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How the Pixel 4 epitomizes Google’s hardware gamble

Allow me to play Mr. Obvious for a moment: The Pixel 4 is a phone. That much is plainly apparent — right?

Hang on, though, because there’s a twist: This week’s Google event, at which the Pixel 4 was officially launched, wasn’t really about phones. It wasn’t about laptops, either. At its core, it wasn’t about any hardware, in fact, despite being a “hardware event” in every outward sense.

Sure, the physical products may have taken center stage, but those gadgets are ultimately all just vessels for what Google’s really trying to sell us. This week’s event was actually all about the Google ecosystem — and, more specifically, the Google Assistant that serves as the nucleus of almost everything Google introduced.

The Pixel 4, more than any product before it, is the embodiment of that philosophy. And by looking beyond its surface and thinking carefully about what the product represents, we can see the sharpest picture yet of what Google’s trying to achieve.

Google’s hardware-hawking genesis

Before we get into the Pixel 4 specifics, we need to back up and rewind for a moment — all the way back to this same week in 2016, when Google launched its first self-made Pixel phone. Back then, Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh made one thing clear: The reason for all these new products, for this whole new hardware-making adventure, was that the company needed to claim control over how its various services were being presented. That was particularly true for Assistant, the new virtual helper Google would launch on that very same day.

Android phone-makers, y’see, were increasingly interfering with Google’s vision for the software by mucking up the interface, adding in their own second-rate services, and keeping Google’s real money-makers — the keys to the company’s long-term success — from shining as effectively as they could. And with Assistant coming into the picture, Google needed a way to counter that problem without clamping down too tightly on the manufacturer-friendly flexibility that made Android what it is.

As Osterloh put it in an interview at the time:

Fundamentally, we believe that a lot of the innovation that we want to do now ends up requiring controlling the end-to-end user experience. … We needed to build a system that actually ran [Assistant] perfectly.

Why is Assistant so critical, you might be wondering? Well, Shirley, it’s simple: Google’s core business revolves around collecting data and then using that data to deliver ads. But with every passing year, people are turning less to the traditional search box and more to apps and connected devices for information. The future of the online ad industry — and thus of Google itself — is being threatened by irrelevance, in other words. If a company that relies on ads to exist wants to survive, it has to adapt.

And that’s exactly what Google’s doing, with Assistant leading the charge. Assistant is designed to be available everywhere — on your phone, on your laptop, in your car, all over your home, and even in your eager little ears. (What do you think those new Pixel Buds are really all about?) It’s the next-gen version of the classic Google search box, and Google’s slowly but surely been working to make it an integral part of your life over these past few years.

And that brings us to today.

The Pixel 4 pinnacle

So back to the Pixel 4: When you really stop and think about it, the phone’s most prominent selling points are less about the hardware and more about the Google experience inside of it. The product’s official marketing page tells you all there is to know.

The page’s first and most elaborate selling point? The Pixel 4’s camera, of course. And sure, the device’s new multi-lens module is a key part of what makes the phone’s level of photography possible — but, as Google’s materials emphasize, it’s the machine-learning-driven processing that really does the magic. It’s a “software-defined camera,” as Google engineer Marc Levoy put it in this week’s presentation — one that does “less with hard-wired circuitry and more with code.” The “special sauce” that sets it apart, Levoy noted, is Google’s unique approach to “computational photography.”

Software. Code. Processing. It’s as Googley as it gets, and the hardware itself is little more than a skeleton to house the virtual genie inside.

The next point on the Pixel 4’s page gets into the phone’s presently-exclusive access to a dramatically improved and expanded voice-control experience. And that experience is powered by — yep, you guessed it — the Google Assistant. With much of the voice command processing now happening on the device instead of relying on a remote-data-center connection, the Pixel 4’s version of the Assistant is able to work in a whole new way and accomplish all sorts of previously impossible tasks (in theory, at least; no one’s had the phone for long enough yet to say for sure how well it works in the real world).

After that comes the Pixel 4’s radar-powered hand gesture system. That’s certainly rooted in hardware, but its primary purpose is to make it easier to access and interact with your phone — and guess what? The more you access and interact with your phone, the more you use Assistant and other Google services.

Even little touches like the new Pixel-exclusive Recorder app, which transcribes speech in real-time and then makes it available for immediate searching, are decidedly software-centric and revolving around traditional Google strengths. Combined with Google’s unmatched promise to provide three full years of both timely operating system and security update rollouts — an element that in and of itself should be a significant selling point, especially for business users — the Pixel 4 really feels like the culmination of everything Google’s been building up to over the past few years and the clearest indication yet of what the company’s working to accomplish.

Make no mistake about it: This truly is “the Google phone” — a term that’s existed unofficially for a decade and that Google itself is now embracing, with a device that finally seems to live up to the name. More than anything, the Pixel 4 is a gateway to Google’s ecosystem of services and a way to experience them in a uniquely native environment. The phone and what it represents are precisely why Google got into this game in the first place.

The question, though, is if Google can manage to translate all of that into any widespread adoption of its Pixel products. It’s the same question we’ve been asking for three years now, so it only seems appropriate to wrap up by revisiting my thoughts from a previous Pixel launch:

For the majority of users, Google’s own Pixel is differentiated in the areas that are going to be the most meaningfully and practically impactful, even if they aren’t the ad-friendly areas that grab the most immediate attention. As someone who recommends devices to others, it seems increasingly appropriate to view the Pixel as the de facto “best all-around balance” standard for most people — the “iPhone of Android,” as it were — with other devices serving more niche-oriented needs and priorities. And, you guessed it: That’s all because of software.

Now let’s see if Google can ever figure out how to get the phone on store shelves and actually sell it in a way that counts.

We’ve seen measurable progress in the “getting it on store shelves” part, with all the major U.S. carriers now selling the Pixel for the first time this year. But the “actually selling it in a way that counts” part — the part that requires not just a commendable product but also effective marketing, positioning, and mainstream phone-buyer awareness in order to happen — well, despite some promising and often-overlooked trends, that’s the part where Google’s still got its work cut out for it.

One thing’s for sure: The Pixel 4 is the most refined and fleshed-out vessel we’ve seen for Google’s smartphone vision. With it at the helm, this fourth year of Google’s hardware-making initiative should be an interesting — and potentially telling — one to watch.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Everything Announced Today at Google’s Pixel 4 Event – Review Geek

Google's newly-announced products.

During an event in New York today, Google announced a range of new hardware including the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, Pixelbook Go, Nest Home Mini, and more—much of which we have already detailed in a post published yesterday.

Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL

The Pixel 4's motion sense tech

Google’s new Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are already listed for pre-order on vendors including B&H Photo and will be shipped October 24:

  • Pixel 4 – 64GB: $799
  • Pixel 4 – 128GB: $899
  • Pixel 4 XL – 64GB: $899
  • Pixel 4 XL – 128GB: $999
The Pixel 4 at Google's event.
Justin Duino

Google says it’s the first smartphone with a built-in radar sensor which is used to power the Pixel 4’s new Motion Sense capabilities, based on the Project Soli “radar” sensor. Motion Sense enables more human interactions with your phone, such as preemptively preparing your camera for a face unlock as the phone begins to detect you reaching for the device so you don’t even have to turn its display on—said to make for the fastest secure face unlock on any smartphone. Gesture controls include the ability to swipe for changing a song or declining a phone call.

