Google has unveiled new hardware and services at its annual I/O developers conference, including a more affordable Pixel smartphone, a new generation of the Google Assistant and a beta version of the latest version of Android, Q. Enhancements to services such as search, maps, Assistant and Google Lens also stress a growing focus on visual features, such as 3D images and live captioning, as well as increased privacy and location controls for Google users. 

For hardware, Google introduced the new Pixel 3a smartphone, its first affordable model since switching to the Pixel branding and a new player in the growing ‘premium mid-range’ segment. Offering the premium camera features of the previous Pixel generation, an OLED display and 18W charger, the Pixel 3a costs USD 399 for the 5.6-inch version and USD 479 for the 6-inch model. It’s available already, in a choice of black, white or light purple, in the Google Store in the US and several other countries, and will launch with retailers and operators from 08 May.

Next-generation Assistant

As with previous models, the new phone is designed to show off features of Google services. This time will come with a preview of AR in maps, to overlay directions and other info on the map view. This is part of growing use of AR in Google services, such as the Lens app on phones, and also now in Google search, with 3D images.

Later this year the Pixel will get the “next-generation” Assistant, as Google calls it. The biggest advancement here is on-device speech processing, so the Google Assistant no longer needs to send requests back to a data centre and can operate much faster. This also means the Assistant can run continuously, processing multiple consecutive tasks without the need to repeat ‘Hey Google’ before each command.

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Google is also integrating the Assistant more with Duplex, its live AI conversation platform presented at I/O last year. Called Duplex on the web, the new feature will allow the Assistant to complete online tasks for users, such as booking reservations. Duplex on the web will be available later this year in English in the US and UK on Android phones with the Assistant for rental car bookings and movie tickets. Other new features coming to the Assistant include a driving mode, including integration with Waze, and incorporating more personal references and information to respond better to individual users.

Nest hubs

In addition to the new smartphone, Google presented a new smart speaker with a display. This time it is using its smart home brand Nest and rebranding the Google Home Hub as the Nest Hub and introducing a ‘Max’ version with a bigger 10-inch screen. The bigger model comes with an integrated Nest Cam to be used for communication or as a connected security camera when away from home and also integrates gesture controls for common actions such as pausing a video or music. The ‘Face Match’ facial recognition feature allows multiple users to set up their own secure profile on the device.

The Nest Hub Max will launch this summer in the US for USD 229 on the Google Store and at major retailers. It’ll also be available in the UK for GBP 219 and in Australia for AUD 349. The standard Nest Hub is also launching in 12 new countries (Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Spain, Sweden) and will be available at a reduced price of USD 129 in the US.  Stepping up the competition with Amazon, Google also cut the price of its smart speakers, to USD 99 for the standard Google Home and USD 299 for Google Home Max.

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Android Q

The new Pixel phones also will be able to access the beta version of Android Q, along with 21 devices from 13 other brands. The company presented several new features for the latest version of its OS, such as integration for new foldable devices and taking advantage of 5G latency. The growing use on on-device processing also means new features such as Live Caption, to convert audio from media playing on the device to readable text, and growing integration of Smart Response in a wide range of messaging apps, including prompts for both text responses and emojis and launching related apps, such as photos or maps.

Android Q also introduces ‘dark theme’, to turn the background display black rather than white and stop the screen using up battery, and gesture controls to navigate the device. As part of a number of security enhancements, Google is also introducing over-the-air OS updates, so security and other software updates for Android occur in the background the same as with apps, without the need to reboot the device. Further updates include enhanced controls for parents and a ‘focus mode’ to help smartphone users turn off distractions.

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Privacy settings

Google returned to the security and privacy theme several times in its presentation, suggesting it’s starting to understand the growing concern of both consumers and regulators about its data-collection practices. The Android update will include a dedicated Privacy menu in settings to make it easier for users to access common controls, as well as provide increased control over location settings, with prompts when apps access location while running in the background and options to turn location on and off for specific tasks. In addition, Nest accounts will get a new update in the privacy conditions to reassure smart home customers on how Next products work with Google services.

Across the wider Google world, the company promised to introduce more options to go ‘incognito’, as users can already do on the Chrome browser. This is available for Youtube and will be introduced next for search and maps. Across Google apps, users will also see the photo on their Google Account appear more prominently, to highlight when they are signed in. By clicking on the photo, they can go directly to their privacy settings.

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