First Bixby, now Google Assistant: Why non-remappable buttons are bad for everyone

Samsung Galaxy S10 Google Assistant

Opinion post by
Oliver Cragg

The remap revolution has begun at MWC 2019. After almost two years of to-ing and fro-ing, Samsung has confirmed that it will finally let users remap the Bixby button on all its current and future Galaxy phones.

The announcement was understandably drowned out by the headline-grabbing reveals of the Galaxy S10 series and the Galaxy Fold, but it represented a potentially huge turning point for hardware customization on Android phones. When the world’s largest smartphone maker makes a decision, other OEMs take notice.

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Unfortunately this utopian vision of a world where all our phones have an extra customizable hardware key may have been torn away from us already.

Just days after Samsung’s commitment, Google announced that it will be joining forces with a bunch of OEMs to bring dedicated Google Assistant buttons to multiple smartphones in 2019.

The only problem? You won’t be able to reprogram any of them.

Blame Bixby

Samsung Bixby on Galaxy S9 smartphone

When asked if these Google Assistant buttons will be locked down as standard or open to customization from users, a Google representative gave Android Authority the following response:

We’re working with partners to ensure the Assistant experience is intuitive and consistent across devices, so the button will not be programmable at this time. We also allow users to disable the button if they so choose.

That’s pretty definitive: the Google Assistant button is the Google Assistant button.

There are some apparent caveats (which I’ll get to), but taken at face value this is a clear cut stance on remappable hardware keys from the search giant, even if the “at this time” part leaves some wiggle room for customization further down the line.

It also suggests Google will force its announced partners — LG, Nokia, TCL, Vivo, and Xiaomi — to lock down the button on future phones. Considering LG previously hinted at a remap option for the LG G7 ThinQ — the first phone to carry a Google Assistant button — you have to wonder if it wasn’t eventually able to do so at Google’s insistence.

The decision is especially disappointing in the face of Samsung’s long-awaited announcement. The move to open up the Bixby button signalled a huge change in the OEM’s attitude towards a divisive feature first introduced with the Galaxy S8 series.

Unfortunately, it seems like the implementation is far from perfect though. While there a plenty of apps and functions you can remap the button to, you apparently can’t set it to call forth a different assistant like Google Assistant or Alexa.

Even if you do replace Bixby, you also seemingly can’t escape from it in its entirety as Samsung’s One UI has baked its assistive commands and notifications right into its very core.

That it took two years and multiple blocked third-party apps to get to even this point isn’t fantastic in hindsight, but for Samsung Galaxy users it’s a case of better late than never, and better this than nothing.

Perhaps Google will eventually add a remap option too. Who knows, if there’s enough outcry from users it might not take the whopping two year stretch it took Samsung to finally give in.

Yet, the timing of both announcements does Google no favors. While Samsung has at least taken a few steps forward, Google has decided to walk in the exact opposite direction.

It’d be a cruel irony if Google’s stance was influenced by Samsung’s choice to hold out on a remap option for quite so long.

Inconvenience keys

Blackberry KeyOne convenience key

The lineage of extra hardware buttons doesn’t begin or end with Samsung.

TCL’s Blackberry phones have carried a so-called convenience key since the launch of the DTEK50 through to the recent Blackberry Key2. All of these have been heavily customizable, culminating in the Key2 which supports three shortcuts as standard and even more contextual functions if you toy around with profiles.

There’s also the squeezable buttons on HTC’s phones which eventually led to Active Edge on Google’s Pixel line. Edge Sense supports various gesture commands and can be remapped to open other apps or HTC Sense features.

Google added quick access to Google Assistant on the Pixel 2 and then the Pixel 3 series with its own variation. Unfortunately, Pixel users are stuck with that stock function. There are third-party apps like Tasker that can be used as a workaround for the Pixel 2, but not the latest Pixel phones.

Related: How to use Google Assistant through your headphones

As for dedicated physical Assistant buttons, the LG G7 ThinQ started the ball rolling but you still can’t remap it natively. The same is most likely true for the LG G8 ThinQ and LG V50 ThinQ.

There are also Assistant buttons on the Google Pixelbook and Pixel Slate. These can’t be remapped either, but the buttons don’t stick out quite so much on a QWERTY keyboard. There are even hints we might get to customize these keys in a future Chrome OS update.

The wild card is the Xiaomi Mi 9, which you’d think would fall under the new “Assistant only” policy. However, in our review we found that you can remap the button to some basic MIUI functions like the flashlight. You can’t change it to summon an app of your choosing though, so it’s still far from ideal.

It’s entirely possible that Xiaomi’s other phone with an Assistant button, the 5G Mi Mix 3, will be the same. The main question marks are Nokia, Vivo, and TCL. It’ll be especially interesting to see how TCL balances the Google Assistant button with the Blackberry convenience key. Will we get two buttons or will the convenience key be retired?

Pain in the Assistant

LG G8 ThinQ Google Assistant button

For many users the presence of a non- or only semi-customizable Google Assistant button on their phone won’t be a huge concern. After all, the Bixby button didn’t stop millions buying the Galaxy S8 or Galaxy S9.

It’s also true that Google Assistant is a far more useful companion than Bixby, which softens the blow a bit.

Despite Samsung’s best effort to improve its proprietary digital butler, Assistant is still way ahead in the race due to its deep integratioon with Android and much wider set of features and functions — with even more announced at MWC 2019.

More choice is always better than no choice at all.

Assistant is also more familiar to users thanks to its stronger presence in the wider smart home ecosystem via Google Home, whereas Samsung’s Galaxy Home is still lacks an official release date.

There’s a high chance Google doesn’t see the lack of a remap option as an inconvenience at all. After all, its spent years honing Assistant into a genuinely assistive companion that’s now an integral part of Android and the wider Google brand.

