This story is over 5 years old.


Google thinks you'll drop $649 for a smartphone with some gimmicks

Google launched its new Pixel 2 smartphones Wednesday, sporting improved cameras, faster processors, sharper screens, and a raft of gimmicks to hopefully keep you interested.

One of the phone’s headline features is its ability to tell you what music you’re listening to — even if you don’t ask it to. Another allows you to access the Google voice assistant by squeezing the sides of the phone rather than saying “OK Google” for situations like, say, when you’re in a crowded elevator.


In addition to two new phones, Google unveiled a laptop, another smart speaker, and some wireless earbuds that can do direct language translations. All products feature Google’s machine learning technology, which it says will set its products apart from competitors like Apple and Samsung.

The key feature for its newest slate of smartphones is called “Now Playing,” which constantly monitors the world around you and tells you — unprompted — what music is playing in the background — and puts the information on the lock screen.

Brian Rakowski, vice president and product manager at Google, described how it works: “We have an amazing on-device machine learning model and a database of 100,000 songs updated weekly customized to location that will match the song playing in the background and put a little notification telling you what song and artist is playing on the always-on screen.”

Google has been keen to stress that no information would be shared with Google, but it is sure to add to privacy worries among those concerned that Google is already monitoring all aspects of our lives. A Google representative was unable to tell VICE News if users could opt out of the service.

While Apple’s Siri is still limited in its scope, Google’s Assistant has quickly become a central part of all its hardware offerings. Once it’s activated, you can ask your phone to take a selfie, translate a sentence, or ask a question just using your voice. The feature, first introduced by HTC earlier this year, is somewhat of a gimmick, but in a world where smartphones are increasingly becoming homogenous, Google needs anyything it can find to set itself apart.

Google has followed Apple’s lead and removed the headphone jack on the new phones. To compensate, it will now sell users a $159 pair of wireless earbuds that will have access to Assistant when connected to your phone, and can even be used for instant language translation — which if it works in the real world as it did on stage could be a major breakthrough in technology search for a real-life version of the Babel Fish.

From a design perspective, the phones don’t stand out like the iPhone X and Xiaomi’s Mi Max 2, which have edge-to-edge screens. The screen on the larger Pixel XL 2 does extend further to the edge compared to last year’s model, but it still doesn’t match devices on the market already from Samsung and LG.

Google is also not being too aggressive on price, with the smaller Pixel 2 starting at $649 while the Pixel XL 2 starts at $849 — similar to Apple’s iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus.