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Google is building its own chip for the Pixel 6

By Brian Heater

Google just dumped a whole bunch of news about its upcoming Pixel 6 smartphone. Maybe the company was looking to get out in front of August 11’s big Samsung event — or perhaps it’s just hoping to keep people interested in the months leading up to a big fall announcement (and beat additional leaks to the punch).

In either case, we got the first look at the upcoming Android smartphone, including a fairly massive redesign of the camera system on the rear. The company has traded its square configuration for a big, black bar that appears to indicate an even larger push into upgraded hardware after a couple of generations spent insisting that software/AI are the grounds on which it has chosen to fight.

More interesting, however, is the arrival of Tensor, a new custom SoC (system on a chip) that will debut on the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. It’s an important step from the company, as it looks to differentiate itself in a crowded smartphone field — something the company has admittedly struggled with in the past.

That means moving away from Qualcomm chips on these higher-end systems, following in Apple’s path of creating custom silicon. That said, the chips will be based on the same ARM architecture that Qualcomm uses to create its otherwise ubiquitous Snapdragon chips, and Google will still rely on the San Diego company to supply components for its budget-minded A Series.

Image Credits: Google

The Tensor name is a clear homage to Google’s TensorFlow ML, which has driven a number of its projects. And unsurprisingly, the company sites AI/ML as foundational to the chip’s place in the forthcoming phones. The Pixel team has long pushed software-based solutions, such as computational photography, as a differentiator.

“The team that designed our silicon wanted to make Pixel even more capable. For example, with Tensor we thought about every piece of the chip and customized it to run Google’s computational photography models,” Google writes. “For users, this means entirely new features, plus improvements to existing ones.”

Beyond the upgraded camera system, Tensor will be central to improving things such as speech recognition and language learning. Details are understandably still thin (the full reveal is happening in the fall, mind), but today’s announcement seems geared toward laying out what the future looks like for a revamped Pixel team — and certainly these sorts of focuses play into precisely what Google ought to be doing in the smartphone space: focusing on its smarts in AI and software.

In May of last year, key members of the Pixel team left Google, pointing to what looked to be a transition for the team. Hardware head Rick Osterloh was reported to have had harsh words at the time.

“AI is the future of our innovation work, but the problem is we’ve run into computing limitations that prevented us from fully pursuing our mission,” Osterloh wrote in today’s post. “So we set about building a technology platform built for mobile that enabled us to bring our most innovative AI and machine learning (ML) to our Pixel users.”

Google gives the world its first official glimpse of the Pixel 6

By Greg Kumparak

While the company isn’t revealing everything about it just yet, this morning Google gave the world its first official peek at its next flagship phone: the Pixel 6.

Here’s what we know so far:

  • It’ll come in two forms: Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro.
  • The base 6 will have a matte aluminum finish with a 6.4″ display, while the Pro has a shinier polished aluminum finish with a 6.7″.
  • Pixel 6 has two cameras (wide and ultra wide), while the 6 Pro adds a telephoto zoom lens
  • If you were hoping the increasingly common “camera bump” trend was on the way out… not quite. The bump has now evolved into the “camera bar”, with Google’s Rick Osterloh noting that better sensors and lenses just won’t fit in a smaller package.
  • These will be the first phones to run Tensor, Google’s first entirely custom system-on-a-chip. Previous Pixels have run on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon platform. Google CEO Sundar Pichai says they’ve been working on the chip for 4+ years. In a blog post announcing the devices, Osterloh suggests that the focus here is making a chip tuned for on-device AI and ML.
  • They’ll ship sometime “this fall.”

Lots of details, including pricing and much of the spec sheet (CPU, RAM, etc.) are still a mystery for now — though earlier leaks seem to be spot on, so far.

Google’s Pixel Buds A Series are an exercise in earbud cost cutting

By Brian Heater

Google does a lot of things well. But hardware strategy has never really been among them. The last several years have seen the company at least finding some consistency with its Pixel and Nest devices. But the former, in particular, has continued to struggle as the company has worked to find its footing in an already crowded space.