Yet, it doesn’t matter how great Assistant is or how many people are happy to ignore a dedicated Assistant button. The bottom line is that more choice is always better than no choice at all.

The decision slightly sours what has, up until now, been a mostly positive relationship with Google’s friendly companion.

Even if you have a best friend that you couldn’t live without, you still want a little personal space from time to time. Assistant has so far been the kind of reliable pal you can call on at any time, but Google shouldn’t force that relationship at the expense of a more open, user-friendly experience.

You might be able to buy the JBL Link Bar someday

JBL announced the Link Bar in partnership with Google back in May of last year, just before I/O 2018. After missing its stated release window, JBL pushed back the release of the smart soundbar to sometime this spring. Unfortunately, the company is delaying the JBL Link Bar once again.

Android Police received the following screenshot from a reader. On it, you’ll see that the person’s JBL Link Bar pre-order has now been pushed back to July.

JBL Link Bar Delayed Android Police

What made this $400 smart soundbar so intriguing is the fact that it’s both a Google Assistant speaker and Android TV set-top box in one. It’s pricey, but it’s a setup that has never been done before.

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When asked for comment, JBL provided the following statement to Android Police:

The JBL LINK Bar’s in-market availability is now planned for mid-to-late summer. We look forward to bringing this dynamic, smart soundbar to consumers.

Interestingly, B&H Photo still has the JBL Link View listed on its website. While the retailer is no longer selling the device, it does state that pre-orders should begin again on May 1. That fits the expected July ship date, but I wouldn’t recommend putting money down for the soundbar until it’s actually available.

Physical Google Assistant buttons are coming to more phones along with new features

LG G8 ThinQ V40 ThinQ

Over the last year, LG has introduced a handful of phones that feature dedicated Google Assistant buttons. Google is now working with several smartphone manufacturers to bring the physical Assistant button to more handsets.

At MWC 2019, Google announced that the Assistant button is coming to LG’s and Nokia’s entire lineup of upcoming smartphones. This list of devices includes the LG G8 ThinQ, LG K40LG K50, LG Q60, Nokia 3.2, and Nokia 4.2.

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Google has also partnered with Xiaomi, TCL, and Vivo to bring the Assistant key to its phones. We should expect the button to be available on the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G, Mi 9, Vivo V15 Pro, and more.

The search giant states that it expects over 100 million new devices to be released with a physical Assistant button. Maybe this means there’ll be an Assistant button on the Pixel 4 series?

New Google Assistant button features

Google Assistant logo.

When you press the AI button on the LG G7, it launches Google Assistant just as if you long-pressed on the Home button. But going forward, the physical Assistant button will have some new functionality.

First, Google is adding a double tap feature. When you double press the button, the Assistant will launch a new visual interface. Google states that the screen will display curated information that is based on previous Assistant interactions, the time of day, and the user’s current location.

An example of the visual snapshot can be seen below.

Google Assistant Visual Snapshot

Secondly, the Assistant will launch a walkie talkie mode when the button is long pressed. For the entire duration that the button is held down, the Assistant will continue to listen to queries. As Google states, this feature will be most useful when dictating long text messages or emails.

What do you think about dedicated Google Assistant buttons? Do you want your next smartphone to have one? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

Best Google Assistant devices for your home: Our top 10

Google Assistant launched less than three years ago, but in that short period of time, the machine learning-based digital helper has expanded its reach from smartphones and smartwatches to speakers and many other Google Assistant devices for the home. Indeed, at CES 2019, it was announced that Google Assistant devices were expected to reach over 1 billion products by the end of January 2019.

Google sells its own smart speakers with Google Assistant support under the Google Home brand, and there are many other third-party smart speaker products you can buy that have Google Assistant support as well. However, there are many, many other Google Assistant devices you can check out. We have a quick list of the best Google Assistant devices you can get for your home. Some of them have the digital helper built-in, while others need a Google Home or another Google Assistant compatible smart speaker to use its voice commands. 

Best Google Assistant compatible devices (built-in)

NVIDIA Shield TV

Android TV is Google’s smart television operating system, and it’s actually one of the best you can use. If you don’t have a smart TV, or if you have one and are not happy with its app selections or features, you should check out the NVIDIA Shield TV set-top box. It will add Android TV support to any big screen television, and it also supports Google Assistant natively. That means you can use your voice (if you also have the Shield controller) to command the Shield TV to launch apps like Netflix, YouTube and more. You can play, pause or reverse videos on those services with your voice, and you can learn more about the shows you are watching as well with voice commands. The set-top box also lets you control other Google Assistant compatible devices as well from the Shield TV.

NVIDIA also continues to update the Shield TV with new features like support for HDR video, and most importantly support for NVIDA’s GeForce Now game streaming service which allows you to play over 400 PC games from Valve’s Steam service on the Shield TV device.

Sony TVs with Android TV and Google Assistant

Smart home gadgets

Android TV has also been directly installed on a number of smart TVs. Sony’s lineup of big-screen TVs are the biggest brand with Android TV out of the box, and that means they also have Google Assistant built in the TVs. As with the NVIDIA Shield TV box, you can command Sony’s smart TV’s with your voice to launch apps, look up information and much more.

Smart TVs with Android TV and Google Assistant installed are also available from other companies, including Sharp and Hisense.

Acer Chromebook Spin 13

Many Chromebooks come with Google Assistant support out of the box. That includes the Acer Chromebook Spin 13, which is our current pick for the best Chromebook you can buy. You can use voice commands to bring up information and more on this Chromebook. It has a 13.5-inch, 13.5-inch, 2,256 x 1,504 IPS touchscreen display with a 3:2 aspect ratio that rotates with its 360-degree hinge. This Chromebook also comes with its own stylus, which docks in the base of the Chromebook. You can get this Chromebook for as low as $ 749.99 with an Intel Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 64GB onboard storage.

