Google had a big year. Many people may consider the Pixel phone and the company’s many hardware launches among the most standout moves that the Mountain View company made in 2016, and they would be right, but 2016 was even bigger than that. It marked the first full year of Google operating under the umbrella of Alphabet, it marked a clear shift of focus for Google towards artificial intelligence, it brought the tenth anniversary of the Google I/O developers’ conference, and more.
But now that it’s 2017, let’s take a quick look into what really stood out as Google’s biggest wins of the year. From the flurry of official blog posts that come every week to the big press events at Google I/O 2016 to the fall Google event that saw the introduction of Google’s first solely self-branded smartphone, there’s a lot to talk about. In short: Google has long dabbled in hardware and AI, but in 2016 it became plainly obvious that these two areas will shape the company’s future…
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The first and most obvious member of this listicle is the Google Pixel. Long-rumored to simply be an HTC-made Nexus, this phone instead marked Google’s first entry into smartphones that Google’s — and Google’s alone. Yes, the phone was still manufactured by HTC, but the importance of the Pixel is more its message than its actual hardware. Google really worked hard on the software and hardware experience with this device, and that landed it widely-proclaimed as the best Android phone ever. Some even called it the best phone ever.
It’s definitely not perfect (as I mentioned in my review, which you should definitely go watch/read), but it just about checks all the boxes for any normal smartphone user. It has better-than-average battery life, one of the best cameras on a smartphone (again, some say ever), it’s fast and fluid thanks to a non-bloated version of the improved Android 7.0 Nougat, it has a unique look, it’s VR-ready with Daydream support (more about that below), and — yes, I have to say it — it has a headphone jack. There’s a lot to love.
More important than just launching a smartphone, the Pixel’s launch shows without a doubt that Google has interest in selling its own consumer hardware to the masses — not just to tech enthusiasts. That trajectory is further confirmed by the launch of even more consumer-facing hardware products in 2016…
To complement the Pixel, Google also introduced the seventh release of Android, dubbed “Nougat”. This version brought over 70 new emoji (the most important part, duh), a new multi-window view for smartphones, the ability to quickly switch between apps with a double tap of the multitasking button, support for the Vulkan API on some devices, improved Doze features for saving battery life, custom quick settings tiles, bundled notifications, quick reply from notifications, background software updates, and more. It was a pretty beefy update.
Unfortunately, Android Nougat hasn’t seen any better adoption numbers than Android Marshmallow or Android Lollipop did. In fact, a few months after its official launch, the OS is still only running on 0.4% of Android smartphones, while Lollipop from 2014 still holds the largest share. So while Android Nougat may have been a big release, it’s not a release that hardly anyone is actually taking advantage of yet. In fact, if you want a taste of Android Nougat, your best bet is probably to get the aforementioned Google Pixel and get Google’s awesome custom software modifications as well.
Google Daydream + Daydream View
Closely tied to Android Nougat, Google also introduced its new VR platform, Daydream. Building on the success of Cardboard (which is great, but far more barebones), Daydream lets you actually interact with smartphone VR using a paired controller and provides a window to all of this virtual reality content through the Daydream app. You have to see it for yourself to truly appreciate it, but Daydream provides a nice middle ground between the most rudimentary Cardboard viewers and expensive VR headsets that are still years away from being universally accessible.
Along with Daydream (the platform), Google also announced the Daydream View headset at Google I/O 2016 — although it wasn’t until the company’s big hardware shebang in September that we actually saw what the headset looked like. The headset is a really nice mesh headset that’s super comfortable and made for just about anyone, as I said in my review:
Daydream View doesn’t have any super-fancy hardware or high-tech features, but that’s not what makes this a great VR experience. The entire point of the Daydream View is that it offers immersive and interactive VR for the any person.
Also closely tied with Android Nougat — but in this case being relevant across Google’s platforms — is the Google Assistant. It’s effectively a slight expansion of the Google Now helper that you’ve come to know over the last several years, but what it could become is more important than what it is. Google’s vision for Assistant is for it to be your one central artificial intelligence-powered portal to everything Google.
As with many other software features that Google launched this year — Daydream included — the Pixel was the first phone to get the Google Assistant. Unlike Google Now, Assistant can understand the context of your conversation and queries, it can control other devices like Chromecasts or Nest thermostats, and thanks to new Assistant APIs will soon tie into your favorite apps. It’s just the beginning, but the future for Google’s AI-powered voice assistant looks bright.