The Pixel 4 at Google's event.
Justin Duino

The Pixel 4 has a 5.77-inch 1080p display, the Pixel 4 XL has a 6.3-inch 1440p display—both have 90Hz refresh rates, as is becoming the standard for high-end phones. All variants have a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset, 6GB of RAM, as well as a rear 12.2MP f/1.7 dual-pixel camera and 16MP f/2.4 telephoto camera. The Pixel 4 has a roughly 2x telephoto lens, Google’s super res zoom technology for a hybrid of optical and digital zoom, as well as software improvements that enable truer colors in trickier lighting, and real-time HDR+ processing so you can see HDR+ effects on your screen before taking the photo:

  • Live HDR+ with dual exposure controls
  • Learning-base white balancing
  • Wider-range portrait mode
  • Night site with astrophotography
The Pixel 4 at Google's event.
Justin Duino

Google will make the Pixel 4 available through every major US carrier. Colors include Clearly White and Just Black, which are available for all models of the Pixel 4, while “Oh So Orange” seems limited to models with 64GB of storage. Other new features include operating system and application updates that make more use of Google Assistant, new voice recording application with capabilities such as the ability to transcribe what’s being recorded in real time.

Pixelbook Go

The Pixelbook Go in pink and black.

Designed to be light yet powerful and engineered with a magnesium matte finish in colors including “Not Pink” and “Just Black,” the new Pixelbook Go is lighter than the original Pixelbook yet features a battery that is 15% larger for all-day usage. Battery life is quoted at 12 hours and charging has been improved over previous Pixelbooks, with the Go being able to receive a two hours boost to its battery in 20 minutes.

The Pixelbook Go at Google's event.
Justin Duino

Other specs include ultra-quiet keys that feel great to use and a grippy ripple-textured bottom finish. The 13.3-inch Chromebook will have a 1080p or 4K display depending on your preference. Pricing will start at $649 but models will also be available with your choice of a Core m3, i5, or i7 processor, 8GB or 16GB RAM, as well as a 64GB, 128GB, or 256GB SSD. Units configured with a Core i7, 16GB of RAM and 256GB SSD will be priced at $1,399.

Nest Home Mini

Google's new Nest Mini speaker.

Available for pre-order today at $49 and shipping in 23 countries on October 22, the Nest Home Mini features a familiar design that uses fabric from recycled plastic bottles. It will be available in four colors and now features a wall mount so it’s easier to position the device anywhere in your home.

The Nest Mini at Google's event.
Justin Duino

Key improvements include 2x stronger bass, clearer more natural sound, and third mic to hear you better in noisy environments. Also of note, there’s now a dedicated machine learning chip onboard, allowing core experiences of the Google Assistant to be moved on to the device for the first time instead of connecting to a distant server.

Nest Wifi

The new Google Wifi router and range extender.

Google’s new Nest Wifi Router and Nest Wifi Point has updated hardware and software that brings a 2x speed boost, 25% better coverage, and a package that can cover about 85% of homes in the US.

Like other Nest devices, the new Nest Wifi is designed with aesthetics in mind so the device is placed out in the open instead of being stuffed in a closet where its effectiveness is cut in half. This latest version features a Google Assistant smart speaker built into the device.

The Nest Wifi is available for pre-order starting today and units will ship to eight countries starting November 4. Pricing is set at $269 for a Nest Wifi Router + Point combo, $349 for a Router and two Points, or $169 for a standalone router.

New Pixel Buds

The new Pixel Buds and charging case

With an engineering process that was described like building a ship in a bottle, the new “truly wireless” Pixel Buds pack a lot of hardware in a tiny package. They are equipped with custom speakers and a custom battery along with beamforming mics, voice accelerometers that can detect speech through jawbone, and on-device machine learning chips.

The directional mics are designed to pick up your voice even when you’re in a noisy environment while of course enabling hands-free access to Google Assistant to perform actions such as resuming a podcast, sending a quick text message, getting directions, or even understanding another language with Google Translate.

The new Pixel Buds in many colors.

Google boasted about long range Bluetooth on the Pixel Buds that keeps you connected when your phone isn’t by your side. Indoors they can be connected up to three rooms away while outdoor range spans an entire football field.

The buds fit almost flush with your ear and although they’re small and light, Google says you can expect excellent sound quality (rich bass and clear highs) and a lifespan long enough to be useful. Pixel Buds will be available in 2020 for $179.

Other New Announcements

  • Nest Aware: Getting updated in 2020 with several new features and two pricing plans: $6 per month to cover all devices and feature a 30-day event video history, or $12 per month for 60-day event video history and 10-day 24/7 video history.
  • Stadia: Available November 19th.

Source: Google Event

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What to Expect from Google’s Big Pixel Event Tomorrow, October 15 – Review Geek

The leaked Pixel 4, from Google's tweet.

The yearly smorgasbord of Google-branded consumerism, aka the Pixel Event, is nearly upon us. And in typical Google fashion, pretty much everything has leaked well before the event arrives. We’ll be on-site to break down everything as Google unveils it, but in the meantime let’s look at what we expect to see there.

To be fair, it’s entirely possible that Google will pull out some major surprises—Microsoft certainly did last week at its similar event. But we can say with about 99 percent certainty that we’re going to see this year’s refresh of Google’s flagship Pixel phones and a new self-branded Chromebook. We’ll probably see a lot of new information on forthcoming Google software and services, too. Other things, like a refreshed Google Nest Home Mini and a closer look at the upcoming Stadia, are less certain.

Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL

The 2019 Pixel phones might just be the most-leaked Google phones ever, which puts them high up on Michael’s Scale of Massive Tech Hardware Leaks (that I just invented). Pretty much every aspect of these phones’ hardware design, and a good chunk of the new Android 10-based software, has been leaked, some of it in the form of early promotional material from Google itself. The highlights:

The Pixel 4 phone on a black background.
Google “leaked” a more or less complete image of the Pixel 4 months ago. Google
  • One big phone, one little phone, with 6.3-inch and 5.77-inch screens, respectively. The big one will be 1440p, the little one 1080p, with super-smooth 90 Hz refresh rates.
  • The rear-mounted fingerprint sensors are gone, replaced by Google’s brand of face recognition, much like FaceID on modern iPhones. It’s using a front-facing array of cameras and sensors.
  • Speaking of front-facing stuff: That unsightly notch from the Pixel 3 XL is gone, replaced by a thicker top bezel to hold all those IR cameras and sensors. Unlike the 3 and 3 XL, the small and large Pixel 4 phones will look more or less the same, complete with a distinct square-shaped camera cluster on the rear. Multiple unconventional colors will be offered, but that two-tone glass from all three previous pixel generations seems to be gone.