Best Google Assistant compatible devices (add-0n)

Nest Thermostat, Protect and Hello

Smart home gadgets

One of the best Google Assistant devices is the Nest Thermostat. Nest was originally set up as a separate subsidiary to Google’s parent company Alphabet, but more recently the Nest team was integrated into Google’s hardware unit. The Nest thermostat is designed to work with Google Assistant, via your Android phone or your Google Home speaker. Nest offers a number of advantages over the traditional thermostat including adjusting the temperature when you’re away from the house and learning your household habits to schedule changes appropriately. It responds to remote control from the Google Home or the Nest app.

Nest also has a little brother, the Nest Thermostat E, which brings a lot of the same functionality, but at a lower price point. Plus, most utility companies offer rebates on the equipment, bringing your costs down even lower.

Of course, if you’d like a different smart thermostat, we have a list of the best smart thermostats to help you with your decision. Think the process will be too hard? Installing a Nest is easier than you might think

Smart home gadgets

Continuing on with the Nest line of products, the division also releases smoke and CO alarms until the Nest Protect brand that work with Google Assistant gadgets. Normally, we wouldn’t give much thought to a smoke or CO detector. Chances are you already have both of these in your home. But adding a little bit of intelligence to this tech is not a bad idea. For example, a Nest Protect can link to your Nest Thermostat, via Google Assistant, and automatically cut off your heating equipment in the event of a fire or CO leak. It’s this kind of intelligence that can help mitigate a disaster.

Smart home gadgets

One of the more recent Nest products is a smart doorbell, the Nest Hello, Once you install it, it allows you to see who’s at the door and even communicate with them with your smartphone or tablet. Some models will even recognize frequent visitors and can announce them with your Google Home speaker.

Samsung SmartThings Hub V3

Samsung's SmartThings hub version 3 on Amazon. Amazon

Many of the Google Assistant devices made for the smart home, but not all, do require a hub device to work. Samsung’s SmartThings Hub is perhaps the best of these kinds of products, and the company recently released the third generation model of the SmartThings Hub.

The hub will allow you to control a large number of Google Assistant compatible products, including smart bulbs, cameras, locks, and much more. Samsung also sells a number of SmartThings add-on products to help extend your smart home experiences, including motions sensors for lights and cameras, smart plugs for lights and more. While this new version of the hub lacks a battery backup as the second generation version did, it’s the current product to beat for people who want to link up their Google Assistant devices. 

Nest x Yale smart lock

An official image of the Nest x Yale Smart Lock. Nest

In 2018, Nest teamed up with the connected smart lock company Yale in a partnership that allows Yale smart locks to work with Google Assistant devices like Google Home. The Yale x Nest smart lock will allow you to open or lock down doors with the Yale product installed just with your voice. You can also use voice commands to find out if you left the door unlocked or lock. You can also give anyone who you want to enter the house their own passcode, and you can monitor who has been entering or leaving your home.

LIFX Smart LED Light Bulb

Smart home gadgets

Smart bulbs in your home can be quite convenient. Controlling lights while you’re away is a good way to make people think you’re home. Remotely turning on lights when you’re on your way home is a great way to avoid walking into a dark house. LIFX bulbs are nice because they do not require any kind of hub or controller to work; they just need to connect to a Google Home speaker to enable its Google Assistant devices support.

In addition, these smart bulbs also connect to Nest products. For example, if the Nest Protect smoke and CO alarm sensors detect a fire, LIFX bulbs will pulse red and then turn themselves on to full brightness, illuminating your way to get out of the house. Nest cameras can detect that the house is empty, and trigger LIFX bulbs to switch to a dimmer/lower power mode to help conserve electricity. It’s all of these integrations that make a smart home really start to come together.

Phillips hue lighting starter kit

Smart home gadgets

 

Phillips is one of the bigger names in smart lighting and its Hue lineup of smart bulbs are highly popular. While they are also Google Assistant compatible, the Phillips Hue bulbs fo require a Hub Bridge to connect the bulbs to your Google Home and Nest devices. They can also help to save power when you’re away from home.

Smart home gadgets Amazon

If you have smart home gadgets — or just lights — that you just want to turn on or off, TP Link has a smart plug you can use with your phone or with Google Assistant. Best of all, you won’t need an extra hub like the Samsung SmartThings device for this smart plug to work. The included TP Link app allows you to schedule time for devices that are plugged into the smart plug. You can also set an away mode which turns lights or appliances on at random for some extra security. The compact design is so small it doesn’t block adjacent outlets.

10. Chamberlain Smart Garage Hub

Google Assistant devices Amazon

Once upon a time, you had to have a button attached to your car’s visor to make your garage door open and close. Those days are gone now, as garage doors have joined the smart home revolution. The Chamberlain Smart Garage Hub connects to your existing opener and allows you to check the status of your garage door, and even raise or lower the door as needed. You can even receive alerts when your garage door opens and closes. You can control your garage door with Google Home as a Google Assistant device, but that requires a $1/mo or $10/year subscription.

 

Extra – Samsung Smart TVs (later in 2019)

The Samsung smart TV with iTunes. Samsung

In addition to the many Android TV smart televisions and set-top boxes that are available with Google Assistant built-in, Samsung recently announced that its 2019 lineup of smart TVs would have limited support for Google Assistant.  If you also own a Google Home or another Google Assistant device, you will be able to use voice commands to turn the new Samsung smart TVs on or off, along with changing channels or the input source. You can also turn the volume up and down with a Google Assistant voice command, or launch specific smart TV apps. Look for those Samsung smart TVs to be released later in 2019.

Google Assistant devices for the home – wrap up

So that’s it for our favorite smart home gadgets that are also Google Assistant devices. However, as we have stated, there are a large number of Google Assistant devices made for smart homes that we have not even touched upon. Which ones would you recommend be put on this list? Let us know in the comments.

