Google is still probably best known for its search engine and Android operating system, but the company is an increasingly important player in the tech hardware business too. Between smartphones, smart home, and IoT ventures, Google is building hardware in the biggest and fastest growing market segments and although it might not be shipping the volume to worry some of the biggest tech brands, Google is clearly steering development in its preferred direction.
The past year has seen the launch of its flagship Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL smartphones, augmenting the company’s inexpensive Chromecast that’s now on its third generation, Google Home Mini, and the more powerful Max speaker. The company is also big on smart displays, which includes its in-house Google Home Hub, and third-party efforts like the Lenovo Smart Display that launched at CES 2018. In addition, Google has its own headphones with the Pixel Buds, and there’s still the focus on other projects like Android Things, automotive, and virtual reality applications. Let’s dive on into the state of Google’s ever-expanding hardware platform.
Google Pixel smartphones
2018’s Pixel 3 and 3 XL aren’t really Google’s second major smartphone launches — the company gained plenty of experience from its previous Nexus program. However, these two smartphones are the company’s third stab at its premium approach to smartphone hardware, boasting cutting-edge hardware specifications, Google’s vision for software and smart assistants, and industry-leading photography prowess. The latter point has really helped Google make a name for itself in the smartphone handset market, showing that the company can compete with the likes of Apple and Samsung.
The theme with much of Google’s hardware is pushing Google Assistant, and the Pixel 3 range is no exception. The company is also taking a more caring approach to user screen on time, with the introduction of Digital Wellbeing. The Pixel 3 XL also fixed the P-OLED display issues that damaged the Pixel 2’s reputation.
Perhaps most notably, the Pixel 3 continues to demonstrate the power of Google’s machine learning and imaging techniques, sporting just a single camera setup that is one of the best performers on the market. In a nutshell, the Pixel series continues to showcase what Google can do not only with hardware but more importantly with its software.
The handset isn’t without its controversies though. Not everyone is sold on some of the UI changes made to Android 9 Pie and the lack of a headphone jack remains a bugbear for many. Just 4GB of RAM has also led many to wonder about the handset’s longer-term performance capabilities and poor battery life continues to be the handset’s Achilles heel.
As competitive as the Pixel 3 range may be, Google’s strategy still doesn’t seem to involve any major focus on outselling the big smartphone brands. Instead, the company’s smartphones appear to exist to showcase Google’s preferred vision for Android and to keep the ecosystem on its toes. The same could also be said about previous Pixel models. Availability of Google’s hardware still falls well short of global brands like Apple and Samsung, with the company instead utilizing its Android One and Android Go initiatives to push its vision for Android into other markets.
Google has not disclosed sales figures for its Pixel 3 range, but industry reports suggest that the Pixel brand is finally growing. According to a Strategy Analytics report, the Pixel range is now the fastest-growing brand in the United States, up by 43 percent and outpacing Apple and Samsung. However some perspective is needed here, Pixel smartphones are still selling at only a fraction of its major rivals. As a side note, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are no longer available from the Google Store, as of April 2019.
Before leaving the topic of phones behind, we should also mention Project Ara — the now long-abandoned modular smartphone project. Ara was axed back in September 2016 after around three years of development, delays, and changes in direction. A modular smartphone was always an ambitious project and it seems that Google couldn’t find a way to unify this idea with its other product lines.
The smart home and Android Things
Google is equally, if not even more well known for its range of smart home devices. The company entered the market in 2016 with the Google Home smart speaker, which was extended with the Mini and Max models in 2017, to better compete with Amazon’s product portfolio. 2018 marked the introduction of the smart display, with the Google Home Hub and software support for third-party devices.
According to the latest data from Canalys, Amazon is just edging out Google for smart speaker market share. While Amazon’s share only saw a 1.3 percent growth between Q3 2017 and Q3 2018, Google’s share underwent a huge 187 percent boom. As a result, Amazon sits on 31.9 percent of the market, Google on 29.8, and third place is occupied by Alibaba on 11.1 percent. Google has previously been ahead of Amazon in the two previous quarters, but 6.3 million Amazon speakers shipped with help from Prime Day deals saw Google’s rival reclaim the top spot.
Google has been just as successful in the home in other areas too. Last year, the Chromecast outsold the Amazon Fire TV Stick for the first time. The Chromecast Ultra revision brings support for 4K and HDR content streaming, ensuring that the tech stays up to date with the latest growing formats. The third generation regular Chromecast also introduces 1080p 60fps streaming as the new baseline standard. Sadly, Google discontinued the Chromecast Audio earlier this year.
