All posts in “PIXEL”

Pixel 4 review: Google ups its camera game

Google’s first-party hardware has always been a drop in the bucket of global smartphone sales. Pixel devices have managed to crack the top five in the U.S. and Western Europe, but otherwise represent less than 1% of the overall market. It’s true, of course, that the company got a late start, largely watching on the sidelines as companies like Samsung and Huawei shipped millions of Android devices.

Earlier this year, Google admitted that it was feeling the squeeze of slowing smartphone sales along with the rest of the industry. During Alphabet’s Q1 earnings call, CEO Sundar Pichai noted that poor hardware numbers were a reflection of “pressure in the premium smartphone industry.”

Introduced at I/O, the Pixel 3a was an attempt to augment disappointing sales numbers with the introduction of a budget-tier device. With a starting price of $399, the device seemingly went over as intended. The 3a, coupled with more carrier partners, helped effectively double year over year growth for the line. Given all of this, it seems like a pretty safe bet that the six-month Pixel/Pixela cycle will continue, going forward.

Of course, the addition of a mid-range device adds more onus for the company to differentiate the flagship. With a starting price of $799, the Pixel 4 certainly isn’t expensive by modern flagship standards. But Google certainly needs to present enough distinguishing features to justify a $400 price gulf between devices — especially as the company disclosed software upgrades introduced on flagship devices will soon make their way onto their cheaper counterparts.

Indeed, the much-rumored and oft-leaked devices bring some key changes to the line. The company has finally given in and added a dual-camera setup to both premium models, along with an upgraded 90Hz display, face unlock, radar-based gestures and a whole bunch of additional software features.

The truth is that the Pixel has always occupied a strange place in the smartphone world. As the successor to Google’s Nexus partnerships, the product can be regarded as a showcase for Android’s most compelling features. But gone are the days of leading the pack with the latest version of the operating system. The fact that OnePlus devices already have Android 10 means Google’s going head to head against another reasonably price manufacturer of quality handsets.

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The Pixel line steps up a bit on the design side to distinguish the product from the “a” line. Google’s phones have never been as flashy as Samsung’s or Apple’s, and that’s still the case here, but a new dual-sided glass design (Gorilla Glass 5 on both), coupled with a metal band, does step up the premium feel a bit. The product is also a bit heavier and thicker than the 3, lending some heft to the device.

There are three colors now: black, white and a poppy “Oh So Orange,” which is available in limited quantities here in the U.S. The color power button continues to be a nice touch, lending a little character to the staid black and white devices. While the screen gets a nice update to 90Hz OLED, Google still has no interest in the world of notches or hole punches. Rather, it’s keeping pretty sizable bezels on the top and bottom.

The Pixel 4 gets a bit of a screen size boost from 5.5 to 5.7 inches, with an increase of a single pixel per inch, while the Pixel 4 XL stays put at 6.4 inches (with a PPI increase of 522 to 537). The dual front-facing camera has been ditched this time out, instead opting for the single eight megapixel, similar to what you’ll find on the 3a.

Storage hasn’t changed, with both 64 and 128GB options for both models; RAM has been bumped up to a default 6GB from 4GB last time out. The processor, too, is the latest and greatest from Qualcomm, bumping from a Snapdragon 845 to an 855. Interestingly, however, the batteries have actually been downgraded.

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The 4 and 4 XL sport a 2,800 and 3,700mAh, respectively. That should be augmented a bit by new battery-saving features introduced in Android 10, but even still, that’s not the direction you want to see these things going.

The camera is, in a word, great. Truth be told, I’ve been using it to shoot photos for the site since I got the phone last week. This Google Nest Mini review, Amazon Echo review and Virgin Galactic space suit news were all shot on the Pixel 4. The phone isn’t yet a “leave your DSLR at home” proposition, of course, but damn if it can’t take a fantastic photo in less than ideal and mixed light with minimal futzing around.

There’s no doubt that this represents a small but important shift in philosophy for Google. After multiple generations of suggesting that software solutions could do more than enough heavy lifting on image processing, the company’s finally bit the bullet and embraced a second camera. Sometimes forward progress means abandoning past stances. Remember when the company dug its heels in on keeping the headphone jack, only to drop it the following year?

