Google reveals lower-cost Pixel 3a phones and Nest Hub Max

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Media captionWATCH: Chris Fox takes a first look at Google’s new Pixel 3a smartphones

Google is to sell a range of lower-cost smartphones as part of an effort to jump-start sales of its Pixel brand.

In addition, the company has shown off its first voice-controlled smart screen for the home to feature a camera.

This allows it to offer more personalised features than a previous model, but also risks provoking a privacy backlash.

Other announcements at its annual developers conference included enhancements to its search tool.

The Pixel 3a and larger Pixel 3a XL will cost £399 and £469 respectively, making them roughly half the price of the seven-month-old Pixel 3 originals.

Until now, Google had charged one of the highest entry-point prices for an Android handset, with its basic model costing £70 more than Samsung’s Galaxy S10e and £40 more than Huawei’s P30, and no option to buy a “mid-range” alternative.

The new versions share many of the features of the more expensive Pixels, including OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays for rich colours and the firm’s much-lauded Night Sight facility, which uses machine-learning based artificial intelligence to enhance images taken in low-light conditions.

Image copyright Google
Image caption The new phones only feature a single selfie camera and have a plastic body

In addition, they will also provide use of Google’s new augmented reality maps, which superimpose arrow graphics over views of the scene ahead. This, the firm claims, will make it easier to judge which direction to set off in.

But to help cut costs the new handsets:

  • have a single selfie camera, excluding a second wider-angle version
  • cannot be charged wirelessly
  • have bodies made out of plastic rather than metal and glass
  • use Qualcomm’s mid-range Snapdragon 670 processor rather than the more powerful 845 chip
  • the 3a XL has a smaller 6in display than the 3 XL’s 6.3in model

The new phones do, however, include a 3.5mm headphone socket unlike the premium versions.

“For us, what’s important is for Pixel to get into the hands of more and more people,” Mario Queiroz, chief of Google’s product division, told the BBC.

“Most phones in this general price range are phones from last year or from two years ago, or they are phones that are ‘specced’ very differently and even have different brands.

“We wanted to bring a true Pixel experience to this price point.”

Google shipped close to 20% more Pixel phones over the October-to-March period compared with the same six months the previous year, according to market research firm IDC.

However, it still only accounted for a 0.3% share of the global smartphone market, making it the 26th bestselling brand.

“The Pixel 3’s price-point in the ultra-high-end meant fierce competition from Apple, Huawei and Samsung,” commented IDC’s Marta Pinto.

Pixel sales should also benefit from the fact that in the US the range will no longer be exclusive to one mobile network’s stores.

But one expert said the move to offer lower-cost models posed risks of its own.

“Many consumers are fed up with the spiralling cost of high-end smartphones,” commented Ben Wood from the consultancy CCS Insight.

“However, this takes Google into dangerous territory from the perspective of competing with existing Android phone-makers. Licensees such as Samsung, which recently refreshed its mid-tier Galaxy A range, won’t welcome additional competition at a time when the smartphone market is already in decline.”

Camera tricks

Image copyright Google
Image caption The Nest Hub Max adds a camera and has a bigger screen than its predecessor

Another hardware launch at the IO event involved a larger version of Google’s voice-controlled smart display for the home.

The device now features a 10in, rather than 7in touchscreen and introduces a camera, which can be used for video chats as well as to provide home security via motion-triggered recordings saved online.

The new machine is called the Nest Hub Max, and the existing smaller version is being renamed the Nest Home Hub, representing an extension to the brand.

Nest used to be run as an independent smart home business within parent company Alphabet, but was subsumed by the Google division last year.

The camera makes several features possible, including:

  • the ability to control music and other software with hand gestures
  • face-recognition to provide personalised greetings and suggestions when it detects different family members entering a room
  • an automatic framing facility to keep a person’s face centred as they move about while taking part in a video call
Image copyright Google
Image caption The demo showed a woman silencing a Google Nest by raising her hand

However, it is likely to raise privacy concerns.

Google explicitly said it had excluded a camera in the original model to help people feel comfortable placing it in their homes.

However, it brings the company in line with Facebook and Amazon, which have released similar camera-enabled devices despite claims that they could pose privacy threats.

Image copyright Google
Image caption The Next Hub Max has a louder speaker than the earlier version

For its part, Google has said a small green light will always signal when the camera is streaming footage and that nothing will be streamed or recorded unless the function is explicitly enabled by owners.

