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Google unveils Pixel 3 and Home Hub smart screen

Posted at 11:50 AM, Oct 09, 2018

Google is releasing an updated version of its high-end Pixel phone packed with new camera tricks, a Chrome OS tablet and its first smart-screen device with Google Assistant.

Put another way: Google is taking on the iPhone, the Surface Pro and the Echo Show.

The company announced on Tuesday the new Pixel 3, Pixel Slate and Google Home Hub. All three are additions to its "Made for Google" lineup and were announced at a press event in New York City.

The trio represent the latest update from Google's two-and-a-half-year-old hardware division, which is finally building a single, cohesive Google device brand.

"We've realized that if we wanted to push the envelope on innovation, we really needed to have a focused hardware effort," Rick Osterloh, Google's SVP of hardware, told CNN Business during an early look at the new products. "That meant combining the very best of Google's technology — our AI, our software and all of the hardware that we're building — to create a great user experience."

The launch of a device with an always-on microphone and a camera comes at a critical time for the company. On Monday, Google acknowledged a previously undisclosed vulnerability that had to potential to expose Google+ accounts, but no evidence of a breach was found.

Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL

At the center of the Google hardware ecosystem is the new Pixel 3, a sleek Android device that comes in two sizes (regular and XL) and three colors (black, white and pale pink).

For this update, Google has kept the phones the same size but made the screens larger by pushing them closer to the edges of the phone. The Pixel 3 costs $799 and has a 5% larger screen than its predecessor. The Pixel 3 XL has a 10% larger screen than the previous version and costs $899. Other than their size, the two devices have all the same features.

The main draw of the Pixel 3 is its photography features. There's a new wide-angle selfie lens on the front for group shots, but unlike other phones in the price range, the Pixel has not added a second back-facing camera. Instead it focuses more on computational photography: software-based improvements for photos.

"We have the world's best imaging scientists working on our camera technology, and they've been working on similar problems for Google for 20 years," said Osterloh. "The very first image search came from this technology group."

Google honed some of that new camera technology in last year's oddball "Clips" camera, a stationary device that used AI to detect when to take photos of your family.

The Pixel 3's software automatically finds the best option in a burst of photos, like one in which the subject is smiling with their eyes open. A night mode combines multiple photos into one brighter image, and a super zoom does the same to piece together a sharper far-away scene. Photobooth, the most Clips-like feature, detects the right moment to take a photo.

Meanwhile, Google Lens -- the company's image-recognition app -- is now built into the camera app, and Google Assistant will field calls from unknown numbers with pre-recorded replies and transcriptions of the conversation.

To show off the camera, Google has hired famed photographer Annie Leibovitz to take photos around the country of inspiring people and places. The company will unveil the series of photos sometime in the future.

Google Home Hub

The evolution of smart speakers seems to include screens.

Amazon was first with its Echo Show. Google partnered with third-party companies earlier this year on screen-festooned speakers with the Google Assistant voice interface. And on Monday, Facebook announced the Portal, its own smart screen device specifically designed for video calls.

Now Google has made its very own "smart screen," the $149 Google Home Hub. Overall the device has most of the same features as the third-party Google Assistant smart screens. Google did add a RGB sensor to measure the light in a room and adjust the screen accordingly, including dimming at night. The gadget, which comes in three colors, looks like a phablet-mounted on a bluetooth speaker.

Google's business plan for the Home line is to make money not only selling the devices but also with subscription services like YouTube Music, Osterloh said. As of now, the company isn't discussing putting ads on the devices, or how it is collecting or using data.

"Where it goes in the future, who knows, but our main aim is to make sure we're giving great value to users and putting them in control," he said.

Other gadgets

Google also announced the Pixel Slate (starting at $599), a large Chrome OS tablet aimed at professionals. The Chromecast dongle is getting a slightly new look, but it will still cost $35 and perform the same streaming tasks. There's also a Mickey Mouse-shaped mount for the regular Google Home smart speaker, designed for kids who like to use the voice assistant and play voice games.

Some people might look at a smart screen device and think, why can't I just put my phone in a stand, leave on its microphone and have it do the same thing? Well, Google is here for you on that: The company is making a special stand for the Pixel 3 that basically turns it into an always-listening smart display.

Google finally put its Nest division under the Made by Google management earlier this year, but there were no new announcements from that line on Tuesday.

Privacy, security, and timing

With privacy being top of mind for consumers this year, Google's Tuesday event may have come at an inopportune time -- just one day after the reveal of the vulnerability that could have exposed Google + accounts. The company says privacy is something it takes seriously.

"Security and privacy are a huge consideration when we design these products," Osterloh told CNN Business. "We also make sure that when we're designing products, we're thinking through all privacy considerations for the end user. Our approach to this is to make sure that we give users lots of control and transparency about all of the privacy considerations in their product usage."