In 2017, the company entered the wireless earbud space with the first-gen Pixel Buds. The product was certainly an original take on the category, both in terms of design and features. Ultimately, however, it fell flat. But an “A” for effort, I guess. The second-gen product, introduced in April of last year, corrected a lot of their predecessor’s problems, mostly by delivering a more straightforward approach.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Announced today, the Pixel Buds A-Series find the company capitalizing on that success with an approach that has worked well for Google’s smartphone line. The first Pixel A arrived just as the company was dealing with the consequences of poor mobile sales. The low-cost approach to the line sold well (by Google smartphone standards), helping deliver positive news for the beleaguered line.

As with the budget phones, the price is, once again, the thing. Here that means $99. It’s a price point that puts it below the new Echo Buds ($119) and Samsung Galaxy Buds ($110), and well under the AirPods 2 ($159). Essentially it’s the low end of the mid-tier of fully wireless earbud pricing. There is arguably even more competition at the really low end, where you can pick up of a pair of Anker earbuds for around $40. But relative to what we’d generally consider brand names, the pricing is quite aggressive.

It’s also a significant reduction from the standard Pixel Buds, which sport an MSRP of $170 (though you can find them quite a bit cheaper with minimal effort). The Series A aren’t replacing the standard Pixel Buds, so much as augmenting them — similar to what Apple did with AirPods, albeit on the other end of the pricing spectrum. With the new buds on the market, I would anticipate a further narrowing of the price gap between the products on many online retailers. As of this writing, there’s at least one offering the Pixel Buds second gens for $99.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As you’d expect, the lower cost comes with a bit of corner-cutting — or at least the removal of some non-essentials. Ultimately the value for a given user comes down to what you’re willing to lose for the sake of a lower price point. The top-level losses here are:

  • No wireless charging
  • The loss of Attention Alerts (a feature that momentarily reduces volume when things like a siren, baby crying or dog barking are heard), due to lower-cost sensors
  • The loss of noise reduction for calls and wind
  • Limited tap gestures

Otherwise, the Series A are a lot like the Pixel Buds 2, including a similar 12 mm dynamic speaker driver and a nearly identical design. In fact, I was struck by just how similar they were. The size, the shape — really, the only immediate distinction here is coloring. It wasn’t broke, so Google didn’t really fix it. Gone are the bolder matte colors of the predecessors. Now the headphones feature two glossy colors: Clearly White and Dark Olive. Google sent the former, which is a bit more off-white than the AirPods (a bit closer to the Echo Buds coloring), paired with a kind of dull gray. If you want bolder colors, you’re going to have to stick with the standard buds, which also feature a striking orange and mint green colors. I prefer the matte coloring of the original, but the company had to do something to set these apart, I suppose.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The case is the same vertically oriented oval design as the earlier version. It’s similar in volume to the AirPods Pro — so pretty easy to just pop into a pocket. The USB-C charging port is on the bottom; a light up front tips you off on charging status and the sync button is toward the bottom of the back. Flip up the top and reveal two familiar earbuds.

The size and shape are more or less the same as the Pixel Buds — a good thing, as they’re pretty comfortable over long periods. That’s certainly not something I can say for all of the competition. The silicone tips are user-replaceable for a better fit, but the small silicone ear tip is stuck in there for good. That’s fine for me, but your results may vary.

Like their predecessors, the A Series’ (total side note, but after writing so many funding rounds, I really want to write “Series A”) sound falls in the middle of the pack. You can get better quality from higher-end headphones like the AirPods Pro or Sony WF-1000XM3 (talk about being overdue for a refresh), but these are totally capable for day to day listening and making calls, even if the mic has lost a few of its tricks.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There’s no noise canceling here. That’s to be expected, of course, given that the standard Pixel Buds don’t have the feature either. Given that it’s becoming increasingly standardized, it’s probably a no-brainer that the Pixel Buds 3 will offer the feature to further distinguish them from the budget model.