  • Gesture control: Another new tech goodie hidden inside that bezel is a special sensor for detecting hand gestures, which will allow you to perform frequent actions like answering a call or advancing a music track with a wave of your hand. Google calls it Motion Sense, and it’s an offshoot of Project Soli.
  • Cameras: Expect two rear cameras on both phones, 12 MP and 16 MP, with standard and telephoto options up to 8X zoom. (This is probably a combination of some solid sensors and glass, combined with Google’s best-in-class camera software.) A single front-facing conventional camera is hiding in the bezel.
  • Internals: Expect the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset (very snappy, but not the absolute latest model) and 6 GB of RAM (50 percent more than last year), with storage options at 64 GB and 128 GB for both phones. As with previous Pixels, they won’t have MicroSD card slots or dual SIM card slots, and the headphone jack is a thing of the past. Batteries are 2800 mAh and 3700 mAh, with wireless charging.
  • 5G: We’ve heard late-breaking rumors of a 5G model. That will presumably be a spruced-up Pixel 4 XL—those advanced radios are big and power-hungry—and might come later at a much higher price. Speaking of which . . .
  • Prices: We don’t know yet. We would expect them to start at around $800 for the Pixel 4 and $900 for the Pixel 4 XL, with higher prices for storage boosts and that possible 5G variant.
  • Release date: Presumably less than a month after the October 15 announcement, with pre-orders opening day of.

Pixelbook Go

Google has always tried to position its self-branded Chrome OS devices as the cream of the crop, and they have been. But after the critical and sales flop of the Pixel Slate tablet, it looks like they’re hoping to score with a more conventional and less expensive form factor. Hence the Pixelbook Go: a less expensive Google-branded laptop, with a regular (non-convertible) hinge and some cheaper materials.

the Pixelbook Go, a leaked laptop, held up by a model.

According to leaks from 9to5Google, the Chromebook Go looks like Google’s answer to the MacBook Air or Surface Laptop, a step down from the premium notebook category filled by the Pixelbook that’s still more than capable of getting the job done for most users. The leaked hardware uses a 13.3-inch 1080p screen, an Intel Core i3 processor, and 8 GB of RAM. Processor, storage, 4K screen, and memory upgrades should be available too.

The design has a fingerprint sensor for easy unlocking, dual USB-C ports for charging, video out, and accessories, and support for the Pixelbook Pen on its touchscreen. The speakers are front-firing, something that’s becoming rarer as laptop designs continue to slim down. Colors are rumored to be “not pink” (sort of baby pink or salmon, depending on the light) and black.

While it’s certainly more pedestrian than either the Pixelbook or the much-maligned Pixel Slate, the Pixelbook Go seems to be using more premium materials than you’d expect from a budget machine, including a unique ridged plastic insert on the bottom replacing the more usual laptop “feet.” It’s also using the excellent Pixelbook family keyboard. Pricing and release info aren’t available.

New Nest Devices

An updated Nest Home Mini (nee Google Home Mini) has been spotted in regulatory documents, featuring a slimmer design, a headphone jack for connecting to more powerful speakers, and a built-in option for a wall mount. Which is something a lot of people will be happy to see, if the accessory market is anything to go by. We’re also expecting a next-gen version of the Google Wifi mesh networking hardware, this time branded the Nest Wifi. It might feature a built-in speaker, combining Wi-Fi routers and Google Assistant smart speakers into a single, roundish, plastic blob thing.

The G2 wall mount consists of two pieces: a wrap for the plug and a tray for the Home Mini.
Michael Crider

Other New Announcements

What else? We’re not clairvoyant, but here are a few more things we might see, with greater or lesser likelihood:

  • Tons of Google Assistant functionality: Google’s been working overtime to stay competitive in this space, so expect a large amount of time dedicated to new Assistant capabilities, some of which will rely on new hardware in the Pixel 4 and Pixelbook Go, but some of which will come to all users.
  • A new Pixelbook: It’s been two years since the original, convertible Pixelbook hit the market, so it’s due for an upgrade. There have been no leaks on this one, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bump up to the latest series of Intel processors. Or the Pixelbook Go might be all we get this year. We’ll see.
  • More Stadia announcements: Google’s entry into the streaming game service market is expected to land next month, so we wouldn’t be surprised to see it featured in the consumer presentation. A Stadia freebie subscription with purchase of new Pixel and Pixelbook hardware would make sense.
  • Pixel 4a: If you’re looking for a sequel to Google’s well-received budget phones from earlier this year, that’s unlikely. We might see them as “mid-cycle” options in the first half of 2020, sort of like OnePlus’s T-branded phones.
  • New Wear OS devices: Could go either way. Google seems hesitant to even talk about its wearable platform lately, but a minor leak from a B2B supplier indicates first-party hardware might be on the horizon. The last time Google tried its hand at Pixel-branded wearables, it backed out and left the branding to LG.
  • New Google tablets: No freakin’ way. Google’s not touching the tablet market, at least for the time being.

We’ll be on hand at the Google event in New York City, at 10 a.m. Eastern on October 15. Expect news coverage of all the new hardware, including hands-on reports shortly after.

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The secret ingredients that could make a Pixel Watch matter

If we’re going to talk about a Pixel Watch, we need to get one thing straight right out of the gate: All signs suggest there is no Pixel Watch — not yet, anyway. As of this moment, there’s no reason to believe Google has any such product prepared to launch at its Oct. 15 hardware event. In fact, recent reports say a Pixel Watch isn’t on the agenda at all for this year — period.

But hang on: That isn’t the end of the story. It’s actually just the beginning.

Those same reports, y’see, also tell us a Pixel Watch was ready to be released three years ago, at Google’s first-ever Pixel-branded hardware hoedown in 2016. The company apparently had two LG-manufactured watches on its hands but decided to scrap ’em at the last minute, as they were deemed to be too underwhelming to bear the Pixel name.

If the details are to be believed, that decision was probably wise: The watches in question reportedly ended up being released under the LG brand as the LG Watch Sport and LG Watch Style — devices that were decidedly ho-hum, with nothing meaningful that made ’em stand out or seem especially worthy of attention.

And that, sadly, sums up much of the smartwatch market today — more of the same, without any real excitement, inspiration, or convincing argument that this technology is something you truly want in your life. If Google’s gonna accomplish anything by releasing its own Pixel-branded device, it needs a product that pushes the form forward in some new, exciting, and inspired way. It needs something that isn’t just more of the same.

Well, here’s the kicker: Google has the ingredients for that very recipe in its possession right now. The only question is how — and when — it’s going to use ’em.

The Pixel Watch recipe: Parts I and II

First things first: Remember Project Soli — the radar-based hand gesture technology that’s now confirmed to be making its public debut with this fall’s Pixel 4 phone?

That same system was designed specifically to work in smartwatches — in some pretty intriguing ways.

Let’s rewind for a second: Back at its 2016 I/O developers’ conference, Google’s Soli team showed off a newly shrunken-down version of its radar chip running in, yes, a smartwatch — with Android software behind it. Even in that early form, they said, it’d allow a variety of gestures to be performed from as far as 49 feet away from the watch to control its functions and interact with info.

Take a look for yourself:

When confirming the presence of that same Soli technology in its upcoming Pixel 4 phone, Google made a point to say that the phone would be “the first device” with Soli in place — thus implying, it would seem, that it won’t be the only. So the real question is likely not if Google will release another device with Soli’s gesture-detecting ability but rather which device will be the next to feature it.

That’s part one — our first ingredient. Now, back to smartwatch-specific planning: We know Google’s been thinking about making its own Pixel Watch for a while. Even last year, amidst a fresh round of rumors that such a device might be on the brink of debuting, Google deliberately avoided saying it was flat-out not making such a product; rather, it said it wasn’t quite there yet. A Wear OS exec even went as far as to imagine what a Google-made Pixel Watch might have to offer:

Our Google Pixel line of phones is the best experience and Google’s take on it, so I imagine we would focus heavily on the [Google] Assistant to integrate A.I. and machine learning into the device, which is Google’s forte.

