Made by Google: 4 reasons Google threatens Apple’s hardware crown

5 Oct 2016

The new Pixel smartphones from Google already threaten Apple's supremacy in terms of camera power and AI

Last night, Google revealed four new hardware innovations: the Pixel smartphones, a 4K Chromecast, the Daydream VR headset and Google Wi-Fi.

Google has lofty ambitions in hardware and is in it to win it.

In terms of hardware design and complete end-to-end product delivery, Apple has dominated the scene. It is obvious that rivals such as Google and Microsoft are trying to emulate what the Cupertino tech giant has done ever since Steve Jobs returned to the fold in 1996: ring-fence all aspects of hardware design and manufacture.

Future Human

Google’s VP of product management Brian Rakowski said as much last night: “Through Nexus, the goal was to work with these various partners to push the boundaries of what’s possible with a smartphone. We’ve now decided to take the next step and provide our take on the best Google experience, by bringing hardware and software design together under one roof.

1. Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones

To win at hardware in 2016, you need the right phones. It may be the end of the road for Nexus, but the start of a new era with the Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones; which certainly up the ante against Apple’s iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, particularly in the camera stakes.

The 5-inch Pixel and 5.5-inch Pixel XL are now available to order in the US.

The devices are dressed in an aerospace-grade aluminium body, feature a new-style fingerprint sensor at the rear of the device called Pixel Imprint, and also boast a battery that can charge up to seven hours in just 15 minutes.

What is distinctive about the new devices is the sheer amount of artificial intelligence that is inside, driven by Google Assistant. Rakowski said that users can pretty much have a natural conversation with Google to find things online but also to source items within the phone, such as your pictures from Electric Picnic or last year’s Hallowe’en night out. If a friend texts you to meet at a new restaurant, you can tell the assistant to “navigate there.”

How this stacks up against Apple’s Siri will be the real test, but Google’s edge in search may be a differentiator.

Google boasts that the Pixel has the best camera ever to feature in a Google-branded phone. Both devices have a 12.3MP camera with an f/2.0 aperture and big 1.55 micron pixels. The camera definitely ups the ante against Apple, with a DxOMark Mobile score of 89; the highest yet, and three points ahead of the iPhone 7.

Another bonus is that the new smartphones come with free unlimited storage for high-resolution photos and videos, via the Google Photos app.

Both phones are powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processors and are Daydream VR-ready.

The Pixel will sell for $649 for the 32GB version and $749 for the 128GB version, while the Pixel XL will start at $769 for the 32GB version and $869 for the $128GB version.

2. Daydream VR

Google reveals new Daydream VR headset

Google has certainly been a pioneer on the VR front, while rival Apple has made no real effort (as yet) to create VR-ready hardware. From DIY kits like Google Cardboard to working with players like Movidius to creating new kinds of VR hardware, Google has been no slouch.

Daydream View represents Google’s first real own-branded effort to go beyond Cardboard. At $79 however, it nestles snugly just below the price points of devices like the Samsung Gear VR, and far below the costs of devices like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift VR.

“Our goal for Daydream is to simplify the complexity behind virtual reality,” said Clay Bavor, VP of virtual reality at Google. “It should be mobile so you can easily carry it with you, and it should be friendly and accessible so everyone can enjoy using it.”

With Daydream, users can simply pop a Daydream-ready smartphone into the headset and start exploring. Daydream-ready phones will have to be powered by Google’s newest Android 7.0 operating system, Nougat, which right now means the Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones, but more hardware vendors will likely follow suit.

“A big part of what makes Daydream View special is the Daydream controller,” Bavor said.

“This small yet powerful controller lets you interact with the virtual world the same way you do in the real world. It points where you point, and is packed with sensors to understand your movements and gestures. You can swing it like a bat or wave it like a wand. And it’s so precise that you can draw with it. The controller slides right inside the headset when not in use, so you don’t have to worry about losing it in your bag or between couch cushions.”

3. A 4K Chromecast

The Chromecast is Google’s clever, low-cost onslaught into the set-top box market. At just €39 to buy in most shops, it undercuts rival devices like the Apple TV by a long shot. You just pop it into the HDMI slot on the back of your TV, set it up on your Wi-Fi, and instantly you can stream content from your phone or tablet to your TV.

But last night, Google raised the bar by launching the Chromecast Ultra with 4K, HDR and Dolby Vision Support.

The device is 1.8 times faster than the Chromecast 2 and will ship in November for $69 (around €60).

The new device also has an Ethernet port integrated into its power adapter for increased connectivity options as well as improved Wi-Fi performance.

4. Google Wi-Fi

Google also introduced Google Wi-Fi, a new connected Wi-Fi system designed to boost wireless signals in every room and on every device.

Google Wi-Fi builds on the strengths of OnHub, a device it partnered with last year alongside TP-Link and ASUS, to ensure Wi-Fi signals better penetrate every corner of the home across walls and distance.

The idea is to ensure high bandwidth activities, like streaming and video gaming, can continue unabated in every corner of the house by sending a strong signal to every room.

Using a technology called mesh W-Fi, which previously only featured in expensive commercial installations, the technology determines the best path for data and selects the optimal Wi-Fi band for your device using Network Assist.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years