Google recently announced new features in its Android operating system and new Pixel devices, including the Pixel Tablet, Pixel 7a and Pixel Fold. If you watched the keynote for Google I/O 2023, you know that Google announced many new artificial intelligence technologies as well. You can also watch my coverage of Google I/O in Episode 168 of the Six Five podcast below. In this article, I want to talk about Google’s new AI features for Android and the three new Pixel products. Let’s dive in.
The excitement around AI today is largely focused on generative AI (GAI), but AI technologies span far more than just the generation of images and texts. Before the recent surge in public interest in GAI, Google had already implemented AI features such as the ability for Google Assistant to screen unwanted or unknown calls in Pixel phones, or the Photo Unblur and Magic Eraser functions in the phones’ cameras. We should continue to see Google implement more AI functionality in Google Assistant and in many aspects of Android like the ones discussed below.
At Google I/O 2023, Google announced a new Generative AI Wallpaper feature that allows the user to create a wallpaper from a simple prompt. It also announced Cinematic Wallpaper, which turns photos into 3D wallpapers using AI. I believe these are unique uses of AI for Android and strengthen Android’s customizability, a key strength that differentiates Android from iOS.
Google also introduced Magic Compose to Google Messages, enabling users to communicate the meaning of a text in different contexts. For example, if I wanted to sound more professional, it can rewrite the text to sound more professional. While Apple is still trying to figure out how to allow users to change the color of their texts, Google is helping its users compose the perfect message.
Google mentioned on-device AI earlier in the keynote with the announcement of PaLM 2, specifically the smallest model named Gecko which can be run on mobile devices. On-device AI and hybrid AI are going to enable even more applications in the Android ecosystem to integrate AI. Qualcomm has already recognized the need for AI processing to be distributed between the cloud and devices. Qualcomm has written a great whitepaper here that dives into why the future of AI is hybrid. AI requires a significant amount of processing power and hybrid AI should enable AI applications to save resources by using on-device processing while leaving the door open for more demanding AI applications in the cloud. An application could have smaller customized AI models specifically for the application’s use-case with a more general AI, also known as artificial general intelligence (AGI), model picking up the more challenging workloads in the cloud.
Google also seemed pretty happy to announce that its Wear OS user base has grown by more than five times since the launch of Wear OS 3 back in 2021—and that it is now the fastest-growing smartwatch platform. While this is something to be happy about, I was slightly disappointed that Google did not announce anything new for Wear OS, instead just offering assurance that developers are investing in the platform and that it will announce more later this year. I would have liked to see more Wear OS announcements and hear Google talk about how it is enabling developers to build apps and connect with the many Wear OS app managers such as Galaxy Wearable and the Pixel Watch app.
Similarly, I did not hear any updates or announcements about Fitbit and Google Fit. The Pixel Watch, Google’s first iteration of a smartwatch with Fitbit features, carries significant momentum, but one of the biggest criticisms it has faced is that Fitbit, a Google company, is “built on,” not built-in. It has been a couple of years since Google acquired Fitbit, and we have not seen much progress in merging the Google Fit and Fitbit platforms. Health and activity applications are a significant area where I could see AI making a tremendous impact, and I believe Google can lean into AI much harder with Fitbit and Google Fit.
Over the past couple of Android versions, since Android 12L, Google has emphasized the implementation of Android for larger displays such as tablets and foldables. At its recent event, Google announced more than 50 Google apps that have been optimized for larger screens with smoother transitions across screens, improved multi-column layouts and a dedicated tablet mode. I appreciate these updates—it’s high time for them.
These Android app improvements and multitasking enhancements should enable more devices to adopt a foldable design without prolonging the feeling that foldables are still at the bleeding edge of the smartphone market. For too long, Samsung has been the only dominant player for foldable devices, at least in North America. Samsung has made it very clear since it debuted the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3 that foldable smartphones are much more mature than they were five years ago. That makes it the perfect time for Google to launch its own foldable smartphone to take advantage of momentum in this market niche that Samsung has been upholding for too long. Bring on the competitive foldables!
The Pixel Fold
Enter the Pixel Fold, which brings exciting competition and hope to this space while also keeping expectations low. Part of why I am excited to see more competition in the foldables space is that Google now has skin in the game, giving it more of a reason to lean into foldable technology outside of its partnership with Samsung. I hope that as Google implements more large-screen capabilities, developers and OEMs will in turn plan for these features. That kind of virtuous cycle could mean a lot more innovation in the foldable market over the next few years.
At the same time, the Pixel Fold itself will satisfy you only if you keep your expectations low. I say that because the only competition it has right now on the market—thus the only product to compare it to—is the Galaxy Z Fold 4. Compared to that flagship device, the Pixel Fold has only two things going for it that prevent it from being a total flop. First, the Pixel Fold is a Pixel, which means it will get special treatment from Google; second, it has a considerably different aspect ratio from other foldable smartphones.