That’s the software side of the equation — our second ingredient — and it’s precisely what we saw Google start to pivot back toward around that very same time, following a year and a half of ill-advised Wear OS flailing. We’ve long discussed how a focus on easily glanceable info and predictive intelligence could tap into Google’s unique set of strengths and serve as a strong foundation for its smartwatch platform, but the reality remains that interacting with info on a tiny wrist-based screen just isn’t particularly pleasant, no matter what sort of software is involved. And that’s precisely where Soli and its gesture-sensing technology could fit into the puzzle.

See how this is all starting to come together? And there’s one more piece to this puzzle yet.

The Pixel Watch recipe: Part III

Even beyond further refinements to the Assistant experience and a vastly improved method of interacting with the interface, a Google-made watch would need to look good if it were gonna have any chance of selling well. And on that front, let’s not forget about the company’s $40 million acquisition of “top-secret smartwatch technology” from Fossil earlier this year — something that was at the time described as a “new product innovation that’s not yet hit the market.”

Technology aside, the deal brought a dedicated research-and-development team into Google’s Wear OS department — our third ingredient and as clear of a sign as any that this is an area Google is actively pursuing.

As for that technology, a recent report indicates it involves a “hybrid smartwatch” system that allows physical watch elements to be combined with digital functions, with or without screens in the mix. In addition to creating a more traditional-watch-like appearance, that arrangement apparently allows the watches to have a battery life of two to four weeks — quite the dramatic improvement over the current one-day-ish standard.

Some clue-hunting sleuths even uncovered images of unreleased (and presumably now cancelled) products that match the technology’s codename and seemed to be under development by Fossil prior to the acquisition:

Pixel Watch / Fossil Technology BOL.com

When you put all these pieces together — the Soli radar stuff, the pivot back toward a focus on Assistant and predictive intelligence as the software’s core, and the Fossil-born system for improving both a watch’s appearance and its stamina — well, it sure seems like we’re staring at the ingredients for a standout smartwatch that pushes the form forward in some new and potentially compelling ways.

Now let’s see how — and when — it all comes together.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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The Tivoo Max is a Retro Pixel Art Display That Doubles as a Thumping Bluetooth Speaker

Our verdict of the Divoom Tivoo Max:
The Tivoo Max is a gorgeous pixel display and great bassy speaker, with a wide selection of features and massive library of pixel art–all wrapped up in a chic retro TV package. It’ll look fantastic no matter where you put it, and add a little magic to your room.

Pixels are making a serious comeback. Perhaps we’re just sick of the ultra clarity of real life, and yearn for the days when 256 dots were all you needed to make a convincing character. Whether you’re a child of the 80s or just love the retro appeal of pixel art, Divoom has the perfect desktop toy for you. The Tivoo Max is a gorgeous portable LED pixel display with built-in 40W Bluetooth speaker, all packaged in the style of an old CRT television.

It looks stunning and doesn’t sound half-bad either. With a huge library of pixel art, an army of artists, and a feature set that blows away any imitators, the Tivoo Max is a versatile device that would add a little magic to your desktop, bedside table, or shelf.

Join us as we take a closer look, and at the end of this review, we’ve got another one to give away to one lucky reader.

The Tivoo Max is available direct from Divoom, or on Amazon, for under $200.

Divoom Tivoo Max

Divoom Tivoo Max

Buy Now On Amazon

Design and Durability

With a hefty bass speaker and 10,000mAh internal battery, the Tivoo Max weighs in at just under 1.5kg (or just over 3 pounds). That’s heavy enough that it’s uncomfortable to hold in one hand for long. This also means that you’ll do some serious damage to the case or front panel if you drop it.

The Tivoo Max is a Retro Pixel Art Display That Doubles as a Thumping Bluetooth Speaker tivoo max photo overview

So despite technically being portable, we wouldn’t suggest taking this out and about for partying. It’s really designed to sit on display and just look stunning.

The pixel display itself is a 140mm square, and the whole Tivoo stands at 185mm tall, 160mm wide, and 86mm deep. Four chrome feet sit on the base, with a chrome dial and button on the side, and four capacitive controls on top for volume, play, and alarm. The main body comes in red (as reviewed), white, or black.

As a Pixel Display

The main function of the Tivoo Max is a bright, customizable 16×16 pixel display. The Divoom app features a huge library of art, and you can save up 12 animations or pictures directly to the Tivoo on a custom favorites channel. Your chosen favorites will just play in rotation.

The Tivoo Max is a Retro Pixel Art Display That Doubles as a Thumping Bluetooth Speaker tivoo max photo side dial
The viewing angle of the screen is enormous. The large chrome dial on the side changes the “channel”.

Turning the dial on the side selects other channels or features as configured from the app.

There’s a couple of pre-made “cloud channels” too: seasonal, hot, and cool. These appear to be selections of top or topical content drawn from the library, and I’d assume they update over time.

You can of course also create your own static pictures, animations, or text messages to be displayed on the Tivoo.

divoom app pixel art creation gif
I wonder how many points I’ll get for this one?

If you fancy yourself as a retro art creator, upload your work and you could earn points. And what do points mean? Prizes! Points can be exchanged for Divoom hardware products, so the best creators are rewarded with more than just internet karma. There are also monthly competitions to submit your pixel art creations, again, with real hardware prizes.

Or you can just download the hard work of others. There’s no shame in not being a creator! Divoom has been around a while, so there’s a lot to choose from.

As a Speaker

Featuring dual 10W speakers for stereo sound, plus a 20W subwoofer, the audio quality from the Tivoo Max is surprisingly good. It’s easily better than your Amazon Echo, but not quite as good as a Sonos One. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with the sound at this price point, that’s for sure. You can hear a sample in the review video.

rear of divoom tivoo max showing sub cone

There’s a visualizer channel too, so if you have audio playing through Bluetooth or the local SD card, you’ll get a selection of music-reactive animations to choose from. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to work with ambient audio, so if your music is coming from elsewhere, the visualizer will remain static.

GIF of tivoo max music reactive channel

The only slightly annoying quirk I found with the Tivoo was that as the primary purpose is to be a display, it was left on most of the time. This meant I had to micromanage the Bluetooth audio connection. With most Bluetooth speakers, you’d only turn them on when you actually want to use them, so the automatic connection is a time saver. With the Tivoo, you may need to turn your Bluetooth off if you don’t want it randomly redirecting your audio when you walk near.

And More

While not truly being a smart speaker, in that there’s no Alexa or Google Home connectivity, the Tivoo Max can nonetheless run a selection of “apps”. Most of these actually run on your phone while using the LED display for visual output. At current count:

  • A basic version of Tetris and Breakout, played a little awkwardly using the dial on the side.
  • Magic 8-ball, and a dice roller.
  • A Slot machine, where you can win actual Divoom points.
  • Clock, alarm, weather, date display etc (these don’t require your phone).
  • Daily planner, which alerts you at certain times of the day (also doesn’t need your phone).
  • Stopwatch and countdown timer.
  • Sleep timer with built-in white noise samples and night light.
  • Scoreboard.
  • Volume meter.
  • “DJ Mixer”, which is a collection of sound samples (bass, synth and vocal loops etc) with corresponding reactive pixel art.

