By now, Google has gotten the hang of making solid affordable phones. Its new Pixel 5A has just about all the features most people need in a phone, and the company is selling the handsets for the decent price of $450. But Google isn't stopping at functional. It's also betting big on fancy. Later this year, the company will release the Pixel 6, a much more expensive phone with a cutting-edge design and an advanced set of software features. Inside of this new flagship phone is a custom processor called Tensor that could spell some changes for the Android operating system.
This week on Gadget Lab, WIRED reviews editor Julian Chokkattu joins us to talk about the new Pixel phones and Google's plans for the future.
Read Julian’s review of the Pixel 5A. His video walk-through of the phone is here. Read our story about Google’s new custom Tensor chips. And check out our picks for the best cheap phones. And f**k everything, we’re doing five blades.
Julian recommends the film The Green Knight. Mike recommends Gilad Edelman’s WIRED story “It's Time to Bring Back Cargo Pants.” Lauren recommends donating to the International Women’s Media Foundation to support women journalists reporting in Afghanistan.
Julian Chokkattu can be found on Twitter @JulianChokkattu. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.
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Lauren Goode: Mike.
Michael Calore: Hi, Lauren.
LG: Hi, Mike. So I know that you are a Google Pixel phone user, but you also like to hold onto your devices for a while like I do. Right? Extend the life span of your gadgets. What is the one thing that would make you absolutely have to upgrade to the latest Pixel?
MC: If Google stopped supporting it with security updates.
LG: Ooh, OK. So it's not a specific feature such as a crazy "Screw it. We're doing five blades" camera, or a new chip.
MC: No. I mean, what I have right now works fine, and when I'm ready for a new one, I'll get all those features and that's also fine.
LG: Well, we're going to talk about some new Pixels today and let's see if it's enough to make you want to upgrade. Or maybe not!
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LG: Hey, everyone. It's time for Gadget Lab. I'm Lauren Goode. I'm a senior writer at WIRED.
MC: And I am Michael Calore, a senior editor at WIRED.
LG: We're also joined by WIRED reviews editor Julian Chokkattu, who joins us from New York. Hey Julian.
Julian Chokkattu: Hello.
LG: So today we're talking about Google smartphones, in case our little intro there didn't tip you off. Google has a couple of new Pixel phones coming out this year. There's the Pixel 5a, which actually just released today. Then there's the Pixel 6, which is coming later this fall. The Pixel 6 is big news in the phone world not just because it's got this crazy redesign, but because Google is making custom mobile chips for it. So we're going to talk more about that phone, the Pixel 6, later in the show. But first I'm going to talk about the Pixel 5a because it's basically a more budget friendly phone from Google. Here on the WIRED gear team, we tend to dig more affordable phones and especially the more affordable Pixels. Julian, you just reviewed the Pixel 5a for us. What did you like about it?
JC: Well, it's $450 and you're still sort of getting the best camera experience for that price. I've been testing a ton of affordable phones under $500 and the simple matter of the fact is that the Pixels still take the best quality photos, and here this time you get a ultra wide camera as well. I've tried a lot of ultra wide cameras with Night Sight, which is a Google feature that sort of takes multiple photos and brightens images up to make them look better when you're taking them at night. Well, the ultra-wide camera here is still much better than anything else under this price tag. So everyone takes photos, but it's just something that not necessarily a lot of people might think about how nice the quality of photos they take is. People only sort of look at stuff later on and then they realize, "Well, that looks like crap."
So it's just nice to have a camera that just does all the work for you and it just ends up looking really great. But, of course, there's the camera that's sort of one thing. Performance is another big thing and when you're paying $450 or something less than that, chances are, you're probably not going to expect much with performance, but with this phone, you're pretty much able to do anything and everything you can do on much pricier phones. Sure, if you're going to play super demanding games, it might feel a little slow and it might not be able to run the highest quality settings and be the smoothest sort of gameplay or anything like that.