Android Authority’s CES Top Picks 2019 Awards: Our favorite products from the show

We’ve spent the last week meeting with companies and roaming around the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center to find the very best of CES 2019. From laptops, to smart home devices, to drones, there’s certainly a lot to take in — that’s why we’ve created a list of the best products announced at CES 2019.

Here are Android Authority’s CES Top Picks 2019 Awards.

The best smartphone: Alcatel 1X

The Alcatel 1X is proof that you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to get a decent smartphone. For around 130 Euros, Alcatel’s new budget-friendly phone offers a 5.5-inch display, Android 8.1 Oreo, a 3,000mAh battery, and support for 4G connectivity. It also comes with this beautiful sandstone texture on the back that will instill nostalgia in any OnePlus One fan out there.

What’s more, it packs a dual 16MP and 2MP rear-camera setup, which actually turned out to be quite impressive during our hands-on time with the device. Portrait mode is surprisingly good too.

The best laptop: Dell Alienware Area-51m

Dell’s Alienware went back to the drawing board to overhaul its popular gaming laptop design. Called Alienware Legend, the move marks a significant change in the overall Alienware brand. That includes a reimagined shape and new color options: Lunar Light and Dark Side of the Moon. The underlying sci-fi theme fans love still remains highly relevant.

The first product based on this new Alienware Legend identity is the Area-51m. In addition to the new outward appearance, Alienware revised the internal design to provide better overclocking and a thinner form factor. All this plays host to the latest Intel Core processors and GeForce RTX 20 Series graphics. The Area-51m initiates a new era for Alienware and its fans.

The best smartwatch: Kate Spade Scallop Smartwatch 2

A ton of smartwatches were announced at the trade show this year, and the best one came from Kate Spade. We’re giving the Kate Spade Scallop Smartwatch 2 an award this year because it was clear the team listened to user feedback. With an on-board GPS and heart rate sensor, the Scallop Smartwatch 2 is now a capable fitness companion — not just a pretty watch.

Watch: The best smartwatches from CES 2019

Let’s be honest, this is still a pretty watch, though. The flower-like design surrounding the bezel adds to the classy aesthetic, backed up by the understated silicone strap and stainless steel case. Of course, the iconic spade icon is scattered throughout, adorning the rotatable crown and on the top of each Kate Spade watch face.

A pretty, feature-packed smartwatch. What more could you ask for?

The best fitness product: Withings Move ECG

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The Withings team is back in full force after its brief time at Nokia, and it just announced two new fitness watches called the Withings Move and Withings Move ECG. The Move ECG won Android Authority’s Best Fitness Product Award due to the overall quality of product and benefit users will get out of the electrocardiogram.

ECGs can be literal life savers for some people, and the fact that it’s packed into an attractive, affordable, and customizable fitness watch should not be overlooked. At $130, the Withings Move ECG is a no-brainer if you frequent the doctor for heart problems.

The best smart home product: Google Assistant Connect

For years Google has been trying to become the one-stop shop for smart home products, and the Google Assistant Connect is its next big push to bring even more Assistant-connected products to your life.

Assistant Connect is a set of capabilities that product manufacturers can use to connect their own products to Google Assistant-powered devices like the Google Home or Home Hub. If a product was developed with Assistant Connect, it’s able to talk to nearby Assistant devices and display your personal information (i.e. calendar events/weather) on the screen.

The most obvious example is if a company were to create a simple display without any mics or speakers, including Assistant Connect would allow it to show you content from your linked smart speaker. In this case, the smart speaker would handle all the computing on its own while using Assistant Connect to transfer and display that content on the display.

It’s an inexpensive and easy way for companies to bring Assistant to their products, which is why it’s deserving of our Best Smart Home Product award.

The best audio product: Audio Technica ATH-ANC900BT

Few audio companies have the professional history of Audio-Technica, and when they throw their hat in the ring, we pay attention. Taking aim at the top end of active noise cancelling headphones, the ATH-ANC900BT has the firepower to be a blast.

By using a more energy efficient Bluetooth 5 connection, the ATH-ANC900BT has the specs to outlast the likes of Bose, Sony, and Sennheiser’s top-of-the-line headphones. Additionally, they’re also the most affordable entry into the top-end of ANC headsets, coming in at only $299.

The best concept: Whirlpool Connected Hub Wall Oven

Whirlpool surprised us this year when it showed off its Smart Countertop Oven, produced under its WLabs brand.

The WLabs Smart Countertop Oven automatically detects the type of food you’re cooking. You can then choose from additional cooking options based on your preferences. For example, if you’re cooking pizza, the Smart Countertop will give you a range of crispiness to to choose from.

Related

Whirlpool is also the first on the market with a product that can distinguish between frozen and non-frozen food. Its current cooking algorithm is set to a 95 percent confidence interval too, so cooking times and settings should be very accurate.

What impressed us most, however, is Whirlpool’s planned distribution model for this product. Whirlpool will ship just two thousand units in the coming weeks for $799 each. We’re told the reasoning behind launching under the WLabs brand is so that Whirlpool can better gather user feedback and tweak anything accordingly. That way, it can improve the experience even further before launching a mainstream consumer product.

Overall, we were quite impressed with Whirlpool’s work as is. So, we’re very happy to see a commitment to develop the concept further.

The best mobile accessory: Corning Gorilla Glass Personalized Phone Case

The Corning Gorilla Glass personalized phone case is a surprisingly fun new addition to the mobile protection market. Corning will print any photo you like on the back of its Gorilla Glass 5 which then gets embedded into a rubberized case for your smartphone. The final product is a sturdy case with a smooth, elegant glass back that also has a picture of your spouse, kids, family, pets, or anything, really.

Eventually, Corning will have vending machines that will print you a case in a matter of minutes. Just upload your photo to a web server, tell the machine which phone you own, and a few minutes later your brand new case will pop out. Keeping your phone free of scratches and dents has never been this cool.