You can also configure notifications of social alerts from your phone, though these consist of a large social icon flashing on the screen, and don’t actually read your messages. I’m not sure we need any hints to direct our diminishing attention to a phone screen, but it’s there if you want.

The "DJ Mixer" app from Divoom
The “DJ Mixer” is very basic, so anything I made on it sounded awful due to the lack of automated beat matching (and my atrocious sense of rhythm).

There’s lot of amusing distractions then, and apps that will prove more useful in different situations. As a desktop gadget, the daily planner would be great. For instance, I understand it’s all the rage now to have hourly alerts telling you to drink water, among those whose sense of thirst is broken. As a bedside clock, the sleep timer is obviously useful. And I’m sure you could amuse your nephew or niece for literally minutes with the games (while recounting stories of how computers used to be).

But most of us will probably just ignore these features, and use it as a nice speaker and incredibly good looking pixel display.

Should You Buy a Tivoo Max?

The Tivoo Max is a gorgeous and versatile device with features that suit various tasks around the home. Buut a large chunk of the price comes from the hefty built-in speaker. If you’re purely looking for a portable Bluetooth speaker, this probably isn’t it. You’re probably seeking something a little more durable, that you can carry around and won’t destroy by dropping it. Take a look at the UE Boom

Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 2: A Bombproof Bluetooth Speaker

Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 2: A Bombproof Bluetooth Speaker

The Wonderboom 2 is a rugged Bluetooth speaker with a punchy 360 sound, up to 13 hours of playtime, and a stereo pairing option.
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series if you’re not particularly invested in the idea of having a music reactive pixel display attached to your speaker.

Divoom Tivoo Max

Divoom Tivoo Max

Buy Now On Amazon

On the other hand, if you’re really keen on a pixel display but don’t particularly need the speaker element, check out the Divoom Pixoo instead. It’s a lot cheaper (around $50), and the display is actually slightly larger.

Divoom Tivoo Max

Divoom Tivoo Max

Buy Now On Amazon

However, if you’re after a magical desktop gadget or art piece for your home–which also happens to be a rather great-sounding Bluetooth speaker–the Tivoo Max is perfect. It’s the best sounding device in Divoom’s extensive range, but there are other options to suit every price point and feature set. Divoom are also currently running an IndieGogo campaign for their latest design, the Ditoo (review coming soon!)

Enter the Competition!

Divoom Tivoo Max Pixel Art Display and Portable Speaker Giveaway

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How to Get Settlement Money if You Bought an Original Google Pixel – Review Geek

Google Pixel
Cameron Summerson

If you have an original Pixel or Pixel XL that was manufactured before January 4th, 2017, then you may be entitled to up to $500 from a $7.25m class-action lawsuit against Google for knowingly selling devices with faulty microphones.

There are, of course, a few stipulations. First of all, you need to have purchased your Pixel before January 4th, 2017 and not gotten a replacement that was manufactured after January 3, 2017, or a refurb unit after June 5, 2017. There are various payouts for Pixel owners depending on how many different devices they had issues on, but it looks a little something like this (in order of payout):

  • All Pixel owners: If you bought a Pixel, you’re entitled to $20—even if you didn’t have any issues. That’s free lunch for just owning a phone, my dude.
  • If you paid a deductible to get a replacement phone: You’re entitled to get your deductible back. You’ll have to offer proof, of course.
  • If you had audio issues on more than one Pixel: If you can prove you had microphone or speaker issues on more than one phone, you can get $500. Boom.
  • If you had the issue on one Pixel: If you had the issue, can prove it, and didn’t pay a deductible to get a new phone, then you’re entitled to up to $350. If there isn’t enough money to cover all those payments, each will be paid out proportionally.

The odds are you’re at least owed $20 (because literally everyone who owns a Pixel is owed $20), but if you have supporting documentation that verifies you had the issue on at least one phone, then you could score a bunch more funds. It’s the least Google can do for the hassle, right?

For more information and to file your claim, head to PixelSettlement.com.

[via Doctor of Credit]

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The unexpected side effect of Google’s Pixel 4 phone

Look, I get what you’re probably thinking right now. I’m normally the guy who calls shenanigans when some over-the-top article claims an unreleased product is somehow “changing everything” in a suspiciously vague way.

Such grandiose claims deserve to be scrutinized and, in most cases, brushed off as sensational silliness. This, however, is not one of those situations.

We’ve talked plenty about the radar technology in Google’s upcoming Pixel 4 phone and how it could, at least in theory, be a significant point of differentiation not only for the Pixel 4 but for much of Google’s self-made hardware lineup. And all of that is true, at least on a theoretical level (for now). Today, though, I wanted to explore another side of the Pixel 4’s pending arrival — one that’s less about the device itself and more about the way Google’s presenting it.

In past years, y’see, Google has suffered from an increasingly common fate in our modern-day mobile tech universe — a little somethin’ I like to call smartphone thunder theft (a catchy phrase if I’ve ever heard one; dibs on using that as a future band name). You know what I’m talking about, right? The way it’s damn near impossible for a device-maker these days to keep much of anything under wraps and hang onto any significant surprises for its grand reveal of a high-profile product.

Leaks are everywhere, and given the nature of phone hardware and the large number of parties invariably involved with the process, plugging up those leaks is easier said than done. And yet, almost all the major smartphone manufacturers cling onto the tired old playbook of holding a splashy press conference at which some casually dressed executive goes through the motions of “unveiling” a shiny new device. By design, they have to act like they’re showing us something we haven’t seen a thousand times already, probably in high-resolution detail.

It feels almost painfully contrived — like the folks on stage clearly know no significant surprises are involved but are forced to play the role, anyway, and go through the motions of the New Cellular Telephone Event (because it’s not just a press conference, damn it, it’s an event — and probably a special event, at that). It’s a trope introduced by Apple during the Steve Jobs era of showmanship and emulated by pretty much everyone still today.

But so much has changed since the theatrical unveilings of those early smartphones, and nowadays, the motions feel both antiquated and awkward — for a number of reasons, not least of which is the limited level of actual surprise remaining by the time the VP of Relatable Hoodie-Wearing takes the stage.

Well, this year, Google seems to be flipping the script. Instead of following the standard prescribed PR strategy of ignoring every leak that comes along, citing a broad policy against “commenting on leaks and speculation,” and then going through the big “SURPRISE!” charade weeks later as if nothing had happened, Google is actually now embracing the leaks and one-upping them with its own prematurely self-leaked stream (a series of words that’d be serious cause for concern in any other scenario). And by doing so, it’s reclaiming control of the narrative surrounding its upcoming phone.

It all started almost two months ago, when Google took the jaw-dropping step of responding to an emerging series of leaks showing the Pixel 4’s physical design by posting an actual image of the phone on its own — via its Made by Google Twitter account.

Pixel 4 Google Tweet Twitter

The message was simple: “Yeah, this is the phone. So what? What really matters is what’s on the inside” — a message Google pushed forward even further with its confirmation of the Pixel 4’s radar-driven hand gesture system last week.