But I think for the most part, most people should be more than happy with what they get here. Then you get IP67 water resistance, which is a new addition, which is always nice to see. You never know when your phone's going to dip into the pool. Pretty much the other big thing is battery life. They stuffed the biggest battery in a Pixel here, and it'll last you nearly two days of battery life. Now, there's a lot of phones that are sub $500 that have these massive batteries in there that'll last like three days, so this isn't amazing in that regard, but it's still pretty good. Most people, I think, are going to be pretty happy with a phone that they don't need to plug in every day.
MC: So Julian, it used to be the case just a couple of years ago that there were phones that cost less than $500 were largely not great. But now, as you said, you've been testing a lot of phones that are under $500 that are actually pretty great. They do almost everything that you need. What does this say about the future of phone pricing? Are we going to have two tiers separated by a thousand dollars sometime soon?
JC: Yeah. I think so. One other great phone that I've tested recently is a Samsung Galaxy A32 5G, and it's a bit of a mouthful, but it's $280 and you can still pretty much get a great experience in terms of performance. The camera, it's not as good as the Pixel 5a, but it's still pretty decent for not paying anything more than $300. So there's like tons of phones like that, where you can get by if you just mostly are using a handful of apps every day. No one needs to spend a thousand dollars to just get access to Facebook and email and calling and things like that. It seems like some of those fancier features are now going to be restricted to that high end, which you can kind of tell … I'm testing the Galaxy Z Flip 3, also another mouthful of a name, but it's a folding phone that is pretty much like a normal phone from Samsung, but you can just fold it in half.
When you take that away and look at all of its features, it's pretty much a normal phone except it can fold in half. So that's now a thousand dollars and that is sort of this more similar pricing that we used to see for these super flagships, but now you're seeing that this thousand dollar phone can fold in half. So I think some of those high-end features of this new experimental stuff is going to make way to the high end now that we used to pay for traditional flagship phones, and I think people are going to just sort of expect this type of more experimental features or just something much higher end and more different when they're paying that much more for a thousand dollar phone, and then you can pay something less than 500 for your traditional smartphone experience.
LG: I think there's also a bit of an assumption these days on the part of the smartphone manufacturers that the average consumer cares primarily about a few things, right? Which is how nice does the phone look and does it have a pretty darn good camera, and how long will the battery life last me? But then there are still sacrifices being made in order to cut costs, whether it's RAM or internal storage or the fanciest, toughest glass, or whether there's an in display camera lens or whatever. Some of these things you do see the mid range or "cheaper phones" lacking. Wireless charging is another thing that sometimes is not built into cheaper phones, but the assumption is that most people just maybe aren't going to even either notice those things or care as much about them. Maybe with the exception of something like internal storage, which I think people notice pretty quickly when they're running out of that.
JC: Yeah. So thankfully there's not a ton of sort of things that are missing from this phone, like what you mentioned. There's no micro SD card slot, which a lot of people are always quick to point out. You are stuck with the 128 gigs of storage. That is pretty much par for the course. Well, that storage amount is par for the course for what you expect in this price range. But yeah, there are cheaper phones that do offer a micro SD card slot. So it is a bit of a shame, but of course, it's Google and they definitely want you to pay for their cloud storage so that's sort of a sacrifice there. One other thing is kind of small, but it's this higher screen refresh rate trend that we're seeing in a lot of cheaper phones. It's basically a traditional phone, has a 60 Hertz refresh rate for the screen, and newer phones now have things like 90 Hertz refresh rates or 120 Hertz refresh rates.
What that basically means is that the screen is refreshing at 90 frames per second, or 120 frames per second and it just makes it look a little smoother and just more interactive when you're using it. When you're scrolling through Twitter, it'll look less stuttery, suppose. But it's just not a huge feature, but it is just one of those nice perks that Google kind of admitted here but something that you can find on competitors. Maybe more important is, as you also said, there's no wireless charging and it also is not really available everywhere. That's sort of the biggest problem with this Pixel 5a. Because of global supply chain issues stemming from the pandemic, Google didn't secure enough Qualcomm chips for this phone and so they just are selling it through the Google store and Google Fi, which compared to last year, they sold it on Amazon, BNH, all the traditional retailers.
So here, you can only get it from Google. There's other things that are impacted because of that supply chain issue, where there's no other size options. So this year you're only getting a 6.3 inch version and it's pretty large. So if you liked small phones, you're kind of out of luck. But that's one of the issues because they can't produce as many, so they have to sort of figure out, "OK, what's the best thing we can make with the amount of chips that we have?"
