By Samantha Kelly
Google on Wednesday unveiled its latest lineup of hardware products, including its first foldable phone and a new tablet, as well as plans to roll out new AI features to its search engine and productivity tools.
The updates, announced at its annual Google I/O developer conference, come as the company is simultaneously trying to push beyond its core advertising business with new devices while also racing to defend its search engine from the threat posed by a wave of new AI-powered tools.
In a sign of where Google’s focus currently lies, the company spent more than 90 minutes teasing a long list of new AI features before mentioning hardware updates.
Here’s what Google announced at the event.
The Pixel Fold
Google became the latest tech company to unveil a foldable smartphone. Like other foldables, the $1799 Pixel Fold features a vertical hinge that can be opened to reveal a tablet-like display. But Google calls the Fold the thinnest foldable on the market.
“It took some clever engineering work redesigning components like our speakers, our battery and haptics,” said George Hwang, a product manager at Google, on a call ahead of the announcement. The company packed a Pixel phone into a less than 6 mm body — about two thirds of the thickness of its other Pixel phones.
The Pixel Fold is very much a phone first: when it’s unfolded, it opens up into a 7.6-inch screen, and moves on Google’s custom-built 180-degree hinge. That hinge mechanism is moved out entirely from under the display to improve its dust resistance and decrease the device’s overall thickness, according to the company.
The Google Fold includes features you’d find on a Pixel, such as long exposure, unblur, magic eraser, which lets users remove unwanted or distracting object. It also has Pixel Fold-specific tools such as dual-screen live translate, which lets a user communicate in another language with the help of fast audio and text translations on the outer screen.
Google said it optimized its top apps to take advantage of the larger screen but “there’s still work to be done” because “optimizing for a new foldable form factor takes time,” Hwang said. “It’s a process that we’re committed to and it requires steep investment with our developer partners across Android,” Hwang added.
Google is far from the first to embrace foldables, but it’s possible it waited to launch its own version until the technology became more advanced. Early versions of the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold, for example, had issues with the screen and most apps were not well optimized for the design.
But even now, the future for foldables remains uncertain. Most apps are still not optimized for foldable devices; prices remain very high; and Google’s chief rival, Apple, has yet to embrace the option.
Despite great consumer interest in foldable phones — and a resurgence in 90s-style flip phones among celebrities and TikTok influencers — the foldable market is relatively small, with Samsung dominating the category, followed by others including Motorola, Lenovo, Oppo, and Huawei. According to ABI Research, foldable and flexible displays made up about 0.7% of the smartphone market in 2021, and in 2022 expected to fall just shy of 2%.
The Pixel Fold will be available in the US, UK, Germany and Japan. The company said the device will start shipping next month.
On the surface, the 7a looks similar to the Pixel 7 and 7 Pro, with the same pixel camera bar along the back. It comes with the typical advancements you’d expect to find with any smartphone upgrade — better display, advanced camera and longer-lasting battery. But the 7a now boasts a Tensor G2 processor and a TItan M2 security chip, which brings advanced processing and new artificial intelligence features. It also offers wireless charging for the first time on an A model.
The Pixel lineup has long been known for its cameras, and the 7a is no exception. It’s packed with upgrades, including a 64-megapixel main camera — the largest sensor on a Pixel A series to date, which will help with improved image quality, low light performance and other features. It also offers a new 13-megapixel ultra-wide camera for capturing even wider shots and a new 13-megapixel front camera. For the first time, each camera enables 4K video.
The 7a also supports many significant Pixel features, including unblur, magic eraser and an improved Night Sight that’s two times faster and sharper than its predecessor. It also allows users to capture long exposure and enhanced zoom.
The Pixel comes in several colors, including charcoal, snow, sea and coral, and starts at $499 via the Google Store on May 10.
The Pixel Series A line has long been aimed at the cost conscious who want good features at a reasonable price, but its reach is limited. Google sells between eight to 10 million of the Pixel devices each year, according to ABI Research.
“Generally, the smartphones were really meant for Google to showcase how software, and now AI capabilities, could be effectively optimized on hardware and improve the Android user experience,” said David McQueen, a director at ABI Research. “Google has purposely kept volume sales limited as it also has to be mindful of its relationship with other smartphone manufacturers that use the Android OS.”
Google Pixel Tablet
While phones were a key focus at the event, Google also refreshed other parts of its hardware lineup.
Google introduced the Pixel Tablet, which is intended for use around the house, from turning off the lights off in the house to setting the thermostat without getting off the couch.
The tablet, which has rounded edges and corners, comes in three colors: porcelain, hazel and rose, and starts at $499. It will be available on June 20.
Under the hood, the 11-inch tablet is powered by Google’s Tensor G2 chips, which bring long-lasting battery life and AI features to the device. It also offers a front-facing camera, an 8-megapixel rear camera, and a charging dock.
AI features coming to search
Google is also moving forward with plans to bring AI chat features to its core search engine amid a renewed arms race over the technology in Silicon Valley.
The company said it is introducing the next evolution of Google Search, which will use an AI-powered chatbot to answer questions “you never thought Search could answer” and to help get users the information they want quicker than ever.
With the update, the look and feel of Google Search results will be noticeably different. When users type a query into the main search bar, they will automatically see a pop-up an AI-generated response in addition to displaying traditional results.
Users can now sign up for the new Google Search, which will first launch in the United States, via the Google app or Chrome’s desktop browser. A limited number of users will have access to it in the weeks ahead, according to the company, before it scales upward.
Bard gets better
Google is expanding access to its existing chatbot Bard, which operates outside the search engine and can help users do tasks such as outline and write essay drafts, plan a friend’s baby shower, and get lunch ideas based on what’s in the fridge.
The tool, which was previously available to early users via a waitlist only in the US, will soon be available for all users in 120 countries and 40 languages.
Google is also launching extensions for Bard from its own services, such as Gmail, Sheets and Docs, allowing users to ask questions and collaborate with the chatbot within the apps they’re using.
A new language model to rival GPT-4
Google also announced PaLM 2, its latest large language model to rival ChatGPT-creator OpenAI’s GPT-4.
The move marks a big step forward for the technology that powers the company’s AI products and promises to be better at logic, common sense reasoning and mathematics. It can also generate specialized code in different programming languages.
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