If the Pixel 3 Doesn’t Wow You, Google’s AI Will

The Pixel 3 is likely to grab the spotlight at Google's hardware event this coming Tuesday (Oct. 9). But the real headliner will be the artificial intelligence powering the revamped smartphones as well as many of the other products Google will unveil.

Consider the roster of hardware that's likely on tap for the upcoming event. Among the expected announcements are:

  • Two new Pixel phones
  • A Google Home speaker equipped with a display and called the Google Home Hub
  • A new Chromecast streaming device
  • An updated version of the Pixel Buds earphones that provide real-time translation

If you're searching for a common thread with these products, it's that they all incorporate Google's voice-powered Assistant to some degree.

"Each and every one of these devices will have some AI component to them," said Ramon Llamas, research director for mobile device at market-research firm IDC.

That means products that are capable of gathering input — sometimes in the form of voice commands, sometimes by recognizing objects — processing it and responding in a contextually appropriate way.

MORE: What to Expect at Google’s Pixel 3 Event

That shouldn't come as surprise if you follow Google. The company's recent developer conferences, including the most recent one held in May, have highlighted efforts to capitalize on its advances in speech recognition, machine learning and AI.

Smarter phones, Smarter photos

Still, it's one thing to hear about that in theory and another thing to see it in practice. And Google's upcoming hardware event gives us a chance to see how AI can impact the products we buy and use.

The Pixel 3 figures to be a showcase for that, particularly with its cameras.

"Google’s Pixel 2 imaging capabilities were arguably ahead of the best from Apple, Samsung, and Huawei, last year," said Avi Greengart, research director for consumer platforms and devices at GlobalData. "But all three — and LG — are pushing ahead in zoom, wide angle, portrait mode, video stability, HDR, and low-light capabilities."

They're also pushing ahead with AI-based photography. Recent flagship phones from LG, Samsung and Huawei all boast cameras that recognize specific objects and scenes, adjusting settings on the fly for an optimal shot. Apple's iPhone XS and XS Max both offer a Smart HDR feature in which their cameras shoot multiple exposures that are analyzed by the phones' A12 processor and combined in a single frame — all without any noticeable lag.

How Google will respond to these advances will be a fascinating subplot at next Tuesday's event. Both the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are expected to retain the single rear lens found on Google's current phones, meaning they'll continue to rely on computational photography to pull of portrait effects like stylish background blurs.

"Google has been focusing on computational photography more than the hardware, but it would be interesting to see what adding larger sensors or different focal length lenses to Google’s existing algorithms could do," Greengart said.

Other AI-influenced upgrades

The new Pixels could see improvements to the Pixel Visual Core, which is a standalone chip that processes HDR+ photos. The current version helps the Pixel 2 capture some very sharp images — even a year later, Google's current phones remain our favorite camera phone — so we'd be eager to see how an enhanced Pixel Visual Core improves things.

One other camera change could be coming to the front of the new Pixels, with leaked images of the Pixel 3 and 3 XL showing off a second front lens. That could mean improved selfies, possibly aided by AI-powered facial recognition.

Google Assistant has been a mainstay on Google's phones, and it will continue to be on the Pixel 3. Google just released a teaser video for the Active Edge feature that allows you to summon the Assistant just by squeezing the sides of the phone, suggesting that's still going to be a part of the Pixel 3.

And the Assistant may find its way to another potential Pixel accessory, the Pixel Stand you'll reportedly be able to use to wirelessly charge the new phones. According to some rumors, the Pixel Stand could come with support for the Assistant, letting you ask it questions and perform actions even when your Pixel 3 is locked.

Even a change unveiled prior to Google's hardware event emphasizes the important role AI plays in its assorted devices. Google introduced a new interface for the Google Assistant this week that puts an emphasis on improving the visual elements in an otherwise voice-driven interface. One of the reasons for the change is clearly to make Google Assistant for home speakers and hubs with displays — and that includes the Google Home Hub likely to be unveiled next week.

"Google, they're no dummies," Llamas said. "It's all about keeping users in that ecosystem."

And it seems like one of the ways Google is planning to do that is by offering up products with the built-in smarts to complement each other.

Credit: Tom's Guide

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.