MC: You know how they say that once you fly first class, it's like really painful to go back to coach? I have been spoiled by some of these features in high-end smartphones and wireless charging is the big one for me. Any spot in my home where I spend any considerable amount of time has a wireless charging pad in it, so I've got like five of them in my house. It gives me this pang of frustration when I have to plug a phone in to charge it. It's just like, "If they could put wireless charging in this thing, I would buy one tomorrow." But they haven't. They've saved that for the high-end model. So if I want wireless charging, I have to spend however many extra hundreds of dollars just to get that one feature.
JC: Welcome to my world. I did the best wireless chargers guide on WIRED.com, and so I also have … I embedded a wireless charger underneath my bedside nightstand because that's one of the ones I tested. So it's permanently there. There's another wireless charger on top of it. There's another wireless charger in my living room and on my desk. Especially when I'm testing sub $500 phones, none of them have wireless charging so it's just a pain because I have to bring out the old cable again. But yeah, it's one of those things. Every time I do test some of these sub $500 phones, I always just ask these companies, "Why don't you push the needle a little bit and bring one of these top end features from the high end and bring them down to the sub 500 phones?" Because wireless charging has been around for such a long time that at this point, it's like why has this feature not sort of made it down to this pricing when it comes to phones yet? But I guess someone just has to take the first step.
LG: Julian, earlier you mentioned the global supply chain shortage and we know that Google has said that this was going to affect shipments of the Pixel 5a more so than the upcoming Pixel 6. So let's take a quick break and when we come back, we're going to talk about that Pixel 6 phone.
LG: OK. So we already talked about the Pixel 5a, which is Google's newest smartphone. It's a mid-range phone. It cost just $450 in Julian reviewed it for us on WIRED.com. But earlier this month, Google also announced that it's going to release the Pixel 6 this fall and based on what both Julian and I have seen so far, because we both took briefings with Google, Julian in New York and myself in Mountain View, these are the flashiest looking phones that Google, I think, has ever developed. Of course, Google in the past had partnered with other hardware makers to make "Google phones." But these are like Google's own phones. But it's not all about the looks with this Pixel 6, because Google has also custom developed a new chip called Tensor. It's a big step for the company and it's part of a larger trend of smartphone makers making their own chips and it could hint at Google's larger Android strategy. OK. First let's break down the Pixel 6 and what it looks like. Julian, try to describe for us on a podcast, what this Pixel 6 looks like.
JC: Yeah, it is flashy. It's big glass slab on the back of the phone and on that glass slab is this other glass slab. This isn't going well, but basically just think of a horizontal black bar spanning the entire back of the phone, somewhat lower into a quarter of the top of the phone and that's the entire camera module, and it kind of sticks out. Actually, it sticks out a lot and generally it's just this giant block of that's where all your cameras are going to be housed. It looks very much like, I suppose, a visor just sticking out on the back of the Pixel and it's very flashy. But that's sort of the point. I asked Rick Osterloh about why it looks like that and he said Pixels are known for their cameras and they wanted to highlight that as much as possible, and I think that did a pretty good job.
LG: It kind of looks like a bandit phone. It's got this kind of dark eye mask covering the back of it. Or maybe just a mask. Is the Pixel 6 wearing a mask? Is it on trend with the rest of us? I don't know. Yeah, to me, this was definitely … I mentioned it earlier, but this is definitely like that Onion article where they're just like, "Yep, we're leaning into the … we're doing five blades here."
MC: I'm especially curious to see what the cases are going to look like, because it does not look like it would work well with a case.
JC: So they actually showed or they sort of told me that when you put a case on it, it'll make the entire back flush. So that is one other thing, though. The current design, when you put it on a table, it doesn't rock unlike most phones that have that camera module on the side and the bottom of the phone kind of rocks on a table. That's nice to see, I guess, but a case generally will sort of hide that bump a little bit better, which is sort of a nice plus, I guess.