The buds offer five hours on a charge (2.5 hours of talk time) and 12 hours when the case is factored in — again, same as the Pixel Buds. They also boast the same IPX4 rating for water/sweat resistance. The Bluetooth connectivity is fairly strong. I found I was able to walk over to another room without losing connection, which is often hit or miss on buds.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

They’ll pair to either an Android (6.0+) or iOS device. Naturally, of course, they play nicely with the former, using Fast Pair. On an Apple handset, you’ll have to use the pairing button. Google Assistant — one of the standout features — also only works with Android devices. It’s handiest for enabling notifications, as well as real-time use of Google Translate.

Nothing about the Pixel Buds A Series is going to set the earbud world on fire. And that’s not really the point. More than anything, the product is an exercise in trimming the fat in order to deliver a solid experience at less than $100. And by that standard, they largely succeed.

What to expect from Google’s all-virtual I/O

By Brian Heater

While Apple, Microsoft and the like were scrambling to bring their respective developer conferences online, Google made the executive design to just scrap I/O outright last year. It was a bit of an odd one, but the show went on through news-related blog posts.

While we’re going to have to wait another year to darken the doors of Mountain View’s Shoreline Amphitheater, the company has opted to go virtual for the 2021 version of the show. Understandably so. Google apparently has a lot up its sleeves this time.

Last month, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai teased some big news on the tech giant’s investor call, noting, “Our product releases are returning to a regular cadence. Particularly excited that our developer event — Google I/O — is back this year, all virtual, and free for everyone on May 18th-20th. We’ll have significant product updates and announcements, and I invite you all to tune in.”

From the sound of it, next week’s event will find Google returning to form following what was a rough year for just about everyone. So, what can we expect from the developer-focused event?

Forest Row, East Sussex, UK – July 30th 2013: Android figure shot in home studio on white. Image Credits: juniorbeep / Getty Images

Android 12 is the biggie, of course. From a software development standpoint, it’s a lynchpin to Google’s ecosystem, and for good reason has pretty much always taken centerstage at the event.

The developer version of Google’s mobile operating system has been kicking for a while now, but it has offered surprisingly little insight into what features might be coming. That’s either because it’s going to be a relatively minor upgrade as far as these things go or because the company it choosing to leave something to the imagination ahead of an official unveiling.

What we do know so far is that the operating system is getting a design upgrade. Beyond that, however, there are still a lot of question marks.

Google Assistant is likely to get some serious stage time, as well, coupled with some updates to the company’s ever-growing Home/Nest offerings. Whether that will mean, say, new smart displays on Nest speakers is uncertain. Keep in mind, hardware is anything but a given. The big Pixel event, after all, generally comes in the fall. That said, June is an ideal mid-marker during the year to refresh some other lines.

Google Pixel buds

Image Credits: Google

The likeliest candidate for new hardware (if there is any) is a new version of the company’s fully wireless earbuds — which the company has accidentally leaked out once or twice. The Pixel Buds A are said to sport faster pairing, and if their name is any indication, will be a budget entry.

Speaking of which… earlier this year, Google made the rather unorthodox announcement confirming that the Pixel 5a 5G is on the way. Denying rumors that have been swirling around the Pixel line generally, the company told TechCrunch in a statement, “Pixel 5a 5G is not cancelled. It will be available later this year in the U.S. and Japan and announced in line with when last year’s a-series phone was introduced.” Given that the 4a arrived in August, we could well be jumping the gun here. Taken as a broader summer time frame, however, it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility here.

NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 13: Michael Kors and Google Celebrate new MICHAEL KORS ACCESS Smartwatches at ArtBeam on September 13, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Michael Kors)

Wear OS has felt like an also-ran basically for forever. Rebrands, revamps and endless hardware partners have done little to change that fact. But keep in mind, this is going to be Google’s first major event since closing the Fitbit acquisition, so it seems like a no-brainer that the company’s going to want to come on strong with its wearable/fitness play. And hey, just this week, rumor broke that Samsung might be embracing the operating system after years of customizing Tizen.

Things kick off Tuesday morning May 18 at 10 a.m. PT, 1 p.m. ET with a big keynote.

How to Watch Google's Annual Hardware Event

By Julian Chokkattu
There are two new phones coming, a new Nest smart speaker, and a Chromecast with a TV remote.
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