Best innovation: LG Signature OLED TV R

LG’s Signature OLED TV R is something we’ve only ever imagined or seen in a movie or TV show. It may shape the future of TVs forever, which is why it wins our Best Innovation Award.

Watch: LG’s rollable OLED TV at CES 2019

A prototype of the TV was shown off at CES 2018, but this year the rollable TV is a real product that consumers will actually be able to buy. The way it beautifully rolls and rises out of the sound bar feels like pure magic. The TV is there when you want it, and disappears when you don’t. It can even be there when you only partially want it. The horizon-line view shows only a fraction of the display for quick access to basic functions. It’s cool, futuristic, and will be a game changer to the TV industry.


Spotlight Awards

It’s easy to focus on the biggest names in technology at trade shows as big as CES. That’s why Android Authority has chosen six of our favorite innovative tech products that may have flown under the radar.

Jabra Elite 85h


Elevating their wireless headphones game, the new Jabra Elite 85h are noise-cancelling cans made for folks on the go.

Equipped with SmartSound, these over-ear headphones adapt automatically to produce the best sound for phone calls, music, and more. Coming in four colors with a rain resistant build, enjoy ANC on the go for up to 32 hours of battery life, even longer with ANC turned off. ANC auto switching turns on and off the service based on your environment. Of course, the Jabra Elite 85h also sound great, and you can adjust the EQ and sound profiles through the Jabra Sound+ app for extra sound clarity.

Insta360 ONE X

Weather you’re skiing down a mountain or hiking up a cliff, the Insta360 ONE X should be just the thing you need to capture great 360-degree video. This 4K-capable camera features Insta360’s FlowState Stabilization, which means smooth footage even in the most

Nuu Mobile G4

Nuu Mobile showed off its brand new G4 smartphone at CES 2019, and it provides some killer value at a cheap price. It comes with a big 6.2-inch display, a 2GHz MediaTek Helio P60 processor, dual 16 + 8MP rear cameras, and it runs Android 9.0 Pie.

The best part? You can get all of that for just $249 in March 2019.

Next: All our favorite CES 2019 announcements in one place

Google Assistant Connect makes it cheaper and easier for companies to add Assistant to their products

Google Assistant Connect e-ink display concept at CES 2019

Google Assistant Connect e-ink display concept at CES 2019

Google Assistant will likely be available on 1 billion devices by the end of January, and it looks like the company is gunning for the next billion. Google just announced a new set of capabilities — called Google Assistant Connect — that will allow companies to add the Assistant to even more devices around the home.

Google Assistant Connect is a way for companies to bridge the gap between their existing products and an Assistant-powered smart speaker or Smart Display — without the need to add microphones and extra computing components.

Also read

Google gives the example of a company creating an e-ink display that can project the weather or a calendar, while harnessing the power of Assistant Connect to show you content from your linked smart speaker. In this case, the smart speaker would handle all the computing on its own while using Assistant Connect to transfer and display that content on the e-ink display.

At Google’s event at CES 2019, the company had a handful of e-ink display concepts with Assistant Connect. They weren’t working, but you could imagine sticking one of these displays on your fridge or bathroom mirror and always having access to your calendar or weather.

Assistant Connect will let integrated products respond to voice commands too, even if your smart speaker is in the other room. For instance, you could tap on your air conditioner and say “increase temperature by five degrees,” while the smart speaker in the other room handles the command.

The company will announce more details about Assistant Connect later this year. We might have to wait awhile for third-party companies release Connect-integrated products, but it seems like it shouldn’t be too difficult. After all, companies will now be able to spend less money and time producing expensive smart products. Instead, Google is planning on doing the heavy lifting for them.

Head here for more CES 2019 coverage!

Google in 2019: All in on AI

With the release of the Google Pixel 3 in October, Google reaffirmed its position as a worthy contender in the bloody war of the smartphone industry. However, despite the handset’s glowing reviews, the Pixel line still has a very small market share, especially compared to popular lines from Samsung or Huawei.

While Google’s ambitions for smartphone dominance may have a long way to go, it made huge strides in 2018 with Google Home hardware products like the Google Home Mini. It also solidified its reputation as the reigning king of the AI and virtual assistant world.

Let’s take a look at how Google ended 2018, and what’s likely to come in 2019.

Pixels are selling, but market share is still small

The back of the Google Pixel 3.

The Pixel 3 XL was probably the most successful smartphone of 2018 in one metric: organic publicity. While Google likely spent millions promoting the phone, the leak of black market prototype devices gave the Pixel 3 more promotion than Google could ever buy.

Months before the official launch of the Pixel 3 was even revealed, the public had already seen the Pixel 3 XL from every angle. We saw unboxing videos, full reviews, and photography samples before Google ran even one official ad for the device.

However, even with all this promotion, the Google Pixel 3 was no sales juggernaut. According to revenue estimates, the Pixel line — which includes Pixel smartphones, the Google Pixelbook, and the Google Pixel Slate — earned about $1.78 billion in combined gross profit in 2018. It might seem like a lot, but Samsung’s mobile division made $2 billion in gross profit from its smartphone sales in just the third quarter of 2018. That was a bad quarter, too.

The Pixel line is doing well — if you don’t compare it to any other major smartphone on the market.

Granted, Samsung offers many different smartphones, while Google only has one line, but that doesn’t negate how Pixel smartphones don’t earn Google nearly as much revenue as competitors’ devices.

Another metric illuminating Google’s lack of market share is its own Android distribution report. The most recent report from October 26, 2018, shows devices running Android 9 Pie — which would theoretically include every Pixel smartphone at that point — make up less than a tenth of a percent of all active Android devices.

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One tenth of a percent of the 2 billion active Android devices is 20 million devices. That means we can estimate there have been less than 20 million Pixel smartphones sold since the original Google Pixel launched in 2016.

