Google Goes After Apple, Amazon With New Pixel Phone, Smart Home Device

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Looking to finally enter the smartphone hardware business, Google is going after a familiar foe: Apple.

The maker of the Android mobile operating system unveiled new smartphones on Tuesday: the Pixel and a larger Pixel XL, that compete head on with the iPhone.

The Pixel phones feature thin aluminum and glass frames that come in black, silver, or blue (a limited edition for the U.S.). The smaller model, which starts at $649 for 32-gigabytes of storage, features a 5-inch screen, while the bigger model, priced at $769, has a 5.5-inch screen to match the iPhone 7 Plus. A 128-gigabyte storage option is also available, with the larger device topping out at $869 -- also in line with the equivalent iPhone 7 Plus.

The models feature high-resolution displays that Google said are sharper than the iPhone, along with 12 mega pixel rear cameras, 8 mega pixel front cameras, and Qualcomm's Snapdragon processors. The phones are the first to run Google's new Siri-like digital Assistant and include new features for editing photos.

The Pixel phones are the first conceptualized, designed, engineered and tested in-house by Google. Similar to Apple's partnership with Foxconn in China, Google is getting HTC to assemble the Pixel devices, Google's hardware chief Rick Osterloh, said in a recent interview.

Besides similar functionality and pricing, Google is going right after Apple customers with a new option to automatically transfer data such as contacts and photos from an iPhone to the Pixel when it's first switched on. Google included a physical adapter in the box that plugs the new devices into iPhones to conduct the process. Apple added a similar feature to the iPhone last year, allowing users to port their information over from Android gadgets.

"Premium is a very important category," Hiroshi Lockheimer, head of Android, said in a recent interview. "It's where Apple is also very strong. Is there room for another player there? We think so."

The Pixel phones run a new version of Android, called Nougat 7.1, and have a user interface customized by Google. The home screen includes a translucent launcher that reveals circular icons as it gradually blurs the background wallpaper when users swipe up from the bottom. There's also a shortcut to summon technical support and a digital home button to wake up Google's digital Assistant.

The Android update will be available for other Android partners, but getting the new features will be dependent on support from those other phone manufacturers. The update includes a mechanism that adjusts the screen's lighting based on time of day, and support for a Daydream virtual reality headset that Google also debuted Tuesday.

The Pixel phones can be pre-ordered Tuesday via Google's website and will be available in retail stores Oct. 20, according to the company. They will be available in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, and Germany this month, and the phone will arrive in India in November.

The phones can be purchased in the U.S. as part of a monthly wireless plan from Verizon, Google said. They can also be bought through Project Fi, Google's own wireless service.

Chasing Amazon With Google Home

In the two years since Amazon released its Echo speaker, the household device has become a surprise hit -- and a surprise threat to Google, as users turn to the Echo for information from the web. Now Google is trying to strike back.

On Tuesday, the internet search giant introduced Google Home, a voice-controlled wireless speaker that looks and acts much like the Echo. The device comes packaged with Google's digital assistant technology, a conversational interface that is becoming increasingly critical to the company as its main business, Search, adjusts to a world without screens. The speaker is integrated with other smart-home devices from Philips, Samsung and Nest, a separate division of Google parent Alphabet.

Google Home and the assistant are rolling out nearly two years after the Amazon Echo and its equivalent virtual assistant, Alexa, came to market. Apple is also working on a speaker device integrated with its Siri voice technology.

Google hopes its advanced search and artificial-intelligence capabilities will appeal to more consumers in the nascent market for smart home gadgets. Its new device comes out alongside other products that Google designed in-house -- a departure for the company, which has historically worked with hardware partners.

Google has tried its own devices before, the most successful being the Chromecast media streaming stick. Google is pricing Home relatively cheaply, a strategy that helped Chromecast's popularity. The new speakers will retail for $129 in the U.S. Amazon's main Echo device sells for $179.99, while a smaller Echo Dot speaker ships for $49.99.

In addition to Google Home, Google released an upgraded version of its flagship video streaming device. The new product, Chromecast Ultra, supports TVs that stream in 4K Ultra HD over Wi-Fi networks. Chromecast Ultra will cost $69, more than twice the price of the regular Chromecast device.

Daydream View: A Cheaper VR Option

Google released a virtual reality headset on Tuesday that's cheaper than other options in the market.

Google touted its new 'Daydream View' VR headset, announced in tandem with the Google Pixel introduction.
Google touted its new 'Daydream View' VR headset, announced in tandem with the Google Pixel introduction. Credit: Google

During the event in San Francisco, the Alphabet unit introduced Daydream View, a headset and controller for viewing virtual reality media with a smartphone. At $79, the price is well below products from HTC and Facebook's Oculus, which cost hundreds of dollars.

Google has had some success distributing its Cardboard device, an even cheaper VR viewer with fewer capabilities. The new headset will enable a broader range of VR experiences, like gaming and movies. The controller could also help match some of the features of higher-end VR devices.

The launch coincides with the release of Daydream, software that Google hopes will replicate the far reach of its Android mobile operating system. By making its VR gadgets cheap, the company aims to get its system used by as many people as possible.

Still, the only phone that currently works with Daydream View is Google's new Pixel smartphones, which were also released on Thursday. Google had to meet certain hardware and software requirements, like display latency and heat dissipation, to operate VR on phones, Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer told Bloomberg in a recent interview. More Android phones will be compatible with the viewer soon, according to the company

"The significance of Daydream is it should move the VR theme forward because it raises the hardware bar on phones needed for VR," Gene Munster, an analyst with Piper Jaffray, wrote in a research note. "In 3-5 years most Android hardware will be Daydream-enabled."

Introducing Google Wifi

The company also introduced a new hardware system, dubbed Google Wifi, that uses a wireless technology called mesh networks to spread Wi-Fi internet signals more evenly around homes. Google billed the system as an alternative to existing bulkier wireless routers, pitting the search giant against a crop of startups trying to grab their own piece of the market.

Last year, Google released a solo router, OnHub. Both products were developed by engineers in an Alphabet unit called Access, which focuses on spreading internet connectivity. But the devices were moved under the company's new hardware chief Rick Osterloh earlier this year.

Google Wifi is only sold in the U.S. for now and costs $129 for a single device and $299 for a set of three. That pricing undercuts mesh router systems from companies such as Eero, Ubiquity Networks and Luma, a startup backed by Amazon.

-- Bloomberg News

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