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The addition of a second camera isn’t subtle, either. In fact, it’s hard to miss. Google’s adopted a familiar square configuration on the rear of the device. That’s just how phones look now, I suppose. Honestly, it’s fine once you conquer a bit of trypophobia, with a pair of lenses aligned horizontally and a sensor up top and flash on bottom — as one of last week’s presenters half joked, “we hope you’ll use it as a flash light.”

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That, of course, is a reference to the Pixel’s stellar low-light capabilities. It’s been a welcome feature, in an age where most smartphone users continue to overuse their flashes, completely throwing off the photo in the process. Perhaps the continued improvements will finally break that impulse in people — though I’m not really getting my hopes up on that front. Old habits, etc.

The 4 and 4 XL have the same camera set up, adopting the 12.2-megapixel (wide angle) lens from their predecessors and adding a 16-megapixel (telephoto) into the mix. I noted some excitement about the setup in my write-up. That’s not because the two-camera setup presents anything remarkable — certainly not in this area of three, four and five-camera flagships. It’s more about the groundwork that Google has laid out in the generations leading up to this device.

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Essentially it comes down to this: Look at what the company has been able to accomplish using software and machine learning with a single camera setup. Now add a second telephoto camera into the mix. See, Super High Res Zoom is pretty impressive, all told. But if you really want a tighter shot without degrading the image in the process, optical zoom is still very much the way to go.

There’s a strong case to be made that the Pixel 4’s camera is the best in class. The pictures speak for themselves. The aforementioned TechCrunch shots were done with little or no manual adjustments or post-processing. Google offers on-screen adjustments, like the new dual-exposure control, which lets you manually adjust brightness and shadow brightness on the fly. Honestly, though, I find the best way to test these cameras is to use them the way most buyers will: by pointing and shooting.

The fact is that a majority of people who buy these handsets won’t be doing much fiddling with the settings. As such, it’s very much on handset makers to ensure that users get the best photograph by default, regardless of conditions. Once again, software is doing much of the heavy lifting. Super Res Zoom works well in tandem with the new lens, while Live HDR+ does a better job approximating how the image will ultimately look once fully processed. Portrait mode shots look great, and the device is capable of capturing them at variable depths, meaning you don’t have to stand a specific distance from the subject to take advantage of the well-done artificial bokeh.

Our video producer, Veanne, who is admittedly a far better photographer than I can ever hope to be, tested out the camera for the weekend. 

Although Veanne was mostly impressed by the Pixel 4’s camera and photo editing capabilities, here are three major gripes.

“Digital zoom is garbage.”

Google Pixel 4 digital zoom is garbage

“In low lighting situations, you lose ambiance. Saturday evening’s intimate, warmly lit dinner looked like a cafeteria meal.”

Pixel 4 camera sample

“Bright images in low lighting gives you the impression that the moving objects would be in focus as well. That is not the case.”

Other additions round out the experience, including “Frequent Faces,” which learns the faces of subjects you frequently photograph. Once again, the company is quick to point out that the feature is both off by default and all of the processing happens on the device. Turning it off also deletes all of the saved information. Social features have been improved, as well, with quick access to third-party platforms like Snapchat and Instagram.

Google keeps pushing out improvements to Lens, as well. This time out, language translation, document scanning and text copy and pasting can be performed with a quick tap. Currently the language translation is still a bit limited, with only support for English, Spanish, German, Hindi and Japanese. More will be “rolling out soon,” per the company.

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Gestures is a strange one. I’m far from the first to note that Google is far from the first to attempt the feature. The LG G8 ThinQ is probably the most recent prominent example of a company attempting to use gestures as a way to differentiate themselves. To date, I’ve not seen a good implementation of the technology — certainly not one I could ever see myself actually using day to day.

The truth is, no matter how interesting or innovative a feature is, people aren’t going to adopt it if it doesn’t work as advertised. LG’s implementation was a pretty big disappointment.

Simply put, the Pixel’s gestures are not that. They’re better in that, well, they work, pretty much as advertised. This is because the underlying technology is different. Rather than relying on cameras like other systems, the handset uses Project Soli, a long-promised system that utilizes a miniature radar chip to detect far more precise movement.

Soli does, indeed work, but the precision is going to vary a good deal from user to user. The thing is, simply detecting movement isn’t enough. Soli also needs to distinguish intention. That means the system is designed to weed out accidental gestures of the manner we’re likely making all the time around our phones. That means the system appears to be calibrated to bigger, intentional movements.