Continuing along in the hardware department, Google also announced its Google Home voice activated speaker in 2016. The product might be familiar to you if you’ve ever seen or used the Amazon Echo, but it’s unique in that it also takes advantage of the same Google Assistant that’s baked into Android Nougat. (Actually, I have to note here that Google Assistant varies a bit between devices unfortunately. Google Home seems to have the most powerful version so far, though. Hopefully this gets ironed out in the coming months.)
Google Home is one of my favorite products that Google released in 2016 — it fits nicely price-wise in the market between the more expensive Amazon Echo and the cheaper Amazon Echo Dot — and it closely ties in with other Google services you might use a lot like Chromecast, Google Photos, and Google Play Music. For instance, you can tell your Google Home to play a movie from Netflix on a TV using the name of the connected Chromecast. That’s just plain awesome.
But the bigger picture with the Google Home is that Google will now be getting more and more human speech data to keep building its AI voice assistant. Unlike your smartphone, the only way you can interact with the Google Home is by actually talking with it, and that’s only going to make it better over time. I’ve already found the device to be absolutely indispensable in the kitchen.
Google Wifi plays the background while Google Home, Daydream, and Pixel get all the fame. It’s a really nice Wifi system — and yes, I mean system, because it works best when you have multiple routers all connected to each other in a mesh network. WiFi range extenders and daisy chained routers have long been capable of getting WiFi coverage throughout your home, but like Eero, the Google Wifi makes it easy for the common man to create a mesh network as well.
I recently wrote about how these little white pucks completely solved my in-laws’ WiFi problems, and I couldn’t recommend them enough:
I usually stay in a guest bedroom upstairs on the exact opposite side of the house from the router. Previously, I had simply no connection there. Now, I have a full connection at nearly the speed it would be if I were wired right up to the stock router.
The Google Wifi is a little pricey at $130 for a single unit (or $300 for three), but I think it’s a solid deal for what you get. WiFi has long been too complicated for the average person, and the Google Wifi app makes it extremely simple for even the most tech illiterate to manage a WiFi network with ease — including turning off your kids’ Xbox connection with a single tap. In the grand scheme of things, it’s just great to see Google solving problems with great consumer-facing hardware offerings.
Google introduced the Chromecast a few years ago now, but Google’s love for the platform doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Last year we saw the introduction of the brightly-colored second generation of the product, and in 2016 Google introduced the Chromecast Ultra, a higher-powered 4K version of the streaming dongle. It’s basically the same product, but with support for 4K.
Android apps in Chrome OS
While most of these hardware products were announced at Google’s fall hardware event, let’s not forget that Google I/O 2016 was also big for Google products. One of the most important things that was announced at I/O was the integration of the Google Play Store from Android into Chrome OS, meaning a dramatic expansion of software capabilities for Chromebooks.
I have long had a hard time recommending Chromebooks for students due to the lack of some crucial standalone apps like Microsoft Office, but many of those holes have been more or less patched up at this point. You can now run the mobile version of Word, PowerPoint, or Excel on a Chromebook, you can use more intensive photo editing apps, and there’s a whole laundry list of previously Android-only games that you can now play as well. It’s not available on all Chromebooks yet obviously, but this announcement was a big step forward for the platform.
And here I feel is the appropriate place to throw in mention of a project at Google internally dubbed “andromeda,” which is seemingly a future version of Android — or perhaps a new platform entirely — that integrates much of what makes both Chrome OS and Android great.
Google Allo & Duo
While these apps might be considered a “miss” by some when it comes to Google’s 2016 product announcements, I think we’ll actually see them become integral to Google’s software offerings in the years to come. Google hopes to make Allo its primary messaging platform and Duo its primary video conferencing platform, and while both apps are off to a relative slow start (Allo just barely passed 10 million installs a few weeks ago), they’re probably not going anywhere.
Mostly, I want to mention these apps because, while they haven’t seen great adoption, they truly are great apps. Google has been doing an amazing job with software lately, and I think these actually continue the trend. Google Duo provides some great-quality video calls that won’t drop or lose quality even as your phone moves between WiFi and cellular connections, and Allo is an overall pleasant experience that will only see its feature set improved over time. Its most promising feature is Google Assistant integration, and I think that will set it apart in years to come as Assistant improves.
Android Auto on your phone
This one might seem a little less important than the other items on this list, but I couldn’t help but include it since I’ve been using it a lot. Google in 2016 introduced the ability for you to use Android Auto on your smartphone. Previously only usable if you actually purchased an in-dash receiver, Android Auto lets you use a version of Android on the road that’s distraction free and makes it easy to access important functions like calls, maps, and music. All you have to do is buy a phone mount for your car, and you’re good to go. I’ve been using it almost every day.