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Ihnatko: What you should know about Google’s new hardware

If you watched the livestream of Google’s September hardware announcement, you might have gotten the impression that the company’s hardware news was less exciting than Apple’s. Like, by an order of magnitude or an order of “Were the stage microphones even working?” The crowd at Apple’s event a couple of weeks ago screamed like rock fans; the crowd at Google’s behaved like rock critics.

But there’s a good reason for that: Apple held their event inside an actual rock arena and they filled well over a thousand seats (1,500, an unofficial source told me), most of whom were heavily invested Apple fans. Google was presenting to a small group consisting almost exclusively of press and analysts. Most of them had their hands busy pressing buttons on keyboards and cameras instead of applauding, which they shouldn’t have been doing anyway.

So, do keep that in mind.

Another reason for audience reticence: Google showed off five new hardware products in three different categories and, OK, all of them combined were maybe as exciting as the iPad Pro.

It wasn’t supposed to be that kind of event, anyway. As the sole makers of iOS hardware, everything Apple announces reflects a fundamental change to the platform as a whole. Google, despite being the most popular mobile OS by far, can only show off new hardware that reflects the company’s intentions for the directions of Android. Then, they cross their fingers and hope that hardware makers will listen, and not get too terribly upset that Google is competing with them at all, even at such low stakes.

Google unveiled two updates to the Nexus line of phones; updates to its low-cost Chromecast streaming devices; and took the wraps off of a tablet that looks like a Chromebook, that has the name of a Chromebook, and has a keyboard, but it runs Android.

I admit that I’m still kind of digesting that one.

New Nexus 6P, 5X Phones

My default answer to the “Which Android phone should I buy?” is “Anything with the Nexus name on it.” These devices are the only ones that receive OS updates directly from Google. During Tuesday’s event, Google announced that Android 6 (“Marshmallow”) will be released next week. If you own a Nexus phone or tablet, you’ll get it almost immediately. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait for the device manufacturer to bake its own version of Marshmallow for that device, and then maybe even wait for your phone carrier to bake that version of Marshmallow into an AT&T-specific build.

It can take months, and it’s the single intractable bummer about Android. Google has improved the situation by breaking many features out of the main OS code base and releasing them as Google Play apps that can be updated and downloaded directly. But updates are still a big pain point and a good reason to consider a Nexus-branded device.

Google designs Nexus phones in conjunction with leading Android phone makers. Last year’s Nexus 6, for example, had the same look, feel, and camera limitations you would expect from all Motorola Android devices. They’ve broken with tradition by putting two phones out on the field this year. 2014′s Nexus 5 — my daily carry, beloved by many, though I suppose I shouldn’t describe it as “the Volkswagen of phones” any more — is now the 5X, and is still being made by LG. The 4.95-inch screen is now a bit larger (5.2 inches) but it’s still the pocketable Nexus.

Because the other one is still a Pop-Tart: the 6P (made by Huawei) has a 5.7-inch 1440 x 2560 pixels. I’ll save you the math: that’s a whopping 518 pixels per inch, which sails past “retina-quality” and coasts into “oh my god” range.

The 6P is faster, it’s made from aluminum instead of plastic, has more RAM for running apps, and it has room for a larger battery. But the 5X has a bigger battery too, thank God, because low battery warnings on my Nexus 5 are why I take His name in vain at around 3 p.m. every day.

These two phones share three key features.

They both sport a new USB-C connector for data and storage. This means faster charging, video, and inclusion of a wider range of USB accessories, but for most people it just means “never having to guess which side of the plug is up.”

Both phones have the same fingerprint sensor, which Google is calling “Nexus Imprint.” Apple and Samsung placed their sensors on the Home button. Nexus Imprint is on the back of the devices, roughly where your finger would naturally fall as you’re holding them. Google has added fingerprint ID to the new edition of Android. It can unlock the phone, authorize Play Store purchases, it works with Android Pay, and it also available to third-party apps.