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That can be a little annoying for things like advancing tracks. I don’t think there are all that many instances where waving one’s hands across a device Obi-Wan Kenobi-style is really saving all that much time or effort versus touching a screen. If, however, Google was able to customize the experience to the individual over time using machine learning, it could be a legitimately handy feature.

That brings us to the next important point: functionality. So you’ve got this neat new piece of tiny radar that you’re sticking inside your phone. You say it’s low energy and more private than a camera. Awesome! So, how do you suggest I, you know, use it?

There are three key ways, at the moment:

  • Music playback
  • Alarm Silencing
  • Waving at Pokémon

The first two are reasonably useful. The primary use case I can think of are when, say, your phone is sitting in front of you at your desk. Like mine is, with me, right now. Swiping my hand left to right a few inches above the device advances the track. Right to left goes a track back. The movements need to be deliberate, from one end of the device to the other.

And then there’s the phenomenon of “Pokémon Wave Hello.” It’s not really correct to call the title a game, exactly. It’s little more than a way of showcasing Motion Sense — albeit an extremely delightful way.

You might have caught a glimpse of it at the keynote the other day. It came and went pretty quickly. Suddenly Pikachu was waving at the audience, appearing out of nowhere like so many wild Snorlaxes. Just as quickly, he was gone.

More than anything, it’s a showcase title for the technology. A series of five Pokémon, beginning with Pikachu, appear demanding you interact with them through a series of waves. It’s simple, it’s silly and you’ll finish the whole thing in about three minutes. That’s not really the point, though. Pokémon Wave Hello exists to:

  1. Get you used to gestures.
  2. Demonstrate functionality beyond simple features. Gaming, AR — down the road, these things could ultimately find fun and innovative ways to integrate Soli.

For now, however, use is extremely limited. There are some fun little bits, including dynamic wallpaper that reacts to movement. The screen also glows subtly when detecting you — a nice little touch (there’s a similar effect for Assistant, as well).

Perhaps most practical, however, is the fact that the phone can detect when you’re reaching for it and begin the unlocking process. That makes the already fast new Face Unlock feature ever faster. Google ditched the fingerprint reader this time around, opting for neither a physical sensor nor in-screen reader. Probably for the best on the latter front, given the pretty glaring security woes Samsung experienced last week when a British woman accidentally spoofed the reader with a $3 screen protector. Yeeesh.

There are some nice security precautions on here. Chief among them is the fact that the unlock is done entirely on-device. All of the info is saved and processed on the phone’s Titan M chip, meaning it doesn’t get sent up to the cloud. That both makes it a speedier process and means Google won’t be sharing your face data with its other services — a fact Google felt necessary to point out, for obvious reasons.

For a select few of us, at least, Recorder feels like a legitimate game changer. And its ease of use and efficacy should be leaving startups like Otter.ai quaking at its potential, especially if/when Google opts to bring it to other Android handsets and iOS.

I was initially unimpressed by the app upon trying it out at last week’s launch event. It struggles to isolate audio in noisy environments — likely as much of a hardware as software constraint. One on one and it’s far better, though attempting to, say, record audio from a computer can still use some work.

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Open the app and hit record and you’ll see a waveform pop up. The line is blue when detecting speech and gray when hearing other sounds. Tap the Transcript button and you’ll see the speech populate the page in real time. From there you can save it with a title and tag the location.

The app will automatically tag keywords and make everything else searchable for easy access. In its first version, it already completely blows Apple’s Voice Memos out of the water. There’s no comparison, really. It’s in a different league. Ditto for other apps I’ve used over the years, like Voice Record.

Speaking to the product, the recording was still a little hit or miss. It’s not perfect — no AI I’ve encountered is. But it’s pretty good. I’d certainly recommend going back over the text before doing anything with it. Like Otter and other voice apps, you can play back the audio as it highlights words, karaoke-style.

The text can be saved to Google Drive, but can’t be edited in app yet. Audio can be exported, but not as a combined file. The punctuation leaves something to be desired and Recorder is not yet able to distinguish individual voices. These are all things a number of standalone services offer, along with a web-based platform. That means that none of them are out of business yet, but if I was running any of them, I’d be pretty nervous right about now.