Once again, 20 million might seem like a lot of smartphones for two years of sales, but in just the 2017 fiscal year, Apple sold over 216 million iPhones.

All of this data points to one thing: Google’s ambitions in the smartphone market have a very long way to go.

The one thing Google has over its competition is software. Along with a steady stream of Android updates, the Pixel smartphone line has arguably the best camera software of any smartphone in the history of smartphones. It also has unique AI-based features that competitors have yet to match.

We will just have to wait and see if Google can turn those superior products into more sales.

Google’s Chrome OS hardware isn’t gaining traction

Google’s Chrome OS is doing astoundingly well, especially in the education sector. By the end of 2017, in the United States, almost 60 percent of mobile computing shipments to schools from kindergarten to grade 12 were Chromebooks.

School systems love Chrome OS. The operating system is easy for kids to learn and use, and the hardware costs a fraction of what Windows laptops go for.

So why isn’t the Google Pixelbook or the recently-released Google Pixel Slate a best-selling computer on the market?

That answer is simple, too: price.

Google will never gain any traction in the laptop market if it doesn’t release hardware at an affordable price.

Competitor companies like Samsung, Asus, and Acer sell Chromebooks like hotcakes by keeping the devices as cheap as possible. Google is taking the opposite approach and creating top-tier hardware with a top-tier price tag. The entry-level variant of the Pixel Slate is a whopping $800 if you buy it with the (one would say necessary) keyboard sleeve. A maxed-out model of the Slate with its keyboard sleeve would cost you no less than $2,000.

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If Google wants to make a dent in the laptop market, it needs to abandon the idea of selling Chromebooks at Apple prices, at least for now. The Pixel Slate is powerful, beautiful, and altogether awesome, but the people ready to spend that much money on a laptop or tablet will just buy a Microsoft Surface Pro or Apple MacBook instead. It seems like the Pixel Slate was simply made for Google fans.

Maybe Google will be able to command $2,000 for a Chromebook years down the line. For now, it’s a fool’s errand.

Smart speakers are Google’s success story of the year

Google Home Hub logo

Despite the ho-hum progress of Pixel smartphones and laptops, Google’s smart speaker hardware is a force to be reckoned with. In 2016, it was estimated Google earned a gross profit of $49 million off its entire line of Home devices. In 2018, Home products will earn Google an estimated gross profit of $847 million, an increase of over 1,728 percent in two years.

If you look at revenues instead of profits, things get even more spectacular. In 2018, it’s estimated Google made $3.4 billion in revenue off its Home hardware, which is about the same amount it made off Pixel hardware.

A Pixel smartphone costs much more than most Google Home hardware. At $50 a pop, Google could potentially have sold over 50 million Google Home Minis in 2018.

Google is moving massive amounts of Google Home hardware — and the numbers are only going to get bigger.

Unfortunately, the two major companies in the smart speaker market — Google and Amazon — don’t report how many products they ship. Using estimates from market research firms and miscellaneous related data, it’s safe to assume Google is gobbling up market share from Amazon.

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Additionally, numerous research firms report Google Assistant — which powers Google Home hardware — is the best virtual assistant currently available. Most reviews of smart speakers also conclude that Google Home hardware is the best you can buy.

This is all fantastic news for Google, as AI and virtual assistants are the future. Although Google’s cash cow right now is still Google Search, it won’t be that way forever. Google knows years from now, its virtual assistant will be its cash cow, and the company has already set itself in the lead.

An interesting thing to note about Google Home hardware is price. A Google Home Mini is $50 and a Google Home Hub smart display is $150. Can it be a coincidence that these priced-to-move units are the best thing going for Google’s hardware division right now?

There’s still plenty of competition

The OnePlus 6T next to the Google Pixel 3 XL.

Google Search has little competition around the world. Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Chrome are also practically untouchable in their markets.

This is not the case with Google hardware devices like the Google Pixel smartphone or Google Pixel Slate. Even the runaway success of Google Home faces stiff competition from Amazon and others.

In the smartphone arena, Google faces competitors delivering devices with comparable hardware and lower prices. A phone like the OnePlus 6T undercuts the Google Pixel 3 by hundreds of dollars, delivering more RAM, more internal storage, the same processor, and the same all-glass build. Yes, the Pixel 3 has a far superior camera, but OnePlus understands consumers will buy up a device in droves if it cuts the right corners to keep it cheap.

RELATED: OnePlus 6T vs Google Pixel 3 XL

In the cases of laptops and computers, Google is pricing itself out of the market. The Microsoft Surface Pro tablet is on its sixth generation, which means consumers can find Surface Pros for half the price of a low-end Pixel Slate. To make matters worse, that Surface Pro will be able to run Windows applications which the majority of people are still looking for in a laptop experience.

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No matter how fancy of a laptop Google makes, few will buy it if it runs Chrome OS and costs as much as a macOS or Windows device. Consumers will stick with the operating system they know unless Google can give them an incentive to switch — which means dropping the price.

Finally, Google Home hardware is doing incredibly well, but Google’s main competitor Amazon is also doing incredibly well. What’s more, Amazon is doing most things faster than Google. It had its first smart speaker on sale well before Google. Amazon also beat Google to the punch in the smart display market and often releases new features before Google.

It’s a good bet Amazon will launch a new smart speaker product in 2019 and Google will launch its own answer to that product months later.

If Google wants to truly dominate the smart speaker industry, it needs to be faster than Amazon.

Google in 2019

Google is poised to drop some seriously interesting products in 2019. The most interesting is probably the anticipated Google Pixel 3 Lite (which may or may not be its real name).

Up until now, there have been two Pixel phones released each year: the regular Pixel and its XL counterpart. In 2019, however, we anticipate Google will release a mid-range Pixel and Pixel XL, likely delivering the same software experience as the “real” Pixel 3, but with downgraded hardware and specs to make it more affordable.