The Pixel Fold has all the great features and capabilities that Google has included across this product line like the AI-enhanced Pixel camera, Pixel Speech and Pixel Call Assist. Google also introduced some unique features to the Pixel Fold that leverage the dual displays; these include Dual Screen Interpreter, a new dynamic taskbar, a split-screen view and rear-camera selfies. The Pixel Fold fits the bill for those who have wanted a foldable smartphone but have not wanted to leave the Pixel ecosystem.
The Pixel Fold also has a unique compact design compared to the Galaxy Z Fold series. The Galaxy Z Fold opens up to a 21.6:18 aspect ratio, making it quite a tall device. The Pixel Fold, by contrast, has a 17.4:9 aspect ratio and a more compact folded design—which Google claims makes it the thinnest foldable on the market. The 17.4:9 aspect ratio is much closer to the cinematic 16:9 widescreen ratio used for many TVs, monitors, laptops and online videos. The shorter design also makes it more pocketable than the Galaxy Z Fold 4, which I appreciate.
However, unless you strongly prefer the Pixel ecosystem or prefer the smaller design, the Pixel Fold is not the best value. If we compare it to other foldable smartphones at the premium $1,799 price point, it does not have stylus support like the S Pen on the Galaxy Z Fold 4 or the Surface Pen on the Microsoft Surface Duo 2. It also does not have reverse wireless charging like the Galaxy Z Fold 4 nor a processor as powerful as the powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon Gen 1 in the Surface Duo 2 and Galaxy Z Fold 4.
I will have to get my hands on the Pixel Fold to get a better idea of its value and give a better comparison to the Galaxy Z Fold 4. Google says it has the best camera on any foldable, and I am interested in testing that claim. The expectation for the Pixel Fold should not be that it’s the best foldable smartphone on the market, but rather an exciting new foldable smartphone for Pixel fans. Like all Google Pixel phones, the Pixel Fold’s success will rely largely on how well Google can enhance the foldable experience with AI-driven features and Google services.
The Google Pixel Tablet
At the same time, Google also launched the Pixel Tablet, an exciting entry into the tablet market that has unique capabilities and great value. Google has recognized that most people use tablets at home as a multi-user device. With this revelation, Google created a unique speaker dock to complement the Pixel Tablet and give it a multi-model purpose.
The Pixel Tablet is an 11-inch device that runs on Google’s Tensor G2 SoC, the same SoC in the Pixel 7 series. It has a similar design to older Pixel devices, with a rounded ceramic back coating and a single camera on the back with pogo pins for the speaker dock.
When the Pixel Tablet is attached to the speaker dock, it turns into a Home Hub. The speaker dock is included with the tablet for $499, and additional speaker docks can be purchased separately for $129 each if users want to put them in different rooms of the house. For $499, I am confident in the Tensor G2 and the Pixel Tablet’s capabilities, especially with Google’s implementation of AI in the camera and Pixel experience. I will be interested to see Google expand its tablet lineup as the Tensor SoC becomes more powerful.
The Pixel 7a
Google also announced the Pixel 7a, its newest Pixel smartphone, at a more affordable price point. The Pixel 7a starts at $499, which is $100 less than the Pixel 7 that uses the same Tensor G2 SoC. The Pixel 7a has all of the great AI enhancements of the Pixel ecosystem, like Pixel Call Assist and Live Translate.
The biggest difference between the Pixel 7a and the Pixel 7 is that the 7a is slightly smaller, with a 6.1-inch display compared to the Pixel 7’s 6.3-inch display. Compared to the Pixel 6a, the 7a has a better camera with a 72% larger sensor and a new 13-megapixel ultrawide lens.
The 7a’s $499 price compared to the 6a’s $449 at launch brings it slightly closer to the Pixel 7. I think many will go back and forth on whether to choose the Pixel 7 with its larger display and better build quality or the more affordable Pixel 7a.
While Microsoft and Google duke it out over generative AI for search engines and business suites, I believe we should see Google implement exciting AI technology in Android while Microsoft implements exciting AI technology in Windows. Google is leaning into its strength in customization for Android with features like the new GAI wallpaper and composable messages.
I am excited to see more large-screen implementations for Android, and I am excited to get my hands on the Pixel Fold and Pixel Tablet. I am also interested to see the difference for myself between the compact design of the Pixel Fold in comparison to the Galaxy Z Fold 4. Likewise, the Pixel Tablet is uniquely positioned for those invested in the Google Home experience. It will be exciting to see how Google continues investing in large-screen Android devices in the coming years.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy co-op Jacob Freyman contributed to this article.