It also told the BBC that captured footage would not be viewed by its staff in a similar fashion to how they sometimes listen to voice recordings to improve speech recognition.

“Footage from that Nest cam will not be used or reviewed,” said product manager Edward Kenney.

Augmented search

Earlier at IO, chief executive Sundar Pichai announced that Google’s search results would soon start to include podcasts.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sundar Pichai showed off Duplex’s newest automated booking facilities at the start of the event

Users will be able to listen to the recordings directly from the results page, he said, or save them for later playback if they prefer.

They will also be searchable by content as well as title.

The firm’s augmented reality chief Aparna Chennapragada was next on stage to demo how the technology – which mixes together computer graphics with real-world views – will also be used to enhance results.

Image copyright Google
Image caption A shark took to the stage in Augmented Reality

She revealed that relevant searches would now yield 3D models that can be rotated and viewed on Google’s own page or superimposed over a camera-captured image of the surrounding area.

This, she suggested, would help students explore new concepts or see how consumer goods would match with their current possessions.

Apple has also taken time to promote augmented reality at its recent developer conferences, but outside of gaming the tech has proved more of a gimmick than a compelling feature for many users across their day-to-day activities.

In a follow-up to last year’s big announcement – a feature that allows Google to phone businesses and make computer-controlled voice bookings on a person’s behalf – the company revealed plans to add fresh capabilities to its Duplex software.

In the future, it said it aimed to make it possible for users to ask its virtual assistant to book a movie ticket or a rental car for their next trip, for example.

It said its software would then automatically find a relevant rental car company and fill out all the forms including information about dates and vehicle preference by making reference to past choices and Gmail correspondence.

Duplex is available in most of the US but has yet to launch elsewhere.

Other announcements included:

  • an “incognito mode” for Google Maps, so the app can be used without keeping a record of past searches and travel
  • the introduction of a “dark theme” to the next version of Android – a mode in which white text and icons are shown on dark backgrounds rather than the reverse. Google said use of the function should extend battery life
  • “Focus mode” is also coming to Android devices in the autumn, which will allow users to disable distracting apps
  • Google Assistant is getting voice-activated “driving mode”. Users will be able to ask the Assistant to check their calendar for where they are going, and it will then suggest a route and ask whether they want to respond to messages or calls that come while en route. It will launch automatically once the phone links to the vehicle’s Bluetooth connection

Analysis: Dave Lee, North America technology reporter at Google IO

What’s most impressive this year is the extent to which Google can now do a lot of work on-device, rather than sending information – and personal data – back and forth to a server.

Live text-captioning of video with a smartphone in airplane mode is truly an impressive technological feat. This is Google’s strategy to combat Apple’s “what happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone” publicity push, and it’s likely to be effective – not to mention an approach we can get behind.

Image copyright Getty Images

But, as ever, this keynote was a bag of contradictions: A host of new features, and new products, that demand you look at a screen intently – followed by the company’s flimsy “commitment” to helping us look at screens less often.

It’s also worth noting how Google is slowly chipping away at our privacy boundaries.

Seven months ago, when it launched the Home Hub, the device didn’t have a camera. The firm said it was “so that it was comfortable to us in the private spaces of your home like your bedroom”.

Now the Home Hub has been rebranded the Nest Hub, and the next version will have a camera after all.

One feature is the ability to turn off its alarm by saying “stop” – no longer requiring the “hey Google” wake words.

How long, I wonder, until Google tries to do away with wake words altogether by incentivising users to turn them off in return for new features?

Google rounded off its event with details about how it is applying machine learning technologies beyond consumer goods.

This included an effort to predict where floods are most likely to cause damage and work to spot cancer symptoms.

Image copyright Google
Image caption Google says it will publish more details about its work to detect cancer in one of Nature’s scientific journals

Google AI’s Dr Lily Peng gave the example of a lung cancer patient who had shown advanced symptoms of the disease one year after being given the all-clear.

She said that five out of six human experts shown a scan had missed the early signs of the disease’s recurrence because they were so minute.

The Google model was trained on anonymised images obtained from the National Cancer Institute, Dr Peng added.

“By looking at many examples the model learns to detect malignancy with performance that meets or exceeds that of trained radiologists,” she said.

The research is likely to face further scrutiny when it is published by Nature soon.


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