This could open up the Pixel experience to people in developed nations with more modest budgets, and also potentially allow people in developing countries like India to buy a Pixel. It could be a huge boon for the Pixel line.

For the first time ever, we’ll likely see a mid-range Pixel smartphone in 2019.

We don’t know much for certain about the Pixel 3 Lite, including its price. Google could overprice it and contradict the whole idea. We’ll probably hear more about the Pixel 3 Lite soon.

While we have some info on the Pixel 3 Lite, we haven’t heard anything about Google releasing a mid-tier laptop or tablet. If Google doesn’t have plans to release a Pixel Slate Lite in 2019, it really should. As stated earlier, people who can afford a Pixel Slate probably won’t buy it over a Windows- or macOS-based machine at a comparable price. If Google could deliver a high-end hardware experience in the $500 range (with the keyboard included), it might stand a chance to grab some serious market share.

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Google’s Project Stream — which lets you play AAA video games using in your browser — could also help a mid-range Chrome OS tablet sell. If Google could make a Chromebook or tablet run pretty much anything on a virtual server, Chrome OS would really have a chance against Windows and macOS. Project Stream is still in its infancy, though, so it’s unlikely this would make a huge difference this year.

Finally, we didn’t see a Google wearable in 2018. However, with Google’s push of Wear OS and Google Fit, it seems it’s only a matter of time before we see a “Made by Google” smartwatch.

RELATED: 2019 will be a great year for smartwatches and fitness trackers

There’s some truly untapped potential in the wearable market, especially for Google. It could sell a wearable not as a generic smartwatch, but more like a Google Home smart speaker you carry around on your wrist at all times. For that to work, Google would have to adopt the same strategy as it did with its Home hardware: make it great and make it cheap.

Google’s major advantage: Limitless cash

A Google logo.

Unlike pretty much every other hardware manufacturer in the mobile industry, Google practically prints money from its Google Search business. The amount of cash the company pulls in from Search alone helps fund all sorts of risky endeavors (Wi-Fi balloons, anyone?), as well as more straightforward things like the Pixel smartphone.

With that in mind, there really is no excuse for Google to not be one of the best hardware manufacturers in the business. It has the talent, the money, the marketing power, and the infrastructure to do pretty much whatever it wants. That’s why the low adoption rates of the company’s smartphones and tablets are so confounding.

Editor’s Pick

If Google truly wants to dominate the mobile markets, it needs to start from the beginning just like every other company. It needs to release smartly-priced products to get people hooked, and then release better, more expensive products as the business becomes more refined.

This whole strategy of rushing out of the gate charging Apple prices for hardware riddled with problems and out-spec’d by phones half the price simply won’t get the company anywhere. It understands this with Google Home hardware, but not with other divisions.

Google has everything it needs to make 2019 its year. Let’s see if it can do it.

Next: HTC in 2019: Last chance saloon

Samsung could bring Google Assistant to TVs, lowering wall around Bixby

A new report from Variety suggests some interesting news: Samsung could bring Google Assistant to its 2019 televisions. This would be the first time Samsung has allowed a virtual assistant on its TV products that isn’t its own Bixby.

Although information is scarce at the moment, Variety suggests the two virtual assistants will live next to each other in harmony, similar to how Google Assistant and Alexa are both made available on LG televisions. If this is the case, customers could then choose whether to use Bixby or Google Assistant for all or some of the necessary tasks.

Editor’s Pick

Samsung’s flagship smartphones — such as the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Samsung Galaxy Note 9 — come with Bixby heavily integrated, including a physical Bixby button. Users can install Google Assistant on these phones, but Samsung makes it very clear that it wants you to use Bixby instead.

If Samsung does allow Google Assistant onto its 2019 televisions, it will represent a sizable shift in its attitude towards Bixby, which as of now has been pretty much “all or nothing.” The company has already committed to putting Bixby on literally every product it makes by 2020, but if it also brings Assistant to its TVs, that means it could integrate Assistant into other products as well.

Although there are advantages to using Bixby over Google Assistant — such as better command functionality when asking your smartphone to perform a task — in almost all cases Google Assistant is superior. Assistant’s superiority is especially clear when you discuss smart home integration, considering there still is no Bixby-powered smart speaker available and no third-party integration available yet.

What do you think? Are you going to be more apt to buy a Samsung TV if it has Google Assistant? Let us know in the comments.

NEXT: If your phone has an OLED display, Samsung likely made its screen

Google Home Hub vs Lenovo Smart Display

Google Home Hub vs Lenovo Smart Display front size

There are now a few choices if you’re in the market for a new smart display. The JBL Link View, Amazon Echo Show, Lenovo Smart Display, and the new Google Home Hub all pair the convenience of a voice assistant with the utility of a screen for even more useful features.

Lenovo recently rolled out an update to its Smart Display that includes much of the Google Home Hub’s functionality, including the Home View dashboard. With software parity now on the cards, which of these two Smart Displays is the better buy?

Spec showdown

  Google Home Hub Lenovo Smart Display
Display 7-inch, 1,024 x 600 resolution 8-inch, 1,280 x 800 resolution
10-inch, 1,920 x 1,200 resolution
SoC Amlogic CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 624
(Android Things)
Speakers 1x full range speaker, 80dB SPL @1KHz 1.75″ 10W Full Range Speaker, 2 x Passive Tweeters
Microphones 2x mic array 2x dual mic arrays
Camera No 5MP wide angle, 720p video call resolution
Wireless Bluetooth 5
802.11 b/g/n/ac (2.4/5 Ghz) Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 4.2
802.11 b/g/n/ac (2.4/5 Ghz) Wi-Fi
Dimensions 178.5 x 118 x 67.3mm
480g
263.2 x 142.2 x 111.4mm /
311.4 x 173.9 x 136mm
1kg / 1.2kg
Colors Sand, Aqua, Chalk, Charcoal Grey / Bamboo
Price $149 $199.99 / $249.99

At $149, the Google Home Hub is much more affordable than the larger Lenovo Smart Display. As such, it’s a little more basic in terms of specifications, with a smaller, lower resolution display, a more basic speaker setup, and no camera for video calls. I would argue just $50 more for the 8-inch Lenovo Smart Display offers good value for money, but $100 more for the 10-inch model feels a little expensive. The sheer size may also make it trickier for some people to find a good home for Lenovo’s behemoth.