LG: The phone is also very angular, right? It's got this edge to edge display. It's got a whole punch camera. It's very Samsungian, I think, in its aesthetic. There's some cool colors. Oh, and also it's going to be running the latest version of Android, which looks very different from earlier versions of Android. So, I mean, when I first picked up this phone and looked at it at this briefing in Mountain View earlier this month, I was like, "I mean, this looks …" To me, it looked dramatically different. We should probably talk about what the phone does, though. What makes it special? Julian, where do you want to start?
JC: Yeah. I mean, Tensor's probably the best place to start because they didn't particularly tell us much else. Essentially Tensor is this chip that they designed for the phone, but they've pulled sort of the guts of it from the chips that they use to power their cloud computing servers. So interestingly, that means this chip is sort of built around … The TPU, the Tensor processing unit, it's built around machine learning and artificial intelligence, as opposed to other chip makers that usually build it around the CPU or the graphics card. So clearly this is a chip that's meant to focus on those machine learning tasks on the phone. I suppose we'll get to the camera in a second, but I guess the most immediately amazing demo that they had showed me, I suppose, is … Live Transcribe is this feature that is available on Pixel phones and right now you can basically turn it on and it'll transcribe any video you're looking at.
So if you're scrolling through Instagram, a video pops up. If you turn on Live Transcribe, it'll essentially start transcribing it, you'll see captions on the bottom and it doesn't need to necessarily be playing the audio or anything like that. The camera is doing all of this on device and offline. So it's pretty impressive as it is. But with this new Tensor chip, Google's able to do something like translate it from a different language to English, for example, and also transcribe it on device locally, offline at the same time. So they showed us a video of someone in speaking in French and it was basically translating it in real time while also transcribing it in real time, and that just kind of blew me away because that opens the doors for so many people to be able to just watch these videos without having to listen to it.
Yeah, it was just pretty impressive all around. The other kind of cool feature that they had showed was voice detect. If you ever use your voice to type, you can sort of do that here much faster than ever before and you can just sort of have commands like send and enter and all these punctuation marks that you can say, and the phone will just sort of understand, and it even understands context. So there was an example where I had asked, "Well, what if you say "send" in the middle of a sentence rather than at the end so that the phone wouldn't understand, or maybe it'll send your message mid-sentence or something like that?" and Rick Osterloh did a demo and basically the phone's able to understand context, your intonation and it sort of knew that when you were saying send in the middle of a sentence, that you're not meaning it to actually send the message, and saying send at the end of the sentence meant that that's when you want to send the message.
So it was a pretty cool demo and also just two non camera related things that they showed. So they didn't even touch on Assistant or anything like that, so I'm assuming we're going to see some cooler stuff later this year.
MC: I think this is a real manifestation of Google's thinking about the whole stack when it comes to Android and when it comes to smart phones because if you think back to when Android started, they just made the software. Then that happened for a few years and they said, "OK, now we're going to start making our own hardware. We're going to show you what a Google phone can really do. There's special features in that." Now they've moved to the third step, which is, "Now we're going to start putting our own chips in it," which allows them to really take that to the next level.
JC: Yeah, and that was the main theme of the whole briefing. It was, "We are running into limits with what we can do with current hardware, because the chips that we're using are all off the shelf components." So that's why they had decided a couple of years ago to start building their own chips and that's where we are now. It's hopefully going to be some major improvements that everyone can see in their daily lives. Because as you said earlier, Mike, there are a lot of Pixel features that I've become used to and I've taken full advantage of, and I think a lot of people do. Like call screen for example, or Hold For Me where the phone is screening robocalls so I don't have to answer them or waiting for me so that I don't have to listen to hold music. I think those are pretty genuinely helpful features that people like and if this means that we're going to see more things like that, then that's always a plus.
LG: Julian, How does Google's relatively low sales volume play a part in this? I mean they sell a fraction of the phones that a company like Apple or Samsung does. Right? Does that allow for more experimentation? What does that mean for the long term future of Google hardware?
JC: It's always a gamble. It's just kind of hard to tell them exactly how serious they are, but it seems like they are pretty serious. You never really see them gaining much market share or anything like that, so it really does feel like, "Well, is this all just a fun experiment for you, or is this actually serious?" I mean, I think they're serious and I think they're in this for the long haul, but it's hard to say exactly why and how much effort they're putting into this because clearly they are invested in the time and effort and money to build these high-end phones.
