Google’s new Pixel phones will deliver improved voice and camera features as the company seeks to better compete with Apple and Samsung Electronics.

Google on Thursday said its new Pixel phones will deliver improved voice and camera features while bringing back facial recognition for unlocking the device as it seeks to better compete with Apple and Samsung Electronics.

The company’s Pixel 7 and 7 Pro devices offer more affordable prices than the dominant duo of the mobile market, coming in at US$599 and $899 respectively, and introduce the second generation of Google’s in-house Tensor chip. The 6.7-inch Pro version has an additional zoom camera, better display and more memory than the 6.3-inch Pixel 7.

Google’s Pixel phones every year serve as the showcase for the company’s latest Android software and artificial intelligence-based services, such as the Google Assistant. They demonstrate how Google hopes device-making partners will best use its operating system. Google continues developing its own hardware, which has only ever sold in small numbers, in part as insurance against missteps by Samsung, the only credible Apple rival in the US.

Unfortunately, Google has no immediate plans to launch the new devices in Africa.

“Google cannot afford to bet its future on Samsung not just for the US market but for the higher-end market across the board,” said mobile industry analyst Carolina Milanesi. “It also needs a clean experience to show off its AI.”

Google AI shows up in the upgraded language-processing capabilities of its latest software. The Recorder app for voice memos can now automatically label different speakers in transcriptions, and transcriptions are also being added to audio messages in the new Pixels’ messaging app.

The Pixel line-up had only 2% of the North American market in the second quarter, whereas Apple’s iPhone commanded 52%, according to Canalys data. Still, Google said it’s now the fastest-growing smartphone developer, in comments ahead of its launch event in New York on Thursday.

Also introduced at the event was the $349 Pixel Watch. It’s the first smartwatch from the company to bear the Pixel name and undercuts the latest-generation Apple Watch, which starts at $399. Google will equip its smartwatch with an on-board app store, Google Wallet for mobile payments and Fitbit health sensors and workout services, the company said. There’ll be models with and without cellular connectivity and Google promises up to 24 hours of battery life for the round-faced device. It will be available on 13 October in selected market, alongside the new phones. Unfortunately, Google has no immediate plans to launch the new devices in South Africa, even though they will be available in more markets around the world than previous models.

Among Google’s other smartphone upgrades this year is a promised 72-hour battery life on low-power mode, up from last year’s 48 hours. The higher-tier Pixel 7 Pro has three rear cameras, including a 50-megapixel wide-angle lens with the ability to take macro shots and a 48-megapixel telephoto lens with 5x optical zoom. It can record 4K video at 60 frames per second. The standard model benefits from the same macro camera but misses out on the zoom; it also has a slower 90Hz screen rather than the 120Hz display of the Pro.

Both phones see the return of face unlock, matching most of the high-end handsets on the market, after that biometric authentication option was removed from the Pixel line with the fifth-generation model in 2020. Google also matches a feature introduced with much fanfare on the iPhone 13 last year: a Cinematic Blur mode that can synthesise depth of field and background blur in videos.

Questions about the long-term viability of the Pixel line have circulated for years and may intensify now that all tech companies, Google included, are looking at ways to control costs and streamline operations. Success in the smartphone business requires significant upfront and marketing investment.

“If Google does not become serious about the hardware business, I’m afraid this product will be another lost opportunity to expand its phone business in critical markets, such as North America and Europe,” IDC’s Francisco Jeronimo said ahead of the launch event.

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