But the biggest, and most welcome, surprise was the fact that they both use the exact same main camera. They use a 12 megapixel Sony sensor with larger sensor pixels, compared to other phones (Google specifically called out the iPhone 6S Plus). This is such a beefy image sensor that it’s responsible for the big blister on the back of the 5X and the horizontal hump on the 6P.

If it creates better pictures, though, I’m all for blisters and humps. In theory, bigger sensor pixels are cause for optimism; you would expect them to capture better photos in low light, while delivering greater dynamic range and less signal noise. But there’s a lot of alchemy involved in camera design. As usual when I’m at a press event and someone is explaining all of the technology that makes their phone camera better, I nod, I write down the numbers they are dictating to me…and then discard it all until I get to spend a few days shooting with this thing for real.

Google tried to make the case that gosh, with these big sensor pixels the 6P doesn’t even need optical image stabilization. I was hoping they were following this with “…but it has it anyway, to ensure the greatest low-light performance in any phone ever made.” Alas, no. I’m skeptical. Every time I’ve done my side-by-side comparisons, cameras that can compensate for camera shake during long exposures beat the pants off of the cameras that can’t. But only an hour inside the Boston Public Library with these new phones will tell the tale.

The two phones’ selfie cameras are different: 5 megapixels on the 5X opposed to 8 megapixels on the 6P. Based solely on the specs, I’d say that the key differential between these two phones (apart from the size, obviously) will be the available storage. The 5X comes in 16 gig and 32 gig capacities, for $379 and $429. The 6P is available in 32, 64, and 128 gigs for $499 to $649. Personally, I like small phones with huge storage (so I never run out of room for music, podcast downloads and photos), so the lack of a 64 gig 5X is kind of a bummer.

The 5X and 6P are available for pre-order from the Google Store. They’ll ship sometime in October.

Chromecasts Redux

Google made a few oblique jabs against Apple. They saved the direct comments for the introduction of the new Chromecast streaming devices. Google would like to remind the world that Chromecast is a tiny dongle that disappears behind your TV without leaving an ugly box for you to deal with, and because the streams are chosen and controlled through the same apps you use on your phone instead of through an onscreen user interface and remote, it costs just $35.

Noted. I like the fact that a house can have a Chromecast on every TV for the same cost as just one $150 2015 Apple TV. That said, I have a Chromecast and a Roku on my living room screen and I’m still in the habit of picking up the Roku remote instead of my phone. Maybe it’s just because this basic precursor to flopping down on the sofa has soothed me since I was a little kid.

Google offered a new Chromecast shaped like a little UFO. It’s a lovely bit of flair with a practical side: because the HDMI connector is now attached by a short strap of cable, it’ll fit into close-quarter HDMI ports better than the old design. It’s also designed for easy totability: when disconnected, the connector clicks onto the body via an internal magnet. It’s also got a new multiple antenna system to help it find a Wi-Fi signal, and upgraded radios for greater speed and agility.

Not much else to write about there, except for a greatly-improved Chromecast app that helps you discover what’s on, without having to flip through seven or eight different apps on your phone. I liked the demo: search for “Bob’s Burgers” and it’ll find options for watching the show on Hulu, Netflix, and the Play Store, and third-party developers (such as your cable company) are free to make their own content visible to this search too.

The search includes YouTube. Google’s demo used “interviews and behind-the-scenes material” as examples of content that would turn up in that part of the search. I have to wonder if the app is smart enough to weed out bootleg recordings as well.

“Chromecast Audio” is an addition to the hardware lineup. It’s for audio streams only but it works (and looks) like Chromecast: plug it into anything that has an audio input (a set of powered speakers, your home theater amp — conceivably your car stereo would work, too) and it’ll wirelessly stream audio programming from your Android device or a compatible browser, from any app that supports Chromecasting. As with the video Chromecast, it also needs a source of USB power.