But I think that the goal is maybe to start with mobile and sort of move that stuff to the rest of their ecosystem. Their Nest hardware is some of the most popular the market, so I can totally see Tensor chips being put into a Nest smart display or a Nest smart speaker or smart video doorbell. I assume presumably that would enable all of those other hardware to just take advantage of being able to do tons more machine learning computing without even having to connect to the internet.
LG: I have to say, I'm really tempted to lean into the Pixel 6 because I do use Android phones once in a while, but it's mostly just to test stuff and my primary phone is an iPhone. But this Pixel 6 looks really nice and with Google finally rolling out end-to-end encryption for Android's default messaging app, I mean, I think that's a positive development. I'm just so stuck in iMessage or Apple messages, whatever you're supposed to call it these days. The blue bubbles, they've really got me.
MC: You don't want to give up your Memoji, right?
LG: Yeah. Right. The talking unicorn head.
JC: The other thing that's similar in comparing it with Apple is that iPhones get the longest software support of any smartphone out there. Google offers some of the best software support as well, but it's nowhere near as much as Apple. An iPhone 6S still gets updates, but a Pixel 3, I'm pretty sure, ends this year or something like that. So it's very limited in how much support they offer their phones. But that's another thing. This might change. I asked them with Samsung offering four years of software and security support for their phones, will Google up there three years of software insecurity support, and Rick Osterloh said they're thinking and they will have an answer later this year. So presumably that means we're going to see some big changes in terms of software support later this year. Maybe we'll see four or five or six years of support. Who knows? But that's another benefit of having their own chip. Qualcomm chips pretty much end support after three to four years. So that is not necessarily a limitation when Google makes its own chips.
LG: All right. Let's take another quick break and then when we come back, it's time for our favorite part of the podcast; recommendations.
LG: Julian, what's your recommendation this week?
JC: If you can feel comfortable enough to go to a theater, or you can just wait until it goes to streaming, I watched The Green Knight. It's this movie with Dev Patel, who I adore in any movie that he's in. It's just this re-adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and it's this weird movie that I feel like is more of a visual treat than anything else. It's gorgeous to look at and the overarching themes are a little not obvious, it's all subtle, and I think it's one of those films that sort of you leave the theater and you're just thinking about it for more than a week. It's this story of being able to understand the difference between goodness and greatness and also this story of a man trying to find his place in the world, and also just learn how to break out of his shell and sort of go out and do something with their life rather than literally stay stuck in living in their mother's home. Or castle, I should say.
So it's a really thought provoking movie and it's just beautiful and it has some of the best costume design I've seen in a movie for a long time. It's really great to look at. So definitely worth checking that out.
LG: Very cool. I'm seeing it's available on Prime Video for $5.99. But it is still playing in theaters. It seems like … Maybe this is a silly question, but why wouldn't you just watch it on Prime video for $5.99?
MC: Because you want to hang out with other people who are talking and making noise and looking at their phones during the movie. Right?
LG: Right, right. OK. That's true. Yeah. Plus, it's just that added risk of like, "Maybe I'll get COVID from the theater. Ooh. I don't know. I don't know."
MC: Oh, yes. Right. There's also that.
LG: A little bit of excitement. Yeah, yeah. Thanks, Julian. Now I totally want to check this out. Mike, what is your recommendation?
MC: OK. I'm going to recommend an article that ran on WIRED.com this week. Surprise, surprise. Our colleague Gilad Edelman wrote a story. The title is "It's Time To Bring Back Cargo Pants." It's an argument, and it's a very good argument. The argument goes that we have all of this stuff that we have to carry, right? You have to carry a wallet, a vaccine passport with your oversized CDC vaccination card. You've got your smartphone, you've got your AirPod's charging case. You've got your sunglasses. You've got two masks. Where do you put all this stuff? You can put it in your jeans, but that's awkward. So bring back cargo pants. The pockets on the side is where all that stuff goes and it sounds kind of silly because, of course, everybody has been managing to carry all this stuff without having to use cargo pants, but phones are getting bigger and we all do have wire free earbuds now that we use.