It’s a notion we’ve talked about plenty in these virtual quarters of ours — the idea that Google’s Pixel phones aim to stand out from the pack by emphasizing the area in which no other Android device-maker can truly compete: software. The strategy showed up with the company’s first-ever Pixel phone in 2016, became even more apparent with the second-gen follow-up a year later, and grew into a thematic part of the phone’s presentation with last year’s third-gen model. So in some ways, going this extra step with the Pixel 4 and deflating its own big reveal ahead of time seems like a strangely natural progression for Google to make.

It also seems like a sensible shift for the current state of smartphone hardware, where devices themselves are rarely all that exciting (or at least rarely exciting for any legitimate real-world reason). Moving away from the manufactured awe surrounding a phone’s form, acknowledging the external vessel for what it is, and then even talking a little about the device’s more unusual elements in a deliberate-drip approach both neutralizes the leaks and reframes the focus where it makes the most sense for a phone in 2019 — on the innards, the user experience, the parts of the product that actually affect you most directly on a day-to-day basis over the years that you own it and not just on the superficial qualities you think about for the first 24 hours it’s in your hands.

Interestingly, it could also steal some of the thunder from the inevitable theatrical reveal of Apple’s iPhone 11 — a New Cellular Telephone Event expected to occur in early September, probably several weeks ahead of Google’s official Pixel launch. The iPhone 11 is expected to look curiously similar to the Pixel 4 in design, all the way down to the square-shaped multicamera module. (Both phones have been under development for many months now, so let’s spare ourselves the pointless “who copied whom” game, shall we?) Apple will effectively be the second company to show off a phone with such a form, then, despite the fact that it’ll be the first to hold an event around it.

Now, is this shift suddenly going to catapult the Pixel from niche-player status to industry-dominating device? Of course not. It does, however, feel like a refreshingly prudent pivot — an entirely appropriate change for Google, in particular, and one that can only help the Pixel’s position.

Here’s hoping it’s just the first step in a long overdue move away from an outmoded era.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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How Google’s Pixel 4 radar system could be more than a gimmick

Ladies and gentlemen, the future is upon us.

Well, either that, or we’re about to be fed yet another Impressive-Seeming Phone Feature™ that looks incredible in marketing videos but ends up being more limited-use novelty than life-changing tech tool in the real world.

Ever since Google confirmed the presence of a radar-based hand-gesture detection system in its upcoming Pixel 4 phone, ample attention has been heaped onto the question of whether such a system would be incredible or ineffectual — whether it’d represent a new and transformative way of interacting with our phones or merely be a new twist on a tired old gimmick.

To be sure, Android device-makers have worked to get our attention with gesture controls before. Most recently, LG tried its hand at the task by showing off a feature it called Air Motion on its LG G8 ThinQ (gesundheit!) flagship.

Here’s how it worked, in LG’s implementation: You’d hold your hand up four inches from the phone’s front-facing camera for a few seconds until the camera noticed — then, from there, progress into curling your hand into a claw-like shape and waiting another few seconds for the system to recognize that. Then, you’d be ready to roll and could move your hand in one of a few different patterns with the hope that the camera would pick up on what you were trying to do.

If you think that sounds awkward, just wait til you see how it looks:


The system was about as effective as you’d expect, and reviewers tore it to shreds accordingly. The website 9to5Google said: “Eight times out of 10, Air Motion doesn’t actually detect your hand, and the couple of times it does, it barely works. You have to perfectly place your hand to get this sort of thing working, and even then, it takes so much longer to get the feature working.”

Tom’s Guide was even more blunt: “In theory, Hand ID and Air Motion are revelatory. In practice, they made me want to throw the G8 ThinQ directly in the nearest trash can.”

And Android Central was equally unmoved: “While it has promise, unfortunately, it’s effectively a flop. Despite lots of training and experimentation, I just can’t get the G8 to recognize my hand gestures very often or very quickly.”

So why should this new Pixel system be any different? Why shouldn’t we write it off right away as an equally insignificant gimmick? Why we should pay any attention at all to what Google’s doing here?

I certainly can’t answer any of those questions definitively at this point. It’s entirely possible Google’s Pixel 4 hand gesture system will be more sparkle than substance and won’t be something we’ll want to use in the real world. At the very least, though, I’m optimistic this situation could be different — that there may be more to this story than substance-free, marketing-friendly flash.

And there are three specific reasons why.

1. Accuracy

Much of the failure of LG’s hand gesture system, as our friendly neighborhood reviewers noted, revolved around the fact that the thing just wasn’t very good at figuring out what you were trying to do. I mean, c’mon: Even just activating the system sounds like an exercise in frustration — and after that, you’re relying on what’s ultimately a fancy camera sensor to detect your gestures and interpret them accordingly.

Google’s system, in contrast, uses a shrunken-down radar chip created by the company’s Motorola-born Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group. It’s something the group has been working on independent of Android since 2015, and it’s something we’ve seen demoed numerous times along the way.

The whole point of using radar, as I explained in my in-depth Project Soli exploration earlier this summer, is that it’s supposedly able to track the tiniest hand movements — “micromotions” or “twitches,” as they’re lovingly called. The system built around it, according to ATAP’s engineers, was designed to “extract specific gesture information” from the radar signal at a “high frame rate.”

What that ultimately means is that the chip can, at least in theory, sense precisely and reliably how you’re moving your hand — making a twisting-like motion as if you were turning a volume knob up or down, for instance, or tapping your thumb and index finger together as if you were tapping a button — and then perform an action on your device that’s mapped to that specific movement. And it doesn’t require any complicated, time-requiring sequence of hocus-pocus hand-into-claw manipulation to activate.

See for yourself:

What’s more, “even though these controls are virtual,” Google’s ATAP team has said, the interactions “feel physical and responsive” — with feedback “generated by the haptic sensation of fingers touching each other.”

Now, let’s be clear: Seeing the setup in a carefully controlled demo isn’t the same as actually using it in the real world. But it’s pretty apparent that this is a different level of technology than what LG attempted and that it has the potential to open up some interesting new doors.

Even if it works well, though, it has to offer some genuine, practical benefit beyond mere novelty. And that’s where our next two reasons for optimism come into play.

2. Distance

LG’s gesture detection system, much like Samsung’s Air Gesture feature before it, requires you to hold your hand a few short inches from your phone’s screen — at which point it’s easy to think, “Well, golly jeepers: If my hand is four inches in front of my phone already, why don’t I just reach out and touch the dad-gummed thing instead of fussing around with all this hand gesture mumbo-jumbo?”

Use of “dad-gummed” aside, it’s a perfectly reasonable question to ponder. And it’s another area where Google’s Pixel 4 radar system should — or at least could — be different.

According to previous ATAP demos, the Project Soli radar system can sense and detect gestures being performed as far as 15 meters — roughly 49 feet — away. Forty-nine feet! That’s almost a third of the width of a U.S. football field. And since it’s using radar, not a camera, to “see” and interpret your hand gestures, you shouldn’t have to position your hand directly in any line of sight in order for your commands to be detected.

Imagine — provided, of course, that this all works as well as the demos suggest — what sorts of practical possibilities that could create for controlling your phone while you’re driving, running, working out, working outside, or doing (ahem) anything else where your hands aren’t readily available.

And on a related note…

3. Ability to detect through materials

This last factor is huge: According to Google’s ATAP group, the nature of the radar technology being used in the Pixel 4 allows the system to detect hand movements even through fabrics — without any visible path between your hand and the gadget.

