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Pixel 2 Is a Powerful Extravagance

Cade Metz, International New York Times, Oct 22 2017, 22:07 IST

Like others assistants, Google Assistant could not deal with more than just a handful of simple tasks, writes Cade Metz

In an undated handout image, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, Google's flagship phones, on sale as of October 19, 2017. INYT

In an undated handout image, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, Google's flagship phones, on sale as of October 19, 2017. INYT

The last smartphone I reviewed was the original Apple iPhone, which ushered in the mobile revolution back in 2007. At the time, I didn’t exactly give the device a rave. Two weeks after waiting in line for hours outside the San Francisco Apple Store and paying $540 for the iPhone, I even returned it and got my money back.

It was obvious to me that the iPhone was a powerful thing and everyone — from Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder, right down to the people I passed on the street — kept telling me how great it was. But it was also an extravagance. The iPhone wouldn’t really justify its $500-plus cost for another year.

Ten years on, I’m now reviewing the Pixel 2, the new flagship phone from Google that is on sale. And my take is pretty much the same: People who want the latest and greatest phones won’t be disappointed by the Pixel. But for most of us, this device, with a starting price of $649, is an extravagance.

Google has found tremendous success convincing the world that it should prefer smartphones that run Android, its mobile operating system, which dominates global market share over Apple. But Google has had much less success designing and selling its own phones.

It is not for a lack of trying. Last fall, the company’s campaign reached a new peak with the arrival of the original Pixel. According to reviewers who were hipper, more experienced and less cynical than I, the Pixel was superior to the iPhone — a stance that amounts to sacrilege in certain circles.

Now comes the Pixel 2. After testing the gadget for nearly a week, I found I prefer it to the iPhone — though this is mostly because I have always carried Android phones. Android is what I’m used to, and all my digital data is stored with Google, even though my daughters think I’m silly for not buying an iPhone.

Compared with other Android devices, the Pixel 2 XL, the model I tested and the larger of the two versions of the device, was also a big improvement. I own a Samsung Galaxy S7, widely considered the best Android phone on the market a year ago when it went on sale.

I liked that the Pixel 2 XL’s fingerprint reader, which instantly unlocks the phone, sat on the back of the device, not far from where my finger typically sits. I liked that the phone arrived with only a small number of essential apps, rather than the sea of flotsam that typically ships with Samsung phones.

The Pixel also charged quickly; a few minutes plugged into the wall gets you hours of battery life. Google said the device is water-resistant. And the screen, 6.2 inches along the diagonal, was enormous — though not so huge that I couldn’t comfortably hold the phone in one hand. It was nice that, for those rare occasions when I watched extended YouTube videos, the image stretched to the edge of the phone.

Yet is any of this all that different from other top-of-the-line phones? Not really. And Google knows this. Even the steep $849 pricing for the Pixel 2 XL was in line with rivals.

In pitching the new Pixel, the company focused on the Google Assistant — Android’s answer to Siri — and other services that lean on what is commonly called artificial intelligence. This included Google Lens, a service that instantly identifies landmarks, books, movies and other stuff you capture in photos, as well as a service that, in similar fashion, automatically identifies songs playing on a nearby radio or television.

These were certainly the most impressive parts of the new phone. And they showed how recent advances in machine learning are producing consumer devices, cars and robots that can read, analyze and respond to their environment in ways that were not possible just a few years ago.

“It sounds more normal,” my 13-year-old said. Still, she added that the improvement was small.

That sums up all these services. Many are technically impressive, and some are useful. But they took the Pixel only so far past the status quo.

Google Lens gave my 9-year-old several minutes of fun over the weekend. But it’s not something she — or I — would use on a regular basis.

The service that identifies songs was even more fun and more useful. But it will never be anything more than a tiny part of our daily lives. And it mistakenly identified the musical score at the end of “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” as the song “Chained” by the pop group The xx.

The Google Assistant was the most adept of all the digital assistants, easily beating Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. My younger daughter loved it.

But like those other assistants, it could not deal with more than just a handful of simple tasks, typically delivering web pages or preset answers in response to questions. When I asked the Assistant whether $824 was expensive for a smartphone, it gave me a YouTube video of a guy unboxing some sort of $20,000 monstrosity.

In most cases, it can recognise what you say. But it cannot necessarily understand what you say and respond in a completely satisfying way. That is still to come.

Google boasts that you can instantly switch the Assistant into a mode that lets you type questions rather than ask them orally. But as my wife said, these assistants are useful only because they let you handle basic tasks — like sending a text or setting an alarm — without typing. If I wanted to type, I would just visit google.com.

Still, after a few days, I was rather attached to the Pixel 2 XL. On the way to dinner recently, it correctly identified every song that played on the local 1980s station, from “The Warrior” to “Der Kommissar.”

Even so, I plan to keep the $849 for now. The smaller version of the new Pixel goes for $649, and I might go for that, when I finally need a new phone.

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