As someone who does interviews for a living, however, I’m pretty excited by the potential here. I can definitely see Recorder become one of my most used work apps, especially after some of the aforementioned kinks get ironed out in the next version. As for those who don’t do this for a living, usefulness is probably a bit limited, though there are plenty of other potential uses, like school lecturers.

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The Pixel continues to distinguish itself through software updates and camera features. There are nice additions throughout that set it apart from the six-month-old 3a, as well, including a more premium design and new 90Hz display. At $799, the price is definitely a vast improvement over competitors like Samsung and Apple, while retaining flagship specs.

The Pixel 4 doesn’t exactly address what Google wants the Pixel to be, going forward. The Pixel 3a was confirmation that users were looking for a far cheaper barrier of entry. The Pixel 4, on the other hand, is priced above OnePlus’s excellent devices. Nor is the product truly premium from a design perspective.

It’s unclear what the future will look like as Google works to address the shifting smartphone landscape. In the meantime, however, the future looks bright for camera imaging, and Google remains a driving force on that front.

Live Caption, Google’s automatic captioning technology, is now available on Pixel 4

Live Caption, Google’s automatic captioning system first introduced at its I/O developer conference this May, is now officially available, alongside the launch of the new Pixel 4. But unlike some of the other technologies highlighted at the company’s Pixel hardware event yesterday, Live Caption won’t be limited to Google’s new smartphone alone. After the initial debut on Pixel 4, the automatic captioning technology will roll out to Pixel 3, Pixel 3 XL, Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL before the year-end, says Google, and will become more broadly available in 2020.

The company has already offered automatic captions on YouTube for a decade, but that same sort of experience isn’t available across the wider web and mobile devices. For example, Google explains, you can’t read captions for things like the audio messages sent by your friends, on trending videos published elsewhere on social media, and on the content you record yourself.

There’s a significant accessibility issue with the lack of captions in all these places, but there’s a convenience issue, as well.

If you’re in a loud environment, like a commuter train, or trying to watch content privately and forgot your headphones, you may need to just use the captions. Or maybe you don’t want to blare the audio, which disturbs others around you. Or perhaps, you want to see the words appear because you’re having trouble understanding the audio, or just want to be sure to catch every word.

With the launch of the Pixel 4, Live Caption is also available for the first time to the general public.

The technology will capture and automatically caption videos and spoken audio on your device, except for phone and video calls. This captioning all happens in real-time and on your device — not in the cloud. That means it works even if your device lacks a cell signal or access to Wi-Fi. The captions also stay private and don’t leave your phone.

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This is similar to how the Pixel 4’s new Recorder app functions. It, too, will do its speech-to-text processing all on your device, in order to give you real-time transcriptions of your meetings, interviews, lectures, or anything else you want to record, without compromising your privacy.

You can launch the Live Captions feature with a tap from the volume slider that appears, then reposition the caption box anything on your screen so it doesn’t get in the way of what you’re viewing.

Currently, the feature supports English only. But Google says it’s working to add more languages in the future.

After today’s launch on Pixel 4 and the rollout to the rest of the modern Pixel line of smartphones this year, it will start to show up in other new Android phones. Google says it’s working with other manufacturers to make the technology available to more people as soon as next year.

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Google aims to change the definition of good photography with Pixel 4’s software-defined camera

Google’s new Pixel 4 camera offers a ton of new tricks to improve its photographic chops, and to emphasize the point, it had Professor Mark Levoy, who leads camera technology development at Google Research, up on stage to talk about the Pixel 4’s many improvements, including its new telephoto lens, updated Super Res Zoom technology and Live HDR+ preview.

Subject, Lighting, Lens, Software

Levoy started by addressing the oft-cited saying among photographers that what’s most important to a good photo is first subject, then lighting and followed after that by your hardware: ie., your lens and camera body. He said that he and his team believe that there’s a different equation at play now, which replaces that camera body component with something else: Software.

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Lens is still important in the equation, he said, and the Pixel 4 represents that with the addition of a telephoto lens to the existing wide angle hardware lens it offers. Levoy also offered the opinion that a telephoto is more useful generally than a wide angle, clearly a dig at Apple’s addition of an ultra-wide angle hardware lens to its latest iPhone 11 Pro models.

Google Pixel 4 Camera

In this context, that means Google’s celebrated “computational photography” approach to its Pixel camera tech, which handles a lot of the heavy lifting involved when it takes a photo from a small sensor, which tend to be bad, and turns that into something pretty amazing.

