How did Google get so good at hardware all of a sudden?

A NOTE FROM THE EDITOR

Hello,

It's been such a long time since I sent this newsletter that many of you kindly reached out to see if I'm still around, and still sending this. The answer is a resounding yes, but I've spent some time away thinking about what it looks like going forward, and how to make it more sustainable for me to create this.

As you might know, I created a subscription briefing version of this, delivered four days a week, last year to help support writing more original content. That's been something of a success and a distraction all at once: it's easier to make time for something that earns revenue!

I'm eager to pick up this weekly newsletter again, so I'm going to start experimenting with different ideas for formats, monetization and surfacing it on the web as I go. I'm currently leaning toward a Patreon-style system to avoid advertising, but I'm yet to decide how that might work.

All of this is to say one thing: hey, Charged Weekly is still here! I just got a little worn out somewhere in the middle, and distracted by real life. If you have ideas, suggestions, or something you'd love to see, feel free to say hello! I'd love to chat with you, and understand what you like about this newsletter.

Until next week,
Owen

THIS WEEK

Google's hardware division grows up

Just a few days ago, I was in New York City for Google's big unveil of its latest hardware, setting the stage for the next year. It was an interesting event, with Google unveiling hardware for every surface of your life, from laptop to phone, and even your kitchen bench.

The star of the show was Pixel 3, the company's latest iteration on its flagship smartphone, and it's come a long way in the last year. I was an avid user of the Pixel 2 XL, and suspected that Pixel 3 would be simply incremental in nature if you had the previous year's hardware. Surprisingly, it's much more than that.

Pixel 3 is the delivery of what I think Google's hardware division set out to build in the first place: a premium smartphone, with high-quality materials and the software to match. It resolves the kinks and rough edges found in previous generations, and adds software features that make it more compelling than ever to grab one.

There is the issue of the large device having one of the worst 'notch' designs on a smartphone out there today, but the smaller Pixel 3 is so good I've forgotten about the existence of the larger one. Maybe it won't matter, but it feels like a miss with little explanation on an otherwise strong year.

Perhaps the most interesting upgrade this year is the wide-angle camera on the front, which sits alongside the traditional front-facing camera and allows the user to 'zoom out' when taking a selfie to fit everyone in. I suspect it's going to be a breakout hit feature, and it's genuinely fun to use (the video ad for this feature is genius).

Pixel has shown that someone other than Apple can build great hardware, and Google is doing one hell of a job using computational intelligence to differentiate itself. Watch this interview with the company's head of computational photography to understand what I mean, but it's astounding how much is going on behind the scenes to reliably produce killer photos.

What makes Pixel, and the wider hardware event compelling, is just how quickly Google has become an expert at crafting an end-to-end ecosystem that feels more tightly knit than anything else out there today. Looking at the other devices that were unveiled, it's a subtle shift from years gone by: they all work together, exactly how you'd expect.

Home Hub, the first Google Home with a display, is an extension of the phone designed to live in the kitchen or on your bedside table, and help integrate the smart home, or get your phone out of your hand for everyday tasks. It's how I thought we'd be interacting HomeKit by now, and Google somehow beat Apple to the punch in this department.

Slate, a new convertible laptop/tablet, is the first high-end competitor to the iPad Pro I've seen, at 12.3 inches with all-day battery life, the ability to be used as a full-on workstation and fingerprint authentication.

Google's first-party hardware now covers every surface you could possibly interact with. There's a phone, tablet, smart home device, TV dongle and so on. The glue that holds it all together: Assistant, and it works across them seamlessly, helping set reminders, access your documents or whatever else. Google calls this 'better together' and is essentially selling that as a core reason to go all-in on its devices.

It's surprising to me how quickly Google has become a formidable force in the hardware space, and as Pixel and the wider ecosystem is maturing, people are taking notice of that coherency for the first time.

By offering so many ways 'in' to the ecosystem, Google has a solid opportunity to sell people on their other devices as they dip their toes into Home, or laptops, but it's impressive that this family of devices exists given Google was barely in the game just two years ago. 

There's so much to discuss from the event that it's hard to encapsulate here, but I wrote a little more about my first reactions to Pixel 3 on Motherboard, as well as why smartphone events are so weird now on Medium.

I'll have a larger review in the next few days over on the Charged website, so keep an eye out for that as well.

Around the web

💻 Microsoft became a top-5 PC maker for the first time

📷 Facebook wants to puts a video camera in your kitchen

🎮 The next platform war is for game streaming (and Microsoft's going in)

🤔 WeChat debunks the top fake news right in its app

HELP MAKE US SUSTAINABLE 👋

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A FEW GOOD LONG READS

How Instagram is deciding the future of concerts (Rolling Stone)

Fortnite broke Sony, and here's the story of why (Medium)

How one man built video game sensation Stardew Valley (GQ)

When to stick something out, and when to quit (HBR)

COOL STUFF

The drone that flies itself

I've been interested in the drone space for a long time, but didn't make the jump because it seemed too difficult to learn to fly one of these things without crashing it. I just got a Skydio R1, however, and it blew my assumptions out of the water: this thing essentially flies itself by leveraging machine learning, a GPU, and a whole array of cameras to pull it off.

We took it out for a spin yesterday, and it was so good that I didn't trust it at first: you genuinely just put it in the air, tap a subject to follow, and you're away! It dodges trees, walls and other obstacles on its own, managing its own flight so you can actually do the thing you want to film.

It's such a magic experience that's so rare in hardware that it's mind boggling, and I can't wait to write something about this soon (check out some footage here, until then).

🌎 Skydio R1

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