If you think the new Pixel 2 phones from Google are smart with their built-in artificial intelligence, wait until you get a load of the accessories designed for the smartphones.
While unveiling the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL this week, Google also took the time to show off a pair of add-ons that figure to significantly extend those smartphones' powers. The Pixel Buds are a $159 set of wireless headphones that also tap into the Google Assistant that lives on your Pixel. Google Clips is a $249 hands-free camera that uses machine learning to know who to photograph and when to snap those shots.
The Pixel 2 may be getting the bulk of the attention following this week's parade of Google product announcements. But don't overlook what these accessories add to the phone, as they could prove to be the Pixel's secret weapon against rival phones such as the iPhone 8, iPhone X, Galaxy S8 and Note 8.
Here's a quick look at how these Google add-ons work, along with questions we're hoping to answer once we get more than some brief hands-on time with the Pixel Buds and Google Clips.
Pixel Buds: Let Google Translate do the talking
The new Pixel Buds starred in the flashiest demo during Google's big product event. Two Google executives stood on stage wearing the wireless earbuds and were able to carry on a conversation — one in English, the other in Swedish — using just the headphones, which can harness the power of Google Translate on the Pixel phone.
Getting real-time translation right in your ear would be reason enough to grab the Pixel Buds. (Another reason: There's no headphone jack on the Pixel 2 or Pixel 2 XL, so unless you feel like plugging a dongle into the phone's USB Type-C port, you'll need a set of wireless earbuds.) My brief hands-on time with that Pixel Buds feature wasn't quite as seamless, but it's still a pretty impressive feat that will appeal to travelers, in particular.
When it's time to go multilingual, just tap the right earbud to summon Google Assistant, and say, "Help me speak Spanish." The Assistant hands things over to Google Translate, which plays your words in that language through the Pixel's speaker.
If you want to carry on a conversation with someone who's not wearing Pixel Buds, you're going to have to hand over your phone to them. On-screen instructions in their language will tell them to speak, and their words will get translated into your ears via the Pixel Buds.
Passing the phone over adds a layer of complication to the translation process, but you can still converse somewhat freely in another language while maintaining eye contact with that person.
The Pixel Buds possess other skills, including the aforementioned ability to summon the Google Assistant. In addition to helping with translations, the Assistant can place phone calls, get directions and give you alerts at your command.
You can also control music playback; just tap the right earbud to play and pause songs. A forward-swipe skips to the next song.
The Pixel Buds fit fairly snugly in my ears, which is an impressive feat considering how frequently other earbuds pop out. Facing out from your ear is a circular knob adorned by Google's G logo in either "just black," "clearly white" or "kinda blue" — the same colors Google offers for the Pixel 2 phone.
If I have a complaint about the fit and feel of these wireless earbuds, it's that there's still a wire — it connects the right earbud with the left one and snakes around your neck. That's an OK design decision as far as these things go, but it means the Pixel Buds don't look nearly as elegant as Apple's truly wire-free AirPods, which cost the same as Google's new earbuds.
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Comparisons between the Pixel Buds and the AirPods go beyond price and design. Like the Pixel Buds, the AirPods integrate with a digital assistant — Siri, in the case of Apple's headphones. Both sets of wireless earbuds promise quick pairing, and both claim to last 5 hours on one charge, with charging cases providing up to 24 hours of listening time. We're going to have to get our hands on the Pixel Buds to do a side-by-side comparison with the AirPods to find out whether Google or Apple come out on top.
Google Clips: Handing off your photos
The appeal of Google Clips should be immediately obvious to anyone who's ever been tasked with snapping photos at a kids' party or family get-together: leave the shooting to Google's camera, so that you can be more in the moment. Google Clips connects to your Pixel (or any phone, since the companion app also has an iOS version), and you can use the app to skim through photos or even remotely operate the shutter. But everything shot by Google Clips stays within the camera's 16GB of onboard storage until you decide which images are worth saving and sharing.
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There's a shutter button on the Clips camera itself, for those times when you absolutely want to make sure you capture a particular shot. But the point of this camera is to turn it on by twisting its lens, clip it to something or use the attached clip as a kickstand, and leave Google Clips to do its thing.
Google's camera promises up to 3 hours of battery life, with the actual amount depending on how frequently it springs into action to take a shot. Google Clips lights up when it's on, just to let everyone know they're on this particular candid camera.
Clips is powered by machine learning, which enables it to know to take a shot when someone's in the frame. Over time, Clips learns to recognize family and friends, Google says. For example, taking a specific shot of a person by pressing the shutter button yourself is a pretty good clue to Clips that this is someone who matters to you.
Hands-free photography depends on having a good lens with a clear view of the scene. Clips aims to help out with that by warning you if its lens ever becomes blocked. The 12-megapixel lens features an f/2.4 aperture and a 130-degree field of view for capturing the big picture.
A demo floor packed with journalists isn't the best place to test out a hands-free camera that's trained to take shots of familiar faces, but the images a Google rep showed me looked pretty sharp. From the Clips app, you can swipe away photos you don't want — presumably, this helps teach Clips what it should and shouldn't shoot — and share the ones you do.
When scrolling through the 7-second burst of shots that Clips takes, you can select a specific frame and save it as a high-resolution photo. You can also convert shots into Motion Photos — that's Google's take on Apple's Live Photos — or crop images.
The success of Google Clips will ultimately fall on whether the camera delivers on Google's two big promises: Can it take steady, in-focus shots, and can it be smart enough to handle photo duties with minimal intervention on your part?
We'll have to wait for more rigorous testing before we answer those questions. But like the Pixel Buds, Clips indicates how eager Google is to extend the Pixel's smarts beyond the confines of a smartphone.