Again, we’re going off of unproven information here and working without the context of the Pixel 4’s specific implementation, but the technology’s general capability certainly suggests the Soli-enabled gestures could work even when a phone is tucked away in a pocket, purse, or backpack. Intriguing, no?

Still, even if we go out on a limb and assume that this all works consistently well, even in messy real-world conditions, there’s more to consider.

The bigger picture

No matter how much we may know about the technology behind Google’s Pixel 4 gesture system, there’s one big, prickly unknown — and that’s what exactly the phone’s gestures will empower us to do. In its initial tease of the feature this week, Google mentioned the system allowing you to skip songs, snooze alarms, and silence phone calls — three tasks that certainly make sense as things you’d want to do when you can’t easily swipe around on your phone’s screen, for one reason or another, but also a relatively limited set of actions for such a powerful-seeming piece of technology.

Google also, however, said something that seems significant: “These capabilities are just the start, and just as Pixels get better over time, Motion Sense will evolve as well.”

So what else could the system eventually accomplish? All it takes is a little creative thinking to imagine the possibilities. It’s entirely conceivable to consider this technology letting you swipe your hand left or right from across the room to move through slides or images in a presentation you’re casting to a larger screen — or to scroll through a document or web page in a similar manner. Adjusting volume from afar seems like an obvious possibility (and one we’ve already seen demonstrated with Project Soli, in fact). And it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to think of the system integrating with connected smart hardware and allowing you to do things like adjust the level of light in a room by moving your hand up or down in a particular way.

There’s also the fact that the Pixel 4 will almost certainly just be the first of many Google-made devices to feature this technology. (Google itself suggested as much in its announcement: “Pixel 4 will be the first device with Soli” — thus implying it won’t be the only.) Over the past years, Google’s ATAP team has talked about the Soli radar technology working with wearables, speakers, phones, computers, and even vehicles — all areas where Google has a hand in creating products.

So, yeah: It’s no huge stretch to say Soli could eventually become the common thread across Google’s various device lines and serve as a distinguishing feature no other company is likely to match. It could be the missing piece of the puzzle that really, truly shows off the value of Google’s homegrown hardware effort and its end-to-end control of the entire user experience.

For now, there’s every reason to remain skeptical about how Soli will fare outside of Google’s walls and how valuable it’ll be from a tech-using-human perspective. But there are also some pretty compelling reasons to be optimistic — to think that maybe, just maybe, there might be more to this than what we’ve seen before.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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So, Let’s Talk About the Pixel 4 – Review Geek

The Google Pixel 4

Yesterday, Google boldly responded to recent Pixel 4 leaks by showing off the phone. Soon after, speculation and theories started to crop up all over—but we need to take a step back and relax. It’s going to be okay.

The First Takes Are Always Negative

It’s an all too common theme in the world of smartphones leaks: a render, press leak, or similar image drops, giving the world its first look at an upcoming device. Then the speculation starts, and hot takes pour out as if they were fact. And more often than not, they end up being hyperbolic takes over an arguably questionable design decision. Then, once the device is released, the new, proper takes emerge: you know, this isn’t so bad!

I’ve seen it more times than I can count, and I’m not sure it’s ever truer than with Pixel phones. For some reason, these are the phones that everyone loves to hate during “leak season” but also loves to love once they’re released. There will always be polarizing takes when it comes to smartphone leaks, but even then the Pixel line is somewhat of an enigma in its ability to end up on the extreme ends of the spectrum—hated for the smallest details when the leaks show up and loved for nearly everything else after release.

Of course, there’s one major difference with this new image: it’s official. A Pixel 4 leak landed a few days ago, but instead of ignoring it, Google did something awesome and owned it by sharing its own image of the back of the Pixel 4. This was an especially bold move by the company because the back of the phone is arguably the most interesting—and polarizing—when compared to older generations of the phone. It’s a smart move because it got people talking.

And unlike past Pixel leaks, which were just that—leaks—this official image is concrete. There’s no uncertainty, where opinions hinge on “well, it is just a leak so it may not be real.” This is the real deal. That’s a double-edged sword, though, because now the takes are hotter than ever. But just like in the past, most of the hate is probably unjustified.

Dual Cameras On A Pixel Could Be Amazing

The Pixel 4's camera array
Junk in the trunk Google

Now that we’ve seen the back of the phone, the obvious thing to talk about is that wild camera array. It’s a square! And unlike other phones (or phone leaks), where a square arrangement has three cameras, the Pixel 4 only has two. Google always does its own thing—sometimes for the wrong reasons, but that’s a different story—and this interesting design choice is no different.

But here’s the thing: this is cool. It’s fine that it’s a square—sure, I don’t love it, but whatever—but the fact that it has a pair of cameras and what appears to be a third sensor of some kind has me hyped. Here’s why.

First of all, have you seen what Google can do with camera software? It’s incredible. The things that the Pixel cameras can do with just a single lens is unreal—so many phones with multiple cameras can’t even compete. So with Google adding another camera and sensor setup to the Pixel 4, I can only imagine how great the shots will be. I’ve often thought about how amazing camera arrays like what’s on the OnePlus 7 Pro would be with Google’s software, and the Pixel 4 looks like it will be my first taste of that. I can’t wait.

Of course, we have no idea what this camera array is all about yet—maybe the second shooter is a wide-angle lens? Maybe it’s a telephoto lens? Maybe it’s neither and is used for AR? It’s anyone’s guess at this point (which I’ll admit is part of the fun), but let’s keep in mind anything you read about this setup is just that: a guess. Some more educated than others, sure, but nothing is true until it is.

This Image Hints at Other Killer Features

If you look past the camera square, you’ll notice one clear omission: there’s no fingerprint sensor. All the Pixel phones up to this point have a fingerprint sensor on the back, but the Pixel 4 looks to change that. This could indicate a couple of different things: Google could shift to an in-display fingerprint sensor, a la the OnePlus 6T/7 Pro; or it could bring Android’s version of Face ID. Or both! Either solution would require new hardware.

That said, if I were a betting man, I’d lean towards the latter. According to some pretty convincing leaks, the front of the Pixel 4 will skip the notch and return to a bezel, which is where it will house five “imaging units,” that could be used for several things. A Face ID-like feature seems likely, but the word on the street is that the Pixel 4 could also have a radar chip for motion control of the phone through gestures. This is something Google has been working on for some time now, dubbed Project Soli. Of course, it’s inclusion still just a rumor at this point, and it should be treated as such.

Either way, Android is in desperate needs of a reliable face authentication feature, so it makes a lot of sense that Google would include this on the Pixel 4 (and Android Q). So here’s to hoping that’s what the missing fingerprint sensor suggests.

But Really, It’s Too Early to Know

All this is to say one thing: we still don’t really know anything about the Pixel 4 outside of the fact it has a pair of rear cameras and no fingerprint sensor on the back, both of which are firsts for the Pixel line. Outside of that, it’s all rumors, speculation, and hearsay.

And as such, we should all take a few steps back and a deep breath. The internet is full of guesswork—some well thought-out and educated, some not so much—and at the end of the day, it’s all about what you want to believe. But given the Pixel’s twisted history of being the leakiest phones on the planet and the absolute outrage that comes from those leaks, I’m willing to wait and see what’s going on—I have a feeling we’ll all be pleasantly surprised with what happens next.

