Though new software and machine learning features once more got a lot of attention at Google's annual Pixel event, some big hardware improvements were revealed as well.
At an NYC event held on Tuesday morning, Alphabet/Google (GOOGL) - Get Alphabet Inc. Class A Report unveiled the 5.7-inch Pixel 4 and 6.3-inch Pixel 4 XL. The phones respectively feature $799 and $899 starting prices, and will be available starting on Oct. 24.
Google also previewed a new and fully wireless Pixel Buds headphones, and showed off a second-gen Pixelbook laptop (the Pixelbook Go) and a revamped low-end smart speaker (the Nest Mini) and mesh Wi-Fi solution (Nest Wifi). And it detailed a slew of Google Assistant improvements that will be available first on the new Pixels.
Here are some initial thoughts on Google's Pixel phone launches:
1. The Pixel 4 and 4 XL's Hardware Upgrades Should Be Well-Received
As was rumored, Google's latest Pixels sport two rear cameras -- one more than what's found on last year's Pixels, albeit still one less than what's on Apple's (AAPL) - Get Apple Inc. Report iPhone 11 Pro/Pro Max and some rival Android phones.
Also as expected, the phones are powered by Qualcomm's (QCOM) - Get Qualcomm Inc Report flagship Snapdragon 855 system-on-chip (SoC), have a face-unlocking system (the fingerprint sensor is gone) and contain a radar chip that lets a user carry out actions via hand gestures (Google refers to the solution as Motion Sense). And whereas most rival phones have displays with 60-hertz refresh rates, the OLED displays on the new Pixels have 90-hertz refresh rates, which should yield smoother gameplay and video playback for fast-moving scenes.
Among the features currently supported by Motion Sense: Changing music tracks, snoozing alarms and rejecting calls with hand gestures, and the ability to turn on the phone's screen and engage the face-unlocking feature upon detecting that a person is reaching for the phone. While some consumers will find such features more useful than others, they do act as a unique selling point.
2. Camera and Voice Assistant Features Remain Priorities for Google
A month after Apple revealed new flagship phones featuring cameras that (thanks to both hardware and software/AI improvements) have received very good reviews, Google is eager to remind consumers that it's no slouch in this department either.
New camera features supported by the latest Pixels include Live HDR+, which uses AI/machine learning and dual exposure controls to let users see what a processed HDR shot will look like in real-time; an improved portrait mode (made possible by the second rear camera) that can handle larger objects; a machine learning-based approach to optimizing a photo's white balance; and an improved Night Sight mode that's promised to deliver quality astrophotography shots.
Meanwhile, when running on the new Pixels, Google Assistant will be faster, process more commands on a device rather than on a cloud server, have a better understanding of the context of a voice command and provide more control over app and operating system features. These capabilities, many of which were first shown off in May at the Google I/O conference, should make their way onto other Android phones in time.
3. Better Carrier Distribution and Relatively Aggressive Pricing Should Boost Sales
For each of Google's first three Pixel launches, Verizon (VZ) - Get Verizon Communications Inc. Report was the only major U.S. carrier to sell the phones within its stores at launch time (in the case of the Pixel 3, some other carriers were added much later). Likewise, only one or two carriers have acted as resellers in many of the international markets in which Google's phones have been sold.
However, this time around, all four major U.S. carriers will be selling the Pixel 4 and 4 XL off the bat, as will some MVNOs. While it still remains to be learned just how much the Pixel 4's international carrier support will be improved relative to the Pixel 3, improved U.S. carrier distribution should by itself provide a sales boost this holiday season.
Also, the fact that the Pixel 4 and 4 XL feature the same starting prices as their predecessors could lift demand a bit. The Pixel 4 and 4 XL carry starting prices that are respectively $100 below those of Samsung's (SSNLF) Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus, and $200 below those of the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max.
4. Hardware Design Is Still an Area Where Google Could Improve
Compared with flagship phones from the likes of Apple and Samsung, the Pixel 4 and 4 XL's designs look relatively bland. There are no edge-to-edge displays here, and there's a rather prominent top bezel (said to be necessary to pack the phone's face-unlocking system). Of course, many consumers won't care about a less flashy design if they're sold on a phone's specs and software features, but there's a subset that will.
Also, with Samsung and other Android OEMs expected to launch sub-$1,000 flagship phones with 5G modems during the first half of 2020, the Pixel 4 and 4 XL's lack of 5G support could become an issue next year. However, it's unlikely to be a major problem this holiday season.