I have a few takeaways from my limited time with Google’s newly released Pixel 4 XL, but one that I keep coming back to is how slick the device is.
From the well thought-out UI and detailed animations for notifications, or swiping apps away, to the process of unlocking the phone, where it senses your hand is nearby and prepares itself to be unlocked before you’ve even touched it. Android has come far in recent years. Google’s devices haven’t always been the best showcases of that evolution, but the Pixel 4 certainly is.
Google’s latest flagship feels like a significant upgrade – in this area – on last year’s Pixel 3, which was plagued by memory management issues that made the phone slow and cumbersome to use. Now it’s all a bit…luxury?
Assistant plays a large part in that luxuriousness. The integrated Assistant features – the ones that don’t require the user to actively ask the AI something – are particularly special. The recording app that automatically transcribes speech and makes that text searchable (and keeps that data on-device) is exactly the kind of thing I expect from AI. Quiet, genuinely useful, secure.
The live transcription of videos – when you can’t turn your volume up – is also excellent. It solves a common problem and it’s baked into the sound options menu. You don’t have to ask Assistant to do it, which is how it should be.
The baked-in AI, the stuff that works in the background to improve the experience is excellent. More than that, it fundamentally changes (for me at least) what I expect from a smartphone.
But other Assistant functionality, the stuff that requires you to say “Hey Google” still seems a bit, well, pointless. At a pre-brief last last week a Google executive demoed how Assistant can work within apps. For example the executive asked Assistant to “show me Beyonce’s Instagram page” and it did just that. Impressive, but why? When do I need to do that? Or anything similar?
I’ve been firing questions at my Pixel 4 XL for the last few days, asking it things like ‘send a message to Ed via WhatsApp’ and ‘find Barack Obama on Twitter’. It worked and didn’t work at times and it was equally impressive and unimpressive. But I also struggled to come up with questions, with tasks, to test the AI.
This side of Assistant, the one where it’s fun to show people at a pub what your quirky futuristic phone can do, is just that – a party trick. It still feels very gimmicky because after all of these years of having access to multiple Assistant enabled devices, I rarely use it in day-to-day life.
The genuinely useful AI features that are baked in to the OS mentioned above is where Assistant shines. Google has slowly incorporated AI into the core functionality of the phone over the years – song recognition into the lock-screen and Duplex two name a few – and rightly so.
This is what AI on your smartphone should be – effortless and ordinary. Diligently performing important – incredible, even -tasks without making a big fuss. Hopefully this is where Google is headed in the future – baking more AI into the core functionality of the phone, because it’s far more impressive than a party trick.
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