But smart home hubs and casting gear are just a part of the ecosystem, the smart device and Internet-of-Things markets are growing quickly too. Android Things is Google’s platform to run Android on low power connected devices. It was back in May 2015 that Google announced Project Brillo as its IoT operating system, but this has morphed into a bigger project. Google doesn’t develop the Android Things compatible hardware itself but instead works with chip manufacturers like Intel, Mediatek, and Qualcomm to support development boards.
Android Things isn’t specifically built around Google Assistant, it’s possible to run stand-alone devices or those that communicate with apps, but this is quickly becoming part of the strategy. Controlling devices with Actions through Assistant has become an increasingly powerful tool for developers too. Android Things 1.0 was released in March 2018 has subsequently refocused around the exclusive development of smart speakers and displays.
Chromebooks and Education
Chromebooks have been another success story for Google in recent years, with this range of devices helping to snag an increasingly notable share of the laptop market. While third-party manufacturers remain the dominant force in the Chromebook space, Google has dabbled in several of its own hardware revisions over the years too.
The company’s flagship product is the Google Pixelbook, a high-end Chromebook featuring a beefy Intel processor, touch display, and $999 price tag. The laptop is the successor to the equally expensive Chromebook Pixel line, and the limitations of Chrome OS software still make this a questionable way to spend your money compared with on a laptop running a more flexible operating system.
Google’s more recent in-house Chromebook offering is the Pixel Slate. Again, Google is targeting the premium segment of the market here, offering high-end hardware with an equally eye-popping price tag: $799 for the Intel Core m3 model and up to $1,599 for a Core i7. Worse still, you have to pay $199 for the Pixel Slate Keyboard and $99 if you want the Pixelbook Pen.
To make Chromebooks more flexible, Chrome OS now runs native Android apps. This feature has slowly been making its way out to a number of older third party models as well. While not a flawless implementation, this has introduced a lot of new use cases and much-needed flexibility to the Chromebook app ecosystem. There have also been references to Fuchsia and AltOS (aka Dual Boot) operating systems over the last couple of years, resulting in speculation that these could be new operating systems designed to unify the experience across Google’s hardware ecosystem.
Looking outside of Google’s hardware, Chromebooks continue to be another success story for the company, particularly when it comes to the education sector. The low-cost nature of Chromebooks certainly helps when it comes to mass purchases on a limited education budget. Combined with the cloud-based nature of its office suite and a selection of dedicated education tools, we can see why these devices have proven so popular.
In March 2018, Google and Acer launched a dedicated Chrome OS tablet for schools designed to compete with the popularity of Apple’s iPad, demonstrating its commitment to the education market. Acer has gone on to be one of the biggest players in the Chromebook market, shipping 13 million Chromebooks and becoming the biggest supplier of Chrome gadgets, according to Q4 2018 data. In 2018, Chromebooks made up 60 percent of all laptops and tablets purchased for U.S. K-12 classrooms. That figure was just 5 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, Microsoft sits in second place with 22 percent and Apple in third on 18 percent, according to data from Futuresource Consulting.
Low-cost Chromebooks have become a big winner for Google, in both the consumer and education markets, and they certainly aren’t going anywhere. Now that Android apps are officially delivered en masse, Chromebooks offer a unique value proposition for budget PC markets.
In early 2018, Google renamed Android Wear to Wear OS, a revamp that is simply cosmetic rather than marking any major changes for the wearable platform. We’re still waiting on some Google-developed hardware to revitalize this particular initiative. There are one or two stand-out Wear OS products, but overall the ecosystem is struggling to offer breakthrough products to win over new consumers. Worryingly, the lack of in-house hardware suggests that Google isn’t very confident in the platform at the moment, given that we’ve seen smartphones, Chromebooks, and smart-home products from the company over the same period of time.
The latest versions of Wear OS have offered up some key improvements. There’s now a new dark UI theme now set as default and background apps are going to be more severely limited, which should improve battery life. Other battery optimizations include shutting off Wi-Fi when not connected to other devices and turning off all the radios when you’re not wearing the watch. These are nice additions, but far from the revamp that Wear OS needs to make it a compelling platform for consumers and manufacturers.
Google likes to cast a wide net and it’s clear that some of its hardware initiatives have worked out better than others. The company’s core product ranges — smartphones, home products, and Chromebooks — appear to be performing quite strongly. Of course, Google has a lot of other hardware and software initiatives too, some of which have also been more successful than others. See Google Allo, Duo, and Google Glass, to name just a few. Some of these ideas may be revamped and revived in the near future, but as the company continues to transition towards an “AI-first” focus we’re probably going to hear a lot more about machine learning, smart assistants, and AI going forward.
To that end, stay tuned for our coverage of the company’s upcoming Google I/O 2019 event, which will shape the path that all of the above product lines take over the next year and beyond.