer Reports trying to get attention for itself much as it did with the MacBook Pro issue, where it failed to provide adequate insight into its testing process until pressed by Apple. It’s clearly bad news for Microsoft, whose Surface hardware has generally been very well reviewed in the last couple of years, though most corporate buyers won’t be checking Consumer Reports for reliability ratings and will instead go by their own experiences, which as far as I can tell have generally been fine. Consumers, on the other hand, might lean more heavily on these ratings.
Update: Also worth noting are the overall reliability numbers for PCs, which are available within CR’s laptop ratings section: there, Microsoft comes last of all, but only by one percentage point, while it says differences of five points or less are not meaningful, and that spread covers six PC vendors including market leaders HP, Lenovo, and Dell. So it’s not that Microsoft’s reliability is massively worse than other PCs, but that there’s now enough evidence (by CR’s reckoning) to indicate it isn’t as good as it appeared to be.
via USA Today
Samsung Announces Windows Convertible With S Pen Stylus (May 30, 2017)
Samsung Surface Competitor Gets Poor Reviews (May 26, 2017)
Images Leak of New Microsoft Surface Pro (May 19, 2017)
Tim Cook is very fond of talking about Apple’s customer satisfaction ratings on earnings calls – he clearly believes these are both the best indicators of whether Apple is being successful and the best determinants of its future prospects. As such, reviews like this one, which focused on online and phone technical support and service for laptops across the top brands, are good news for Apple, given that it came top of the rankings. It’s also worth noting where others did and didn’t score well – Acer, Lenovo, and Microsoft took the next three spots, while Samsung came near the bottom.
Google calls time on the Pixel laptop – TechCrunch (Feb 28, 2017)
This is a minor news item, but a slightly surprising one – the first product to bear the Pixel brand at Google was a laptop, but the company won’t be making any more of those in the foreseeable future, apparently. With the big hardware push underway at Google, I had been anticipating that we might well see updates to both the laptop and the tablet that also bear the Pixel name alongside a revision of the Pixel phone this fall, but it seems Google’s hardware vision isn’t quite as expansive as I thought. It would be great to hear from Google at some point some sort of specific vision of why it’s in the hardware business, and why it wants to be in some categories and not in others (even some it’s done in the past).
Google has officially released its Android-apps-on-Chrome beta and it’s getting fairly terrible reviews. While Google is legendary for attaching the beta label to things that feel like they’ve long outgrown it (see especially Gmail), in this case the label actually feels premature, since the experience on these new Chromebooks sounds much more like an alpha than a beta. The software is very buggy, and the implementation of Android apps on ChromeOS is if anything even worse than it long has been on Android tablets. Getting Android apps onto a laptop sounds really compelling – all the apps you’re used to on your phone, now on your PC! – but the reality for now sounds extremely disappointing. It’s hard to avoid the sense that this is a misstep by Google, which promised these launches a few months back but clearly isn’t ready to deliver on them yet. In fact, these devices appear to suffer from some of the same lack of readiness as the recent Android Wear 2.0 release, although that was supposedly a finished product. This is uncharacteristic for Google, and it’s a worrying sign that things are being rushed out of the door to meet deadlines rather than because they’re ready.
The PC is interesting again – The Verge (Jan 4, 2017)
Rather than linking to a whole set of separate CES press releases from various PC makers, I’ll link to this. It’s a great summary of what we’ve seen in PCs at CES and to some extent over recent months in general. Though PC sales overall are declining, there are still some interesting things happening with form factors, performance, and more, and increasingly spec- and performance-wise, Windows PCs are now the equals of the Mac. The big question, then, becomes philosophical differences in approach as regards things like touch, convergence of operating systems across device types, and so on.
There’s a little too much hype in the headline here – this isn’t the future of laptops as much as the present, but as Chromebooks rather than Windows machines. The sort of convertible model Samsung is using here has been growing among Windows PCs for years now. In some ways the more interesting difference is that these laptops are being priced more like mid-range Windows PCs rather than cheap alternatives, as Chromebooks have been in the past. OEMs seem to be banking on Android integration to sell these machines now that price isn’t really a factor anymore.
For all the complaining about how the new MacBooks weren’t truly worthy of the Pro designation, it’s been largely a matter of opinion, and one I’ve argued doesn’t matter nearly as much as it used to. But if this is a verifiable performance issue with the new MBPs, that’s a concern – I’ve seen pretty variable battery life on my review unit. But see also this iMore piece that questions some of the findings, and this later 9to5Mac piece which follows up with some additional data.