Levoy said that he calls their approach a “software-defined camera,” which most of the time just means capturing multiple photos, and combining data from each in order to produce a better, single final picture.

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What’s new for Pixel 4

There are four new features for the Pixel 4 phone powered by computational photography, which include Live HDR with dual exposure controls, which shows you a real-time image of what the final photo will look like with the HDR treatment applied, instead of just giving you a very different looking final shot. It also bakes in exposure controls that allow you to adjust the highlights and shadows in the image on the fly, which is useful if you want bolder highlights or silhouettes from shadows, for instance.

Also new is “Learning-based white balance,” which addresses the tricky issue of getting your white balance correct. Levoy said that Google has been using this approach in white-balancing night sight photos since the introduction of that feature with Pixel 3, but now it’s bringing it to all photo modes. The result is cooler colors, and particularly in tricky lighting situations when whites tend to be incorrectly exposed as orange or yellow.

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The new wide-range portrait mode makes use of info from both the dual-pixel imaging sensors that Pixel 4 uses, as well as the new second lens to derive more depth data and provide an expanded, more accurate portrait mode to separate the subject from the background. It now works  on large objects and portraits where the person in focus is standing further back, and it provides better bokeh shape (the shape of the defocused elements int eh background) and better definition of strands of hair and fur, which has always been tricky for software background blur.

Lastly, Night Sight mode gets overall improvements, as well as a new astral photography mode specifically for capturing the night sky and star fields. The astral mode provides great looking night sky images with exposure times that run multiple minutes, but all with automatic settings and computational algorithms that sort out issues like stars moving during that time.

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Still more to come

Google wanted to emphasize the point that this is a camera that can overcome a lot of the problems faced typically by small sensors, and it brought out heavyweight photography legend Annie Lebowitz to do just that. She showed some of the photos she’s been capturing both with Pixel 3 and Pixel 4, and they did indeed look great, although the view from the feed doesn’t say quite as much as would print versions of the final photos.

Levoy also said that they plan to improve the camera over time via software updates, so this is just the start for Pixel 4. Based on what we saw on stage, it definitely looks like a step-up from the already excellent Pixel 3, but we’ll need more time hand-on to see what it does compared to Apple’s much-improved iPhone 11 camera.

Google unveils Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL after so, so many leaks

Google finally unveiled its Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. 

After months of dropping details, Google lifted what little curtain was left at its Made by Google event in New York City on Tuesday. The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL will come in at 5.7 inches and 6.3 inches, respectively, with starting prices of $799 and $899.

They will also feature OLED displays with a 90 Hz refresh rate, which will make for much smoother scrolling and better gaming. 

You can preorder them today, and they start shipping on Oct. 24. 

Google unveils Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL after so, so many leaks

They’ll both come with Android 10 pre-installed and feature a new square camera bump on the back, which will hold 16MP and 12.2MP cameras. Google’s Night Sight will also let you take photos of the stars at night, something other night modes can’t handle. 

In addition, previously confirmed new features include a Face ID-like feature for unlocking the phone. A feature called Motion Sense lets you interact with your Pixel 4 with hand gestures that don’t require you to touch your phone. 

On the spec side of things, both Pixels will pack 6GB of RAM and a Snapdragon 855 processor. Both phones are available with either 64GB or 128GB of storage. 

Rather than let leakers spoil every detail of the Pixel 4 before its unveiling, Google took it upon itself to do that throughout much of 2019. As such, there was very little in the way of genuine surprise on Tuesday. Still, we’re glad to finally know everything about the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL.

Watch Google unveil the Pixel 4 live right here

Google is about to unveil its new smartphone lineup, the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. And if you’re an Android fan, you know that the Pixel is one of the most interesting Android phones out there thanks to a bloatware-free operating system and some incredible cameras.

The conference starts at 10 AM Eastern Time (7 AM Pacific Time, 3 PM in London and 4 PM in Paris). You can watch it live right here.

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Rumor has it that Google isn’t just going to announce some new phones. You can also expect some new products when it comes to the Pixelbook line, the Pixel Buds and its voice assistant devices.

The Google Home Mini has been quite successful. And the company is currently in the process of updating and rebranding its Google Home line to Google Nest devices.

We’ll have a team on the ground to report on the new devices and give you hands-on impressions.