So cargo pants make more sense now than they did when they were popular like 20, 25 years ago. The argument is not that you or I should start wearing cargo pants. It's that the hottest influencers and the most fashionable celebrities should start wearing more cargo pants in order to bring them back in style so that it is acceptable for people like us to wear them to fancy restaurants and business meetings.
LG: It's an excellent article, Mike. I agree with, I have to share a little backstory, which is that Gilad called me last week and he said, "I'm thinking of writing an article about cargo pants. What do you think?" I whole heartedly encouraged him to do this. Most of the time when people call me and say, "I'm thinking of writing about X. Should I?" I'm like, "Yes," even if it's a terrible idea. So Gilad and I had a really thoughtful conversation about what would actually make cargo pants fashionable again, to which point I said, "In some ways they kind of are." I've noticed women are embracing more baggy, loose, free-flowing pants, which is incredible. Women are obsessed with pockets generally. There's like a funny tweet that went viral a few years ago where someone said, "It's so cute when you tell a woman you like her dress. The first thing she says is, "Thanks. It has pockets," which is true.
So we're already sort of hip to this, but I did say to him, "The one person who could effectively bring cargo pants back in style just with the snap of her fingers is our boss." He was like, "Who?" I think he thought I meant Gideon Lichfield. And I was like, "Anna Wintour," our boss at Conde Nast. Gilad was like, "Oh, yeah." So he wrote a well-crafted email to Anna Wintour asking her opinion on cargo pants and I regret to say that at time of this taping, she had not yet responded.
MC: That's right. He did his due diligence as a reporter. Did not get a good comment.
LG: Yeah. He did not get a comment from Anna.
MC: But the story's still great. He has other fashion experts, who are not Anna Wintour, who speak in the story and help make the argument.
LG: Yes. He literally found a man who wrote a thesis on cargo pants. I mean, it's hilarious. Hasn't he since has been asked to go on podcasts to talk about cargo pants? This is his new beat. Who needs national affairs and tech policy when you can write about cargo pants?
MC: Julian, you rock the cargoes. Right? Come on.
JC: I was going to say. What about a bag to carry all that stuff? That seems like a good option too.
LG: Oh, yeah. It's like pants for your shoulders.
MC: Irrelevant to the conversation.
LG: No, I like this.
MC: Let's keep the scope limited. Cargoes, yes? No? There is no but here.
JC: Do you have to wear the cargo pants with the zippers that convert them to shorts?
MC: No. The point is that these are fashionable. These are things that are going to look good, that are going to be modern and nice, not things that are still kind of goofy like the ones that are out there now.
JC: I'm all for people wearing what they want. I don't necessarily think I would wear one, but maybe if someone made something new and stylish that managed to have big pockets, I'll wear it.
MC: That's right.
JC: We should have WIRED branded cargo pants.
LG: Ooh, yes. Get deeper into the merch business.
MC: OK. I'm going to pull the ripcord on this. Lauren, what is your recommendation?
LG: My recommendation is that you donate to women journalists in Afghanistan right now through a group called The International Women's Media Foundation. Women journalists are some of the most at risk populations right now in Afghanistan for obvious reasons. It's not just women journalists, of course. It's the press in general and other media workers. So we'll link to this in the show notes, but if you have the time and some money to spare and you want to help out, I recommend donating to the IWMF.
MC: That's great, and they're one of the organizations that is trying to ensure safe evacuation from Kabul and from other areas inside Afghanistan and also aiding in other humanitarian efforts to keep people safe inside the border.
LG: That is correct. All right. That's our show for this week. Thank you, Julian, as always, for joining us.
JC: Thank you for having me.
LG: Tell people where they can find your review of the Pixel 5a.
JC: Oh, yes. You can read my not too long review of the Pixel 5a on WIRED.com.
LG: Do you have a video?
JC: I do have a video also on WIRED.com, or on all the social media channels for WIRED.
LG: Yes. All right, and thanks to all of you for listening. If you have feedback, you can find all of us on Twitter. Just check the show notes. This show is produced by the excellent Boone Ashworth. Goodbye for now. Have a great weekend and we'll be back next week.
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