Read: Google Home Hub review | Lenovo Smart Display review

The Home Hub comes in a wider range of colors, so you can probably find something you like to fit into your home. Lenovo is more limited here, locking the grey or bamboo options exclusively to the different sized models.

Google Home Hub vs Lenovo Smart Display back design

Look and feel

There’s no escaping the large 10-inch, 1,920 x 1,200 resolution display on the bigger Lenovo Smart Display model — it takes over any room it’s in. The high pixel density lends itself nicely to displaying Google Photos in Ambient Mode and playing back videos with crisp clarity. Colors pop, brightness is great, and the 86-degree viewing angle makes sure you can see the display from virtually anywhere in a room. The smaller 8-inch version makes do with a 1,280 x 800 resolution, which still handily beats out the Google Home Hub’s 7-inch, 1,024 x 600 panel.

The Lenovo Smart Display is elegantly designed, boasting a curved bamboo back that lets you stand the display vertically as well as horizontally. Don’t let that sell you on this, though — the UI doesn’t shift into a portrait mode when the hub is on its side apart from when making video calls. This makes the whole design pretty much useless as I can’t see people flipping the hub up just to make video calls. I wonder if Lenovo had thought it might have been able to do more with the UI at some point in early development.

If you’re primarily looking for a picture frame or small castable TV, the Lenovo’s superior display makes it the better choice.

Lenovo’s design certainly won’t be for everybody, but I prefer it to the Google Home Hub’s functional white plastic. The partially textured look will be familiar to anyone who owns other Google Home products, but if you’re not a fan of pastel colors, the design won’t be for you. Fortunately, the Google Home Hub is nice and compact, making it much easier to find space for — it sits nicely on a desk or side table. You definitely need to set aside some space for Lenovo’s model.

Smart Home Multi Room audio settings menu

Music and video all-in-one

Integrated Chromecast functionality is a major win for both the Lenovo Smart Display and the Google Home Hub. You can broadcast music and video from a wide variety of apps straight to the speakers with minimal hassle. Unfortunately, Netflix casting support is still absent from both products, but app support is otherwise the same as a regular Chromecast. Again, the bigger size and higher pixel density of Lenovo’s displays make them better products for watching back video, though the Google Home Hub is more than good enough for playing back YouTube music videos or following along with recipes in the kitchen.

Editor’s Pick

Speaking of streaming, both products now support multi-room music streaming. These display can be added to home groups, along with other cast enabled Home smart speakers. Speaker quality differs between the models though.

On the front on the Lenovo Smart Display there’s a large speaker grill housing the 10W full-range and dual passive radiator to direct sound out towards you. The speaker is loud, crisp, and packs plenty of bass. It’s certainly better than the regular Google Home, I wouldn’t recommend it over a decent hi-fi setup if you’re really into your music. The Google Home Hub still packs a decent punch for its little size and I’d ballpark the speaker quality in the range of the regular Google Home. It will certainly suffice as a basic home speaker, but the Lenovo has a slight edge.

One feature separating the two is the Smart Display’s inclusion of a front-facing camera for video calling. It’s nice for those that use Duo, which I personally don’t. The Google Home hub handles regular calls, sans video. Lenovo also included a shutter slider to block the camera, which the privacy-conscious will appreciate.

As a home entertainment system, the Lenovo Smart Display’s better specs give it a definitive edge.

The Google Assistant you know and love

If you’re familiar with Google Assistant, you’ll know what to expect from these Smart Displays. The familiar timer, weather, commute times, reminder, news, music casting, YouTube streaming, alarms, and other features are identical between the two Smart Displays. I might not be the most demanding smart home user, but I couldn’t find any unsupported common commands on these products.

At launch, the Lenovo Smart Display was missing a number of key Assistant features found in the Home Hub. As well as the aforementioned Multi-Room Audio feature, Lenovo didn’t have Continued Conversations and the Home View dashboard for managing other smart home products. Fortunately, these are all now accounted for and Lenovo has also increased the number of third-party smart home products supported by its Smart Display.

There are a few subtle software differences, such as Google implementation of a small LED to display when the mic is muted, while Lenovo sticks a black bar across the screen. Lenovo offers variable volumes for audio and alarms, while Google sticks with just a single setting. Even so, the software of these two Smart Displays offers the same core features, UI, and Assistant experience.

Google Home Hub showing feature menu
Lenovo Smart Display Speaker grill front

Google Home Hub vs Lenovo Smart Display: Which is worth a purchase?

I prefer the Lenovo Smart Display to the Google Home Hub, owing to the larger display for pictures and video, and the better-sounding speakers. The design certainly won’t suit everybody and the size means it can’t be a discrete part of your home, but overall I think it’s the nicer one.

As a home entertainment system, the Lenovo Smart Display’s better specs give it an edge.

If you’re looking for  extra multimedia capabilities, then Lenovo Smart Display is certainly worth a look. Thanks to a recent update, Home View isn’t an exclusive selling point for the Home Hub anymore, either.

However, those looking for a cost-effective, small panel from which to manage their existing smart home will still likely find the Google Home Hub a compelling purchase.

Ultimately, the right one for you will come down to how much you want to spend on a Smart Display. The Google Home Hub is the more attractive entry point for those dipping their toes into their first smart home purchase. Don’t count the JBL Link View out either, if you’re after something a little more music oriented.

What do you think? Which Smart Display would you buy?