Google bets AI, software can help its new Pixel 3 smartphones challenge Apple’s iPhone
Google LLC has officially entered the ring to win the Christmas smartphone battle by introducing its latest Pixel devices, and the company is confident its new software features can compete with the industry’s hardware juggernauts such as Apple Inc.
Called the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, the Mountain View, Calif.-based tech giant’s third-generation smartphones were unveiled at the company’s annual hardware event on Tuesday.
The devices are nearly the same size as last year’s models, but the screen has been enlarged and the outside bezels shrunk to make for a more modern redesign.
Aside from their differences in screen size, the Pixel 3 models are identical to each other, both boasting faster processors and other small hardware improvements over last year’s models as well as all-glass backs for wireless charging.
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Google’s new phones arrive less than a month after Apple debuted its new flagship iPhone XS and XS Max smartphones, which some industry critics said were simply incremental hardware updates — a 15-per-cent faster processor and better camera — to last year’s successful iPhone X.
Nevertheless, Google faces an uphill battle in dethroning Apple, said Jean Philippe Bouchard, vice-president of mobility and consumer research at IDC Canada, but that doesn’t mean the Pixel line of smartphone isn’t slowly gaining traction.
“If history repeats itself, there is going to be a lot of noise about the Pixel 3, but in terms of shipments and market share, I think we’re still going to see Apple dominate the space,” he said. “Google needs to just keep doing what it’s doing.”
What Google is doing, it seems, is doubling down on software and machine learning.
“The purpose of (Pixel) is not to specifically be the top-selling phone, but to give Google experience in doing the hardware and that’s why they acquired the device team of HTC (earlier this year),” Bouchard said.
“The other purpose is to give a pure Android experience to end users. Because there are so many other manufacturers running Android … all of those have their own flavour or spin on Android, and the purpose of Pixel is to have a pure Google experience.”
A major focus for Google’s Pixel series this year is on the overall experience, including a tighter integration of software, hardware and artificial intelligence, so it opted for exclusive software features instead of using brute force to push new hardware onto users.
“A question we often get is, ‘What does the Pixel stand for?’ It stands for two things,” said Mario Queiroz, Google’s vice-president of hardware product management, in an exclusive interview. “First, it’s the best and most thoughtful integration of Google services in a smartphone. And the second thing is that our goal for Pixel is to do useful and delightful things for you as much as possible without you ever having to think about it.”
One example is the camera, where Google is opting to keep just one lens despite the trend toward using at least two or three.
“It’s not a religious thing of one camera versus two cameras, as our approach is to build the hardware into the products that we think is necessary to provide the best possible quality,” Queiroz said, adding that Google would add a second lens if it was deemed necessary at some point.
Instead, Google, as it has for the past three years, is touting the advantages of computational photography, which is the idea that software and artificial intelligence help make high-quality pictures, just as much as megapixels.
Since then, competitors have highlighted their own methods of computational photography, including an extended overview at Apple’s iPhone keynote last month.
“We’re flattered that they’ve chosen to follow our lead,” Queiroz said, adding that it was one of Google’s researchers who coined the term computational photography and did so years prior to the first Pixel’s debut, before going on to invent HDR+.
He said advances in computational photography will let the new Pixels take better photos than last year’s models.
For example, the new Pixel cameras will automatically take multiple photos and then use artificial intelligence to recommend the best photo based on things such as whether people are smiling, have their eyes open or their hair looks good. There is also a super resolution digital zoom, which uses the slight vibration in a user’s hand to take multiple angles of an object to correct and enhance the quality.
Among other additions, there will be better night images, a wide-angle front camera for 68-per-cent larger selfies and a Photo Booth mode to intelligently take better selfies based on facial expressions.
“It’s a lot new with the camera, but the goal here again is a high-quality camera without you having a lot of hassle,” Queiroz said, adding that Pixel owners will still get unlimited Google Photo storage and automatic backups as well.
Two other new features use Google Assistant to handle one of the smartphone’s most basic functions: phone calls.
Duplex, first shown at Google’s developer conference in May, uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to let Assistant converse in real time with other people to do things such as book reservations or make orders.
Google said Duplex will be available in four U.S. cities to test and refine the technology, marking the first time it will be available to consumers.
But Call Screen, another new feature that uses an extension of Duplex’s technology to answer calls, will soon be available to all Pixel 3 and 3 XL owners, though it will initially only be available in the U.S.
Tapping the Call Screen option allows Assistant to say it’s answering the call on the owner’s behalf to find out what it’s about.
A transcription of the other person’s answer will appear on-screen in real time and Assistant gives options for follow-up questions. Users can decide to either pick up the phone during the process or hang up if it’s spam.
“It’s done entirely on the device and it doesn’t even go to the cloud,” Queiroz said. “I use it all of the time and it takes away a lot of the anxiety over whether you should pick up a call or not.”
Other tweaks to the Pixel line this year include better water and dust resistance, a new Titan M security chip that will keep personal data on the device instead of the cloud, and headphones now come in the box.
Canadian pricing for the Pixel 3 and 3 XL starts at $999 and $1,129, respectfully, and they’ll both be available in three colours: Just Black, Clearly White and a new Too Pink version. Pre-orders start Tuesday through Google directly, the company said.
Google also introduced a new wireless charging accessory, the Pixel Stand, which will unlock various on-screen interfaces using Google Assistant and artificial intelligence to display photos based on time of day, give suggestions on what information to display based on your calendar, or even gradually wake the user up 15 minutes before an alarm.