I like the idea of this new Chromecast. Most houses seem to have a decent set of powered speakers in a closet and Chromecast Audio provides a cheap way to turn ‘em into a modern streaming sound solution. If it works as well as the video Chromecast, connecting will be much quicker and intuitive than a Bluetooth speaker, too. Both Chromecasts sell for $35 and can be ordered from the Google Store.

When Is A Tablet Not A Tablet?

Microsoft might have missed the bus when it comes to the phone market. But give them credit for releasing the Surface Pro long before Apple introduced the iPad Pro and Google announced the Pixel C.

These two September devices carry forward the same realization that Microsoft had: people love tablets, but they also want to get stuff done with them. Therefore, premium tablets should be designed with keyboards as an integral part of the experience and not treat them like a begrudging afterthought solely of interest to the weirdos at the margins.

Both the iPad Pro and the Pixel C break with Microsoft’s notion of a strictly convertible notebook. The Pixel C is an aluminum-bodied Android tablet with a 10.2-inch screen and the same aspect ratio as a sheet of A4 paper. The wide shape is to accommodate a wider keyboard. The Pixel C’s keyboard (also aluminum) has conventional mechanical keyswitches and the A-Z 0-1 area is the same size as a conventional keyboard. It attaches to the tablet magnetically, either as a cover or as a laptop-type stand with adjustable viewing angles.

Unlike the iPad Pro and the Surface, which communicate with their keyboards via mechanical contacts, the Pixel C’s keyboard’s digital connection is Bluetooth. Bluetooth works great on my current iPad. Still, it requires a measure of either initial uncertainty or tapping through Settings, or both before it’s confirmed that my two devices are talking to each other. I’d be happier with mechanical contacts.

I wonder why Google didn’t use the Nexus label on this one, like they’ve done with their other tablets. It takes its unmistakable style cues from Google’s Pixel Chromebook, down to the neato rainbow bar of LEDs on the outside that shows battery status when tapped. A bank of four directional microphones supposedly lets you use voice commands even with the device on the other side of the room. A nice touch.

I think more people would give up ultralight notebooks for tablets if they looked at high-end models running the latest OS and saw just how agile and powerful they can be. My 13-inch MacBook Pro has been staying at home ever since I got iOS 9 running on my iPad.

And the Pixel C could be even more comfortable for notebook users than an iPad. Android supports Bluetooth pointing devices and the UI that Google introduced with Android L is as well-suited to a mouse and keyboard as it is to strictly multitouch usage. It’s kind of brilliant that way. Also, Android’s open file system does away with the demi-nightmare of moving files into and out of the iPad and between its apps. The Pixel C’s USB-C port implies that it’ll work with any USB storage device.

But although Android and iOS have practically the same catalog of phone apps, the collection of Android tablet apps is merely endurable. For the iPad, the selection is downright effervescent.

They got the price right, at least: the Pixel C starts at $499 (plus $150 for the keyboard cover). This makes it competitive with the iPad while not losing the premium feel and features that will attract people who might be considering a Windows 10 convertible. It’ll be available from the Google Store by the end of the year.

The message that Google seems to be sending with the Pixel C: “Built like a premium Windows 10 convertible, but it’s smaller and costs hundreds of dollars less; offers the trouble-free operation and long battery life of a tablet that runs a mobile OS instead of a desktop one; but with enough desktop-style features that make it a better laptop than an iPad with an external keyboard.”

I just wish the Google Play Store could deliver an app catalog for the Pixel C that’s even half as robust as what’s available for iOS and Windows tablets.

But maybe that’s another goal of the Pixel. Device fragmentation is a major source of pain for Android app developers. Android M is packed with protein-enriched features, but what assurance does a developer have that a user’s phone has a fingerprint sensor, or the NFC chip required for mobile payments? They can’t even assume that a user is even running a version of Android that’s less than two years old.

Google’s hardware is also a beacon of hope, then. Developers can take some comfort from the fact that there is a class of devices out there that are capable of delivering the Android experience at its full bloom. Who knows if any of those users actually pay for apps, but it’s nice to have hope.