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Project Soli in depth: How radar-detected gestures could set the Pixel 4 apart

Well, here’s something straight out of science fiction for ya: If a pair of recent rumors is to be believed, Google may be planning to include a futuristic radar chip in its next Pixel phone — possibly to allow for a wild new kind of touch-free gesture controls.

Stop and let that sink in for a second. Crazy stuff, right?

Now, let’s be clear: The chip itself is absolutely real — no question about it. Google’s been talking about the thing since 2015, in fact, as part of its Motorola-born Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group. That’s the same group that came up with Google’s now-defunct modular smartphone system, Project Ara, as well as the also-abandoned Project Tango program that aimed to create a new kind of augmented reality platform.

The radar chip is part of an ongoing ATAP effort called Project Soli — and according to the website 9to5Google, the first Soli-based chip could make its debut in this fall’s Pixel 4 phone. That notion lines up with a separate report from the gang at XDA Developers, which discovered some code in the Android Q beta software that points to OS-level support for a series of top-secret gestures — not the standard screen-based Android Q gestures, mind you, but a whole new category of hands-in-the-air movements that require a special “aware sensor” in order to be recognized.

Oh, and earlier this year, Google got a “waiver” from the FCC that gave it permission to operate those same Soli sensors at a higher frequency that what current regulations allow. In its report, the FCC said the move would “serve the public interest by providing for innovative device control features using touchless hand gesture technology.”

Good golly, Miss Soli, there sure is a lot going on here. Let’s step back for a second and explore this whole thing a little more closely so we can get the full context of what’s actually up and what might be looming in the not-so-distant future.

Project Soli’s not-so-humble start

We’ll start at the beginning: Back in May of 2015, as part of its I/O developers’ conference, Google first took the wraps off its Project Soli, erm, project. At the time, the concept seemed a bit far-fetched — like another one of those lab-based ideas that’d blow us away in a demo but never make its way to the real world.

In a video detailing the effort, the folks behind Project Soli described how the chip would use radars to track the tiniest hand movements — “micromotions” or “twitches,” even — and then use those motions to interact with different types of virtual interfaces. The system, they explained, was designed to “extract specific gesture information” from the radar signal at a “high frame rate.”

Translated into non-geek-speak, that means the chip can sense precisely how you’re moving your hand — making a twisting-like motion as if you were turning a volume knob up or down, for instance, or tapping your thumb and index finger together as if you were tapping a button — and then perform an action on your device that’s mapped to that specific movement.

Seriously, take four minutes to watch this. It’ll blow your mind.

That’s all cool, of course, in that Google I/O developer-session-demo sense — the sense that you assume it’s something you’ll never actually see or use in your regular-person life (or at least not anytime soon). When you add in the possibility of this technology showing up in this fall’s Pixel 4, though, it takes on a whole new meaning.

And there’s more to the Soli story yet.

The Soli sensor evolution

About a year after its debut, Project Soli showed up again —this time, in a session at the next year’s Google I/O conference, in 2016. That year, the Soli team announced it had shrunken down and optimized the chip to make it small and efficient enough to run on standard smartwatch hardware — a significant step from the typical supercomputer powers required to run most radar technology.

“If you can make something run on a smartwatch, you can make it run anywhere you want,” Soli head honcho Ivan Poupyrev explained.

Project Soli Radar Chip Google

Poupyrev and his associates went on to note that the Soli chip ran on Android software and already worked not only with watches but also with phones and home entertainment devices. What’s more, the radar could sense gestures being performed as far as 15 meters — roughly 49 feet (!) — away. And critically, they pointed out that the idea was not to replace existing forms of interaction but to provide an additional option on top of the more mundane methods we all already knew.

“It offers a third dimension of interaction which complements and enhances other interaction modalities such as touch-screen and voice input,” Poupyrev said. “We don’t fight with them. We work together.”

The full presentation is pretty long, but there’s a demo halfway through that’s well worth watching. I’ve got it cued up for you here:

One bit that struck me was the gesture shown for holding up your hand to stop a speaker from playing. It’s eerily reminiscent of the gesture built into the recently announced Google Nest Home Max Smart Display (gesundheit!) — almost identical, in fact:

The Nest Home Max seems to use a regular camera to recognize the gesture, but regardless, the similarity in implementation seems awfully coincidental — especially when you consider what the Soli team has consistently said about establishing a “universal set of gestures” that you can eventually use to “control any device around you.”

Soli’s next steps

So what else can Project Soli and its gesture-sensing radar technology do? From the looks of it, plenty. An exploration from the University of St Andrews in Scotland shows Soli performing tasks like counting cards, sensing compass orientation, and analyzing patterns of blocks in Lego towers.

“The sensing technique remains rather similar, [but] the main contribution is the vast exploration into … the counting, ordering, stacking, movement, and orientation of different objects,” the researchers told The Verge earlier this year. The chips, they added, could even be built into smart home devices in order to monitor specific items in a house and detect if anything about them ever changes.


Project Soli and the Pixel 4

So putting it all in perspective, what might we expect if this Soli chip does in fact make its way into the Pixel 4 phone? The clues found within the Android Q software suggest there might be gestures for commands like silencing music or skipping tracks, but it’s hard to imagine the effects of this technology ending there.

Looking at all the demos and ideas discussed in the early Soli materials, it seems like there’s a world of possibilities just waiting to be tapped into. And if this technology truly is ready to make its way into widely available hardware, it only makes sense that it’d find its way into more than just the Pixel phone. Time and time again, the Google Soli team has talked about the technology working with wearables, speakers, phones, computers, and even vehicles. And guess what? Google has a hand in all of those areas in some capacity — so, provided the Pixel 4 debut pans out as predicted, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to consider Soli and its radar-detected gesture system becoming a common thread throughout many of the company’s future products.

As for how useful it’d actually be, that’s a question only time will answer. “Cool” and “practical” don’t automatically go hand in hand, and lots of eye-catching features end up feeling more gimmicky than helpful in the real world. But the possibilities Soli suggests certainly seem more valuable than those provided by the silly and limited “air gesture” systems we’ve seen on Android phones before.

Perhaps most significant, the nature of the chip and its radar technology means movements can be detected through fabrics — which suggests the gestures could work, at least in theory, even if the associated device is tucked away in a pocket or a purse. And “even though these controls are virtual,” Google has said, the interactions “feel physical and responsive” — with feedback “generated by the haptic sensation of fingers touching each other.”

From a bigger-picture perspective, what’s especially interesting is the way this advancement could demonstrate the power of Google’s still-relatively-young homegrown hardware philosophy. We’ve talked from the start about how the Pixel has always been much more than the sum of its parts and how the whole “holistic,” end-to-end control of the entire user experience is what Google really gains from building its own devices.

If this Soli stuff does in fact show up in the Pixel 4 this fall — and if it proves to be as effective and practical in the real world as it appears in these demos — we may see the biggest indication yet of how that approach could ultimately pay off, not only for Google but also for us as humans who carry and rely on its products. And software support aside, the Pixel phones may finally have the killer feature they need to set them apart from the rest of the smartphone pack and stand out from the flailing, tech-for-the-sake-of-tech forms of “differentiation” most of the industry is currently attempting.

Heck, it might almost be enough to offset the obnoxious nature of all the sales-driven, user-hostile changes we’ve been seeing in smartphone hardware